Category Archives: Sports and Recreation

Welcome to Tooting

I’ve been off work this past weekandahalf, and I’ll be honest, it’s getting a little dull being stuck at home all the time. I never thought I’d miss being in an office.

On the other hand, it’s given me an opportunity to experience my local area during the day. To see the neighbourhood in a new light. It’s like one of those movies where everyone learns a very important lesson and in the space of a week becomes a whole new person. Except this time it’s set in Tooting.

Not much gets set in Tooting. The only thing that springs immediately to mind is Citizen Smith. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways it’s a pretty cool place, particularly once you get up towards Tooting Bec, but in many ways it’s also… not. At least, not on a weekday.

For instance, one thing you notice is a certain type of triumvirate. Two members of the triumvirate will be male humans, very fat, clipper haircuts all over, swigging from cans of lager even though it’s ten in the goddamn morning, and the third will be a ratty dog. So common is this combination that I’m starting to think maybe we should think of all three as part of a single colonial organism, like the Portuguese Man O’ War. Seriously, you see them everywhere. I’ve even had one or two of them attempt to half-arsedly start a fight with me, even though the merest attempt at physical exertion by any of them would result in a massive heart attack. You know that feeling you get when every snobbish thought you’ve ever had suddenly feels justified? Yeah.

I’ve also been trying to get in shape a bit. There’s been a lot of beer recently, and I was starting to feel guilty. Fortunately, on the intriguingly-named Figges Marsh, they’ve installed one of those new outdoor gyms. This is great if you’re me – I can’t be arsed with joining a gym. The concept apparently originates in China, and it’s one of those things the government likes because it helps to Improve the Health of the Nation. God knows it’s not just me who needs that. I mean, can you imagine? 2012 comes along and we’re all, “Oh hey man, I know I live just around the corner, but I’m going to take the bus.” What will the other countries think of us then?

Where was I? Yes, outdoor gyms. The one on Figges Marsh seems to be pretty popular. Every time I’ve been there, there have always been plenty of other users. I also found it pretty easy to use. It turns out my upper body strength lags significantly behind my lower body strength, which is lame. Must be all that running from the police.

It also turns out that the bank gets very busy, but that’s not interesting. Although seriously, what was with the guy behind me who felt the need to sigh and tut every thirty seconds? I know bank queues are boring. This is not a new thing.

As for tomorrow? Well, who knows, my friends. Who knows.

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Filed under Current events, Meta, Parks and gardens, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia

The Infernal Tower

There have been some interesting proposals for London buildings over the years, from the Pyramid of Death to the scheme to rebuild the Crystal Palace so that it stood on its end. Perhaps the most significant landmark-that-never-was was the Wembley Tower.

It all started with the old Metropolitan Railway. Being a commercial enterprise, the directors of this company were naturally keen to make as much money as humanly possible. In the 1880s, though, they were already making quite a lot of money. What is a railway tycoon to do under such circumstances? If you were Edward Watkin, Chairman of the company, you simply create more traffic by making London bigger.

The idea was simple. Buy land out in the sticks where it’s cheap, miles away from London. Build a railway to it, build some houses on it and bam! You got yourself a suburb, mister. Sell the houses, there’s a goldmine for ya. You’d be amazed how much of London basically didn’t exist until people did this. Put it this way – until the 1860s, Kensington was considered to be a rural village.

Watkin was a man who liked to think big. For instance, his ultimate plan for the Metropolitan was to run trains up to Manchester and down to Paris (I forget how that one turned out). When he looked upon the route of his railway, he decided that what his grand plan needed was a selling point. Some sort of focus that would draw people to the area (and, let’s not forget, drive up the land values).

In 1889, the latest wonder of the world was the Eiffel Tower. Watkin came to the conclusion that what we needed in London was something similarly troubling to Freud, only more so. Possible sites included High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road, but eventually it was decided to purchase a 280-acre site at Wembley and develop that. Former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone asked questions in Parliament on behalf of Watkin and was told by the committee that “although the atmosphere of London may not be so favourable to extensive views as Paris, the view would be incomparably superior.” Suck-ups.

Having been given the go-ahead, the Metropolitan Tower Committee was formed in 1890 to decide on the form this tower would take. Many exciting designs were proposed. I think my favourite was one based on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’m no structural engineer, but I can’t help wondering how wise it would have been to build something like the Leaning Tower, only much taller. I also like the one about the “colony of aerial vegetarians.” Gustave Eiffel himself was even approached and did initially show some interest, only to decline later on patriotic grounds (he probably heard that dis about the views in Paris).

As it happened, the final design was very similar to the Eiffel Tower, only 320 metres taller. Work started in 189e and in 1896 the park around the tower’s base was opened to the public. The tower had only reached its first stage, but hopes were high even if the structure wasn’t.

Yet already problems were being encountered – the year before, the new Chairman of the Metropolitan, John Bell, had already been convinced the whole thing was a white elephant. It turned out that the foundations couldn’t quite support all that weight on just four legs (the original design called for eight). The biggest issue of all, though, was money. It turned out that not everyone was as enthusiastic as the Parliamentary committee, and very few were willing to invest. The park itself was not the major tourist attraction Watkin had hoped for, and work ground to a halt.

In fact, the tower ended up having a detrimental effect on the Metropolitan Railway. At this time, the Great Central Railway used the Met lines to get into London, a costly move. With the construction of the Tower, the Great Central was able to say (and I’m paraphrasing here y’understand), “Oh hey, that’s cool, with all that extra traffic you’ll be getting from the Tower you won’t be able to run our little trains so we’rebuildingourownlineintoLondonbyenow,” and promptly rushed off to Marylebone.

The Tower also had something of a domino effect on Watkin’s other schemes – it was very clear, as the mostly-incomplete tower rusted away, that Watkin had maybe lost his golden touch, and so investment in his grand scheme to run trains to Paris dried up as well. The ugly monument gained such unflattering nicknames as “the London Stump” and, the name by which it is perhaps best known today, “Watkin’s Folly.”

The enterprise went bust in 1899, in 1901 Watkin himself passed away and in 1902 the whole thing was declared a health and safety hazard and closed down. In 1907 the remains were blown up and sold for scrap. Yet Watkin’s scheme was not entirely in vain – in the 1920s, when the organisers of the British Empire Exhibition were looking for somewhere to build their stadium, they discovered there was a perfectly peachy-keen area of flat ground at Wembley…

… and the rest, they say, is history.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Geography, History, London, London Underground, Parks and gardens, Politics, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, tourism, Transport

Coke en Stock(well)

Don't explain the joke, you idiot.

I thought I’d elaborate a little on a small adventure that happened on the way back from the Carnival, as described in the last entry, for ’twas quite the strangest thing that happened that day. Well, not quite the strangest. Probably in the top ten. Or twenty. It was certainly strange.

You see, the problem with being very drunk and very tired and altogether in quite a state is that it can be quite difficult to stay awake. And the problem with getting from Bayswater to Colliers Wood is that it’s quite a complicated route by night bus. End result was that I kept ending up in completely the wrong place by virtue of falling asleep on the bus. Eventually, when I ended up in Vauxhall, I decided to give it up as a bad job and walk as far as I could.

Now, it took me quite a while to figure out that Vauxhall is close to Stockwell, and a night bus to Colliers Wood goes that way. It is a testament to how very mashed up I was that it took me this long – I’ve worked in Stockwell and Waterloo, and several times I’ve walked from one to the other by way of Vauxhall.

Nevertheless, after much trial and error, I arrived in Stockwell. All in all, I was feeling pretty invincible. Which is good, because as places go, Stockwell sucks.

[PARENTHESIS: I’ve noticed something odd about London. My decadent and sinful lifestyle takes me through many different parts of the city. Yet in places like Hackney, Elephant & Castle, Battersea, Brixton, Tooting, Feltham and Stockwell, I rarely have any trouble. Meanwhile, in supposedly affluent, middle-class places like Richmond, Kingston and Wimbledon, I’ve had far more trouble with lairy drunks trying to start fights – to the extent that I actually try to avoid Kingston and Wimbledon late on a Friday or Saturday.]

