Strange. I’ve always thought of pantomime as a peculiarly British tradition - as unique to our ‘green and pleasant land’ as the Union Jack, jellied eels, bacon and egg, strongly brewed tea and Marmite.
Yet every blog I write about panto gets more views from the States than from dear old old Blighty. Maybe the Brits take this ancient mummery for granted. After all, it’s been going strong since Roman times when, along with bread and circuses, it kept the populace pliant and less likely to revolt over the dire state of the nation.
Similarly, in our day a good pantomime provides a welcome distraction from the miserable winter weather, the endless recession and the absolute fortunes spent on Christmas presents which nobody wants. But whatever is happening in the world, there’s one thing we can count on; from November to February pantomimes will be playing at almost every UK theatre.
What is it that makes pantomime so special, so beloved of children of all ages? Distinguished Shakespearean actor, Sir Ian MacKellen (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) explains: “Pantomime has everything theatrical: song, dance, verse, slapstick, soliloquy, audience participation, spectacle, cross-dressing and a good plot, strong on morality and romance. What more could you want for a family outing? I believe there’s more pure theatre in a pantomime than you get in Shakespeare, and if it works, it’s unforgettable.”
Audience participation is one of panto’s most endearing aspects, with the cast positively encouraging audiences to shout, sing, heckle, boo and cheer! The result may seem anarchic, yet there’s a strong discipline involved – certain rules which unite both cast and audience, creating unity from mayhem!Now I’m going to say something really contentious: If you’ve only ever seen a pantomime in the West End, you’ve probably never seen panto! Unfortunately, the bigger the show, the more likely it is to be a vehicle for TV reality and soap stars, retired politicians, pop singers and blue comedians (see my previous blog: http://jacybrean.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/is-panto-for-children-anymore.html) It may have plenty of glitz and glamour, but very little authenticity.
For pantomime in its purest form, Act One Panto, a small touring theatre which specialises in the genre, comes as close as it gets to the strolling players of old, featuring mime, songs, dance, acrobatics and comedy – all incorporated into the plot. Artistic Director Jule Watson has studied pantomime in depth and, while adding her innovative flair into the mix with a contemporary slant, she believes firmly in keeping its traditional core intact. “Before you can break a rule, you first have to keep a rule” is Jule’s maxim.
Creating a pantomime is all very democratic. Soon after the current season’s productions go on tour, Jule consults with her cast and crew, inviting suggestions for the following year’s offerings. Once the theme has been decided, she’ll telephone or email me to commission a script.
I then come up with a general outline for Jule to consider, at the same time picking the brains of family, friends and colleagues for jokes or funny anecdotes. (The best, by the way, invariably come from youngsters!) These are all scribbled in my notebook, ready for inclusion where appropriate, along with ideas of my own and any snippets I pick when out and about.
Then I think about it. And think about it. And think about it some more....until finally, I get down to the actual writing, which can be within a relatively short time, provided the ideas are forming and the dialogue flows.
Then it’s over to Jule who’ll consider the physical aspects of the show, such as visual gags and special effects. For Alice in Pantoland, we had the comedy duo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, ‘galloping’ Monty Python-style around the auditorium on pretend horses. For Follow the Yellow Brick Road, staged the following year, Jule was even more ambitious – incorporating pogo sticks and unicycles!