Friday, 13 August 2010

Pantomime History

 A look at a very British art form:

For most British youngsters, their first taste of live theatre is at a pantomime – and the seasonal favourite seems to be as popular today as it always has been. Screams of “It’s behind you!” and “Oh, yes it is!” (for all British children know what to shout out) will lift the roof of many a theatre this Christmas and the brisk business at the box office will often be used to underpin the rest of the year’s theatrical programme.

Although one thinks of pantomime as being typically British it’s really a hotchpotch of ideas gathered from across the globe and commercialised by the Victorians as a seasonal treat. Look closely and you’ll recognise a generous dollop of Greek drama, a little Roman over-acting and more than a nod towards the Italian Commedia dell’ arte in there somewhere. It’s the Italian sounding Joseph Grimaldi (right) who is credited with establishing pantomime as a British entertainment. He made his first panto appearance at London’s Covent Garden back in 1806 – it was a run-away success playing for 92 nights and taking an incredible £20,000. Theatre managers up and down the land saw pound signs before their eyes!

The first pantomimes were based upon those Italian characters Harlequin, Columbine and Pantaloon with a Fairy Godmother usually thrown in for good measure. But with the rise of the music halls at the end of the 19th century so pantos grew into something we would recognise today. Dan Leno, a London-born entertainer, won a number of clog dancing competitions bringing him great public recognition. Aged just twenty-six, he played the title role in ‘Mother Goose’ at Drury Lane, taking the capital by storm – a star was born and it was he who first created the ‘dame’ character (the mother is nearly always played by a man) we know and love today – wearing a bun wig, a shawl and buttoned boots he made his first entrance on the back of a cart pulled by two donkeys, live geese scattering everywhere!

Leno’s success lead to pantomimes being packed with music hall stars of the day such as Marie Lloyd, Arthur Conquest and Vesta Tilley aided and abetted by speciality acts and featuring all the latest songs and jokes and of course, innuendo-laden routines. Men found they could milk more humour from playing the mothers whereas the girls in thigh-length boots and low-cut jackets attracted the dads! At this time pantos weren’t just Christmas treats – they were so popular that they often played from November until Easter, and sometimes beyond. As more and more pantomimes were staged in the regions so artistes travelled from town to town honing well-trodden routines and adding topical references.

The tradition continues today with 166 (at last count) professional pantomimes being presented this year in theatres large and small with of course, hundreds more amateur ones. The subject matters haven’t changed much over the centuries either - no doubt somewhere this Christmas, the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham will be despatching his niece and nephew to their doom in ‘Babes in the Wood’, one of the few home-grown tales. Mixed with the legend of Robin Hood it was first used for a pantomime in 1867. ‘Dick Whittington’ is another British tale, a mixture of fact and fiction. ‘Aladdin’ is adapted from one of the Arabian Nights stories and made its debut in 1813, 50 years later the characters had their names changed to make a topical pun out of the Chinese tea trade so the Princess became Pekoe and the dame, Twankey, both popular brands of tea at the time.

‘Cinderella’ will be praying that the Fairy Godmother can turn pumpkins into coaches up and down the country although in the original French story Cinders wore a fur shoe. ‘Mother Goose’ is another French tale and one of the earliest pantomime subjects, remaining popular with ‘dame’ performers because it’s the only one in which they get the starring role. ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is based on the German legend of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ and achieved popularity after a production at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1855. Other subjects such as ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Snow White’ are more modern additions.

The late 'I'm Free' John Inman as panto dame
Maybe because of its rich historical past, pantomime is packed with traditions and superstitions handed down from generation to generation. The Demon should always appear from the left and the Fairy from the right (their right) – good being right whereas we throw salt over our left shoulder into the face of the devil – so that’s where he should lurk! The Fairy traditionally holds her wand in her right hand but when she speaks she should transfer it to her left so that it protects her heart. When the actors rehearse the production they never practise the rhyming couplets spoken at the conclusion of the finale, saving it until the opening night for luck. Actors are a superstitious lot at the best of times but pantomime seems to bring out a particular set of conventions and rules handed down over the years.

There will, of course, always be those who predict the end of pantomime often citing the casting of ‘one hit wonders’, sports personalities and the like. But according to many that is why it has survived - constantly remaining topical and reinventing itself. ‘The Theatre’ magazine ran an article proclaiming that, “Alas, pantomime is on its last legs!” But that was over a century ago – long may it continue to delight children of all ages!

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