Stockwell is famous mostly for the notorious case of the Stockwell Strangler back in 1986 and in 2005, for the shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes during the 7/7 attacks. Apparently it’s on the up these days due to the fact that it is literally within walking distance of Central London. At the moment, though, it’s still pretty sketchy. This I mused upon as I waited for the good old N155.

At this point, a couple of gentlemen approached me. Well, I didn’t initially think they were approaching me – after all, it’s a bus stop, one of the things about public transport is that it’s for the public (though you wouldn’t think that judging by some of the people you mumble mumble mumble).

But then one of them spoke up. “I like your…” he began, and ran into difficulties. My scuffed jeans, chocolate-smeared T-shirt and worn out shoes didn’t exactly give him much to work with, and so he settled on “…glasses.”

“Thanks,” I said, uncertain how best to react. I mean, I like my glasses too. They stop me from being blind. They are, I must emphasise, nothing special. Fairly discreet with black wire frames. Basically, I use them to see with.

“You having a good night?” asked the fellow.

“Yeah, you know, long night, good night, complicated, going home now, bed,” I said incomprehensibly. All of which was true.  At this stage it was half past four and the fun part of being drunk was well and truly over. I just wanted to get home.

“Oh hey, that’s great,” said the chap. “Do you like Charlie?”

I was confused. Charlie? Was that his friend? Was I being propositioned? Solicited, even?

“Sorry?”

“Do you like Charlie?”

“Er?”

“Charlie?” He opened his bag and pulled out a couple of bags of white powder. “Charlie?” he repeared.

Ah yes, Charlie. Cocaine. Blow. Peruvian Lady. Bolivian marching powder. Aunt Nora. Witch and Zip. Foo-foo dust. The White Stuff. Alas, cocaine is not among my many vices, and I explained as much.

“Not at all?” asked the man, with palpable disappointment.

“Afraid not. I’m more of a booze man myself.”

“Not even to try?”

“Sorry. It’s just very late at night, I don’t want a buzz, I just want to go to bed.”

“Oh,” said the man sadly, and he and his friend trudged off.

I spoke the next day to Hurricane Jack and Succubusface, who opined that the guy was either not a very good drug dealer or the cocaine he had was fake, as discretion should really be your watchword when you’re out selling illegal substances in public. Indeed, it’s my own personal experience that normally when someone approaches you with the intent of selling drugs, what you get is a muttered “Skunk?” as they pass you. At least, I think that guy was selling skunk, it was fair to say that I’d woken up in the wrong part of London and not showered that morning.

And so I think we all learned an important lesson.

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Filed under Booze, Crime, Current events, London, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia

Electrickery

I’m strangely fascinated by pseudoscience. Homeopathy, Young Earth Creationism, Scientology, all utter bollocks and yet I love hearing about them. I don’t know why. I frankly have nothing but contempt for all pseudoscience, particularly where it crosses into the realm of medicine.

Pseudoscience relies on ignorance to work its magic. You don’t understand quantum physics, do you? So when we tell you that this pendant will use quantum energy transference to resonate with your cellular integral field to reduce your risk of cancer, arthritis and diabetes, promoting weight loss, immunity to disease and essential wellbeing, you won’t know any better. You can’t say it won’t do that, so just run with this here. Only two hundred pounds to you, sir. A bargain if ever there was one.

Oftentimes, pseudoscientists work to actively promote ignorance – maybe those hoity-toity “legitimate scientists” claim to be able to understand quantum resonance, but why should you believe them? You can’t even understand what they’re talking about!

In the case of medical pseudoscience, or “quackery” as it’s more commonly known, I have particular contempt due to the emotional manipulation involved. Sure, quacks sound sympathetic, but that’s because they tell you what you want to hear. Doctors tell you cancer has no cure? Well, that just shows how callous they are, because I can cure it with simple-feng-shui-ley-line-type crap. There appears to be a concentration of toxins in your breasts, let me lay my hands on them. Even when quacks aren’t taking advantage of the desperate and incurable, they’re still emotionally manipulative. Diet and exercise are hard, wouldn’t it be far easier if you just used acupuncture to somehow, against all laws of physics, cause the fat to disappear? The worst aspect of all this is that people often reject conventional medicine in order to spend a fortune on the modern-day equivalent of a bottle of snake oil, endangering their chances of recovery and often their lives.

