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  • Lynne Shelby

Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, It's Off To Pantoland We Go

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Time to deck the halls, mull the wine – and book for Pantomime. Oh, yes it is!

I do love a good pantomime at Christmas, and as almost every theatre in Britain puts on a panto, there are a lot to choose from.

Even the ancient Greeks enjoyed panto (we don’t have the scripts, but we know there were complaints about the scurrilous jokes) but the family shows we see today evolved from the 16th century Italian Commedia dell’arte.

In England, the stock characters of the Commedia became the lovers Harlequin and Columbine, in an entertainment known as a harlequinade.

By the 18th century, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and its arch rival, the Lincoln’s Inn Fields’ Theatre, were producing shows they called ‘pantomimes’ – plays based on fairy tales, which included an awe-inspiring ‘transformation scene’ presided over by a Fairy Godmother (You shall go to the ball, Cinderella!).

In these early pantomimes, characters in the main story were magically turned into the characters of the harlequinade and performed a crazy, comic and acrobatic chase scene – the forerunner of those mad chases through the stalls performed by modern pantomime casts. Harlequin and Columbine were both played by women (females in breeches – how shocking!!), a tradition continued (at least until very recently) by today’s thigh-slapping female Principle Boys like Dick Whittington or Prince Charming and his/her friend Dandini in their boots and tights.

Harlequinades remained popular until the late 19th century, when theatre impresario August Harris, the ‘Father of Modern Pantomime’ wrote hugely successful shows that incorporated its comedy into the main fairy tale. Other theatres followed suite, and the harlequinade eventually took its final curtain call and exited the pantomime stage.

The first star of pantomime was Drury Lane’s famous clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who in 1800s, pioneered the role of the Pantomime Dame as a man in drag. Augustus Harris hired well-known performers from the Victorian Music Hall, the celebrities of their day, to star in his pantomimes. Among them was the comic Dan Leto, who famously created the role of Mother Goose.

Today, many comedians who spend the rest of the year appearing on television, draw in the crowds by treading the boards as Dame Widow Twankey or the Ugly Sisters at Christmas, while pop stars, soap stars, and even sports personalities, have star billing as panto princesses or villains.

What we think of as traditional pantomime definitely has its roots in the past, but the well-known stories are brought up to date with topical jokes and contemporary songs, and panto is as popular as ever. Each year several million people pf all ages – grandparents, parents and children – visit a pantomime, laughing at the ‘mucky scene’ (Anyone want a custard pie?) and the ‘ghost scene ’( He’s behind you!), booing and hissing the villain, joining in the community singing and marvelling at the spectacular set changes and special effects.

For theatres, the full houses at Christmas can make the difference between a year of financial success or, in current economic times, financial disaster. For many children, the family outing to their local panto is their first experience of a live show, and can instil a love of theatre that stays with them all their lives. Aladdin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Beanstalk are helping to create the theatre audiences of the future. Oh, Yes they are!

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