Panto is great – oh yes it is!
Antony Thorncroft bemoans how a great British theatrical institution has been reduced to humourless kitsch
Nowadays it is even easier than that. The dominating force in the market, Qdos Entertainment, will look after everything, and this Christmas it is supplying over 20 of the largest regional theatres in the UK with their pantomime. There will be some entire- ly new productions but most will be refurbished. The only difference will be in the stars, usually the most notorious names from recent television shows. Some theatres get celebrities from the day before yesterday, such as Britain’s Got Talent winner Ashleigh and her dog Pudsey or Gok Wan; oth- ers more contemporary anti-heroes, such as Craig Revel Horwood from Strictly Come Dancing. Qdos will rent out the same panto, slightly spruced, every Christmas for the next decade or so, and in time more than make good its often substantial costs.
The temptation for theatres is to treat the public as idiots with this simple formula. Over time the type of celebrity will change, though the likelihood is that they have never set foot on a stage before opening night. In the past it might have been a dis- graced politician or two (perhaps the Hamiltons); or a controversial boxer or cricketer (perhaps Frank Bruno or Ian Botham); or a fading, even faded, Hol- lywood star (perhaps Mickey Rooney). At one time Aussie soap stars were all the rage; now it is the detritus from reality TV shows. The name is all that matters. Plug the star; advertise the panto as a Christmas treat for the family; and sit back and count the box of- fice (and merchandise) receipts.
And it works. Many, if not most, regional theatres rely on the income from the pantomime, which should play to 90% capacity, to balance, or almost balance, their books over the year. The excuse is that it pays for the Pinter. For this reason alone it should be taken more seriously.
Then there is panto’s other out- standing contribution. The Arts Council, and such like arts worthies, go on and on about the need to expand the theatre audience and in particular to appeal to the young, but it is the panto which brings this elusive group into the theatre. For children it is their first visit; for parents it is a return to childhood memories and a cherished family occasion. For a few weeks of the year theatres are full with a local audience. Surely managements should make every effort to get the panto right so that this audience leaves with a happy buzz and the resolution to return during the year.
There is more. There could well be over 1,000 amateur pantos on offer locally this Christmas. For those who make a fetish of the need to develop arts in the community this should be a cause for much rejoicing but I doubt if many grants go to subsidise the enthusiastic wannabes who spend weeks making sets and costumes and rehearsing for a few nights in the spotlight. Amateur theatricals tend to be looked down upon by the profes- sionals though it is the amateurs who often show the most enterprise in pan- toland. While the provincial theatres play safe with Aladdin or Cinderella, the amateurs keep alive once popular pantos such as Robinson Crusoe, Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood.
But the panto is more than a com- mercial bonus, a chance to widen the audience, an opportunity to involve the wider public in the magic of live performance. It is a British institution, perhaps the only arts institution that can claim to be truly home grown, indigenous to the nation. There might still be pantomimes performed in Australia and the older Commonwealth nations but its international connections are minimal. Give Italy the credit for inventing opera and the US the popularising of the movies: we offer the world the pantomime.
Of course one of its attractions is its multifarious roots - a bit of the bacchanalia from ancient Rome, the commedia del arte of Italy and French fairy tales - but by the mid 19th century these had morphed into a uniquely British theatrical experience and one that has changed little in almost two centuries. Even the practice of including the personalities of the day in the panto was common in Victorian times.
The audience expects panto to be unchanging: parents want their chil- dren to share their experience of a generation earlier, so the Principal Boy is still a long legged girl and the cross- dressing is taken to the ultimate with the Dame everywhere and, in Cin- derella, The Ugly Sisters. The routines - “he’s behind you” “Oh no he’s not”- are sacrosanct, as is the laundry scene in Aladdin and the transformation at the end of act one in Cinderella (there should be a real pony).
I enjoyed and endured many pantos over the years: it was a chance to combine the roles of parent and critic. They tended to be very hit and miss. If the star was a pop singer with no experience of the art form it tended to be a miss. When pantos were cast with largely unknown actors who re- lied on this engagement for much of their annual income it usually worked - you can’t play the same role twice a day every season for decades without knowing how to deal with an over ex- cited audience. In the past the same actors played the same role year after year. John Inman was in 40 pantos usu- ally as the Dame, and Dorothy Ward managed to appear as the Principal Boy for 50 years. Christopher Biggins does his best to maintain this tradition.
The key to success is that the theatre takes the panto seriously. Some still do. The Hackney Empire has established a great reputation, helped by the fact that an accomplished West End star Clive Rowe gives us his Dame. Richmond is also reliable, and I am sure that there are many more that uphold the tradition.
-mantic leads, especially TV personalities, lacking mutual charisma. The routines can stretch to eternity because it is only panto and why does it mat- ter. But when panto works, and you see the children leave exhausted with excitement, it is one of the most wonderful experiences a theatre can offer. More should aim to give such satisfaction.