Pantomime is one of those British Christmas institutions as traditional as mince pies and the Doctor Who special (incidentally, did you see it yesterday? So good). It’s one of those things that’s a little bit difficult to explain to someone unfamiliar with the concept – it’s a play usually based on a fairy tale, but there are jokes and songs and you usually have a famous man dressed as a woman or a famous woman dressed as a man and at some point everyone is contractually obliged to shout “Oh no it isn’t!” followed by “Oh yes it is!” The whole thing should be very camp and self-aware and strive to avoid major innovation. Basically, it’s pretty much the opposite of conventional theatre. As I sit here with my Boxing Day breakfast (two slices of stollen, a Stilton sandwich, coffee festived-up with brandy butter), it might be nice to look into the history of this weird art.
Although it’s come to be known as a peculiarly British phenomenon, the origins of pantomime go back to the ancient Greeks, who regarded it as something to keep the plebs happy. Lots of singing, dancing and vulgar humour, but Serious Dramatists considered it utterly beneath their contempt.
Similar forms of entertainment survived into Britain in the eighteenth century, which is when the story of modern pantomime really begins. To understand this early-modern panto, you have to understand a bit about theatre of that era.
You’d have more than one show on the bill. There would be a formal play (or ballet, or opera), what you or I would normally think of when we go to the theatre. But there would also be something more populist beforehand as a warm-up act, something with lots of jokes and songs to grab the audience’s attention and get them on the performers’ side. Audiences in those days would openly and loudly talk during the show, the wealthy would parade around, orange peel would be thrown, people would come and go as they pleased and it was not unknown for the performers to be heckled so much that they would change the bill right there and then. The opener was, yes, a pantomime.
Pantomimes were deliberately formulaic. They had to be instantly understandable to everyone. No matter what the story, they featured a stock set of characters and devices and – this was significant – no dialogue. Licensing laws were strict. Pantomime performers were not regarded as true actors and so, by that rather snobbish logic, could not be licensed to perform spoken drama. There were various cheats – you couldn’t speak, but you could sing, you could write on a big board, you could rhyme. And nobody paid much attention to a couple of words here and there. But really, it was down to instantly recognisable conventions and physical performers to carry the thing.
The inventor of the modern pantomime is often regarded as the legendary clown, Joseph Grimaldi, seen right. He was undoubtedly the first modern clown, and really deserves an entry in his own right. His father (of the same name) was also a brilliant clown, part-time dentist and utter bastard. Young Joey was raised by a father who was physically and emotionally abusive to the point of psychosis (for instance, Grimaldi pere once faked his own death just to see if his sons really loved him). Grimaldi Junior was plagued by depression and insecurity throughout his life – he would often joke that “I make you laugh at night, but I am grim-all-day.” He invented modern clown makeup, and it’s psychologically interesting that a man so uncomfortable with himself should transform himself so completely for the stage. In comedy, he found a means of feeding his insatiable need for affection, and so it’s no surprise that he became a popular and beloved performer.
His first great pantomime triumph was Mother Goose in 1806. To call him the “inventor” of modern pantomime is to unfairly deprive everyone else of well-deserved credit. It was actually created as a last-minute thing. Thomas Dibden was the usual author of Christmas pantomimes for Covent Garden Theatre, but that year, nobody had thought to approach him. It was only a few short weeks before curtain-up that the theatre’s management asked him, “So, how’s this year’s panto coming along?” Panicked, Dibden wrote a low-tech panto requiring no elaborate special effects or routines, tailored for a short rehearsal period.
The resulting show was far better than anyone could have hoped – helped by a clever script and Grimaldi’s naturalistic physical comedy. It was wildly popular, running right until the following Christmas. And so it became the standard model for the pantomimes that followed.
Quite apart from the actual merits of the show, pantomime became a far less restricted form of performance than conventional theatre. Being regarded as low art, the censors didn’t pay much attention. Satire and sexual innuendo were standard, the latter generally coming from the panto dame. The dame, being a man in drag, could get away with lewdness that an actual woman couldn’t. Similarly, the convention of having the principal boy played by a woman was largely so that you could legitimately have a woman showing her legs off.
Other traditions were added and removed over the years. The characters became less rigidly “stock” as the ban on spoken pantomime was abandoned, though the principal boy and the dame remained. The panto horse, two actors in a silly animal costume, became another standard element. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, pioneered the use of celebrities as a draw in the late 19th century.
It’s also regarded as a means for keeping B-list celebs in the limelight, though lately a lot of really quite legit celebrities have been trying their hand, partly I suspect because it’s fun. The picture above is from the Wimbledon pantomime last year, which boasted Pamela Anderson, Paul O’Grady, Ruby Wax and BRIAN BLESSED! in its cast. Sir Ian McKellen enjoys a good panto, as seen up top there, and BRIAN BLESSED! and Christopher Biggins are well-known for hamming it up on an annual basis.
The big ones in London these days are Wimbledon and Hackney. Wimbledon tends to do the big star-studded shows, while Hackney aims for something resolutely traditional but critically acclaimed. However, most reasonably-sized theatres outside the West End will put a show on, and they do tend to do pretty well. The glory days of pantomime are certainly not… wait for it… behind us!
No? Oh, please yourselves. Merry Christmas, chums.