As quackery relies so heavily on people’s lack of scientific knowledge, it often employs whatever the latest weird and exotic science is to make suckers sit up and take notice. Potential patients may have heard of this new “magnetism,” “radiation” or whatever, but aren’t so likely to know the full range and scope of its abilities. Particularly given that many of these substances are used in legitimate medicine – radiotherapy, for instance.

For an awfully long time, the big thing was electricity. Luigi Galvani discovered in 1786 that passing electricity through a dissected frog’s leg would cause it to kick. This seemingly confirmed a popular misconception that electricity was a vital force.

Not that the quacks had been waiting for scientific confirmation, of course. James Graham (pictured below), for instance, had been convinced ever since seeing a demonstration by Benjamin Franklin in the early 1770s that electricity was worth paying attention to. He proclaimed it to be a force that “invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”

In 1779, he came to London and opened the Temple of Health and Hymen just off the Strand, at No. 4 Royal Terrace. This was showmanship of which P. T. Barnum would have been proud. No expense was spared. The place was filled with huge, exotic-looking machinery that promised to use electricity to blast “aetherial forces, vivifying air, and the magnetic effluvium into the whole body or any particular part of it.” Various other electrical and chemical treatments were available, including an electric bath and an electric throne.  Don’t try this at home, kids. If you fancied a takeaway, you could purchase Graham’s range of “Imperial Pills” and “Aetherial Balsams.”

If you were having a little trouble in the bedroom (cough), then you might consider a session on Graham’s notorious “Celestial Bed.” This was a large and magnetically-charged bed which vibrated, played music and released fragrances that were supposedly “aetherial” in nature (but frankly, what in the Temple wasn’t?). The unhappy couple would hand over a whopping fee of £50 and spend the night therein in the hope of relieving infertility. I suspect that any successes arising were purely coincidental.

Graham’s particular interest was matters of a sexual nature, and it certainly didn’t escape his notice that sex was a pretty good selling point. To that end, some of the most popular attractions in the Temple were the Goddesses of Health, delightful young ladies whose job was to assist Graham and to depict what physical perfection should look like. In the name of science, of course. Scantily-clad science. Rumour has it that one of the Goddesses, depicted right, would later marry into wealth, becoming Lady Emma Hamilton and later still Lord Nelson’s mistress.

The temple was, initially at least, a roaring success – so much so that within a couple of years, Graham was able to up sticks and move to fashionable Pall Mall. Alas, while Graham was a persuasive quack, he wasn’t so strong on the financial side of things, and his extravagance resulted just two years later in his having to sell up entirely.

He never quite managed to replicate the Temple’s success, and spent the rest of his days promoting ever more bizarre alternative medicines, such as being buried naked in mud and not eating for weeks at a time. He died in 1794 at the age of just forty-nine, which says a lot about the efficacy of his methods.

Fortunately, such quack electrical nonsense didn’t last long, because – oh wait, no, the belief in electricity’s mystical health-giving properties lasted until at least 1951, when the Food and Drug Administration in the USA banned the sale of electrical remedies. Hell, there are probably people even today who think you can cure impotence by electrocuting your gentleman’s prerequisites. There’s a sucker born every minute.

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Fashion and trends, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Regency, Science, Sports and Recreation, West End

A nice little cottage

I sometimes think my life is turning into a surrealist sitcom. Take today, for instance. Today was supposed to be a boring day. I decided to go for an aimless trip into Central London – train to London Bridge and take it from there.

And so I strolled through the city, eventually coming to the West End. Alas, as my blood is approximately 30% caffeine, I experienced at this point a call of nature, and so ventured into the nearest public convenience. As anyone with experience will tell you, gentlemen’s toilets are a place of unimaginable horror at the best of times. I hadn’t factored in an additional point, namely that we were in Soho. Yes, I was about to have an awkward experience.

So I walked down, and noted that all the urinals were occupied. Well, West End, early Saturday evening, that’s not too unusual. I figured I’d wait. It seemed to me that the gentlemen present seemed to be having some difficulty urinating. Actually, one chap was having so much difficulty urinating that the chap at the next urinal was having to help him. The penny only dropped when I noticed one of the chaps trying to look me in the eye. The expression on his face was not dissimilar to the sort of thing you see on the faces of potential housemates you’ve never met before. Friendly, open and yet slightly cautious.

You do not pull the urinal off the wall and turn it into avant garde art.

Now, let me explain the rules of Man Etiquette when it comes to using the urinals. You do not take the urinal next to one already occupied unless there are no others available. You do not talk to the person next to you unless you know them. You look straight ahead. Shake once, zip up, wash your hands, leave.

So to see so much flagrant disregard for these sacred laws, coupled with the almost total lack of urination going on, suggested that I had wandered in on something a bit more – what’s the word? Gay.

And it’s here that we get into the murky history of cottaging. Cottaging, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is basically gay sex in a public lavvy. “Cottaging” derives from the polari word “cottage,” which refers to the fact that many public toilets, particularly in the London suburbs, were designed to look rather cottage-like. Indeed, one on Twickenham Green has actually been converted into a delightful little tea room, and others often find similar uses.

Simply put, when homosexuality was illegal, cottaging was the only way one could be openly gay. Up to a point, I mean. Even in this setting, one had to be careful, and systems of signals developed for those in the know. The public toilet came to have a special place in gay culture, and attendants at the dunnies in Victoria and South Kensington stations noted some actually quite poignant love poetry scrawled on the cubicle walls.

Of course, the police quickly cottoned on that this was happening. In the 1950s, possibly as a result of the postwar atmosphere of the time, there was a huge drive to round up these awful, awful gays who were no doubt undermining our society and helping to cause earthquakes and things (actually, in 1750, the Bishop of London genuinely did blame a recent tremor on sodomy, which brings a whole new meaning to the question, “Did the earth move for you?”)

However, while the opinion of the high-ups was that this evil homosexuality had to be stamped out at all costs before it caused the 1960s to happen, there’s evidence to suggest that the rank-and-file police actually weren’t all that interested. How they felt about homosexuality itself is unrecorded, but certainly several of them felt that it was a bit of a waste of time, hanging around in public lavvies on the offchance that they could do someone for the ill-defined crime of “gross indecency.” One complained that he was having to spend so long in the gents that his cigarettes tasted of bleach.

Whatever their feelings about the duty, they don’t appear to have been under-zealous when it came to actually making arrests. Sir John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Wilfrid Brambell were among those who got into trouble for the practice. History does not record whether the officer in the latter arrest referred to Brambell as a “dirtyhold… maaaan!” Let’s pretend he did.

Though homosexuality is today legal, the practice is still popular, probably because it’s a bit kinky and a bit dirty. Let’s face it, some people will do anything for a thrill. And if you’re in the closet, it’s a nice way to get your rocks off without having to tell ‘er indoors what’s going on. Hence George Michael’s notorious 1998 arrest.

None of this was of any use to me, though. On reflection, it should have been obvious that this was a place where middle-aged men gathered to wank each other off – there were prominent signs warning about CCTV monitoring, and there were narrow barriers between the urinals (which didn’t seem to be stopping the helpful gentleman mentioned earlier – I should imagine you could locate him by his bruised wrist). I mean, what is the etiquette in this situation? Do you pretend you haven’t noticed? Turn around and walk out? I mean, I really did need a wee. I texted Hurricane Jack for advice – he’s not part of the whole cottaging scene, but I figured that as a gay man he might be more familiar with the practice than I am. In the end, I decided to go with the tried and tested method of just saying, “Look, is anyone here actually having a piss?” Cue the somewhat amusing sight of four red-faced men suddenly trying to wee when they don’t actually need to, then swiftly filing out.

A little later I was accused of being a Terminator, and – but I mustn’t say any more, or I shall spoil the next story.

If you enjoyed this
You may wish to come and see the play I’m in. I promise it features no mutual masturbation of any kind.

Further Reading
Turns out I’m not the only one this has happened to.

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Filed under 20th Century, Crime, Current events, Fashion and trends, History, London, Politics, Soho, Sports and Recreation, West End

Holey Ship

Now, a couple of entries ago, I used this photograph wot I did take on the Greenwich Peninsula:

I must come clean. In my description, I must confess that I was perhaps not entirely truthful with you. I do not, in fact, own this thing. I know, you’re no doubt horrified that I might lead you astray with such an untruth, given my usual devotion to purest honesty which shineth forth like a beacon &c, &c. But you see, I think the real story behind this rather bizarre thing is worth an entry in itself.

It’s actually a sculpture entitled Slice of Reality, created by Richard Wilson. Wilson’s work is generally rather large scale and architectural in subject matter. He is, according to Wikipedia, interested in “unsettl[ing] or break[ing] people’s perception of space, what they think space might be.” Well, that’s pretty psychogeographical, now, isn’t it? I mean, that’s a lot of what psychogeography is about, perception of spaces and shit.

Perhaps Wilson’s most famous work is 20:50. This consists of a room filled with used sump oil. One walks through the room, looking down on the oil and into the upside-down reflection of the space you’re in.

Another, which I rather like, is Turning the Place Over. Wilson’s taken a nondescript building in Liverpool, one of those terminally boring blocks that appeared in the 1960s when Britain’s architects took a collective twenty-year holiday, and cut a hole in it. He’s motorised the bit he cut out so it spins around – effectively turning that section inside-out. Suddenly, a boring building becomes really interesting. Brilliant, eh?

So, what’s the story behind A Slice of Reality? I’m glad you asked, metaphorical literary device. You may remember the almighty balls-up that was the Millennium Dome, which I think we’re all keen to forget (seriously, it’s just a huge bloody marquee). It wasn’t that it was a bad idea per se, just really poorly executed and overall giving the impression that it had been thrown together the week before the opening with whatever they had to hand. Much like my school projects, in fact.

Anyway, one of the ideas had at the time was a collection of public art to be dotted around the Greenwich Peninsula, celebrating and commemorating the area. My suggestion (“Dump a load of toxic waste there!”) was not one of the ideas chosen, even though it would both have celebrated the history of the area and saved me a lot of bother later on.

Wilson’s interpretation of this was a section of a ship on the line of the Greenwich Meridian. This would have celebrated what Greenwich is most famous for, and would also have been a memorial to the ships that once used this area. Ironically, as I mentioned in my previous entry, this is probably one of the few areas of the Port of London that could still be called industrial, but then, what do I know? Not enough to build an installation reminding us of our obligation to the environment in past and future – okay, I’ll stop.

The vessel is, according to Mr Wilson’s website, an ocean-going sand dredger that has been cut down by 85%, leaving only the interesting bit with the cabins and engine room. The whole thing is, as you can see, pretty open to the elements, and up close it’s rather rusty and battered. Nevertheless, from certain angles it takes on a distinctly surreal quality – there’s a side-on photo on Wilson’s website that actually looks like it’s been badly Photoshopped, but is entirely unaltered.

It’s the only sculpture from the Millennium Experience to survive in situ, and for rather interesting reasons. You see, it was supposed to be taken down at the end of 2000, but for a technicality. According to the law, the river is not actually part of the Peninsula – it’s part of the Port. So Mr Wilson was able to take advantage of this nice little loophole of maritime law. As 15% of a ship is still a ship, he got the mooring permit and now he uses it as a studio. Which I think is just grand, especially as he opens it to the public on Open House weekends. Drink three bottles of red before going on board to simulate the motion of the waves.

Incidentally

This isn’t the only grounded vessel to serve as artists’ quarters – there’s a tugboat cabin on Eel Pie Island that does the same. Remind me to show you sometime.

Further Reading

http://www.richardwilsonsculptor.com/projects/slice%20of%20reality.html – Richard Wilson’s site.

http://diamondgeezer.blogspot.com/2010/09/slice-of-reality.html – Diamond Geezer’s entry on the subject, from which I have shamelessly swiped a lot of information. Nobody will ever know, as long as I don’t write about the plagiarism in my blog or something.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Canals and Waterways, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, Politics, Port of London, Psychogeography, Rivers, Sports and Recreation, Thames, tourism, Transport

Oh yes it is

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.

And no, he wasn't short of work when he did this.

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.

Mr Joseph Grimaldi

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.

These days, it’s regarded as something for the kids – innuendo is still an element, of course, but it goes straight over the children’s heads. If it doesn’t, well, they’re already corrupted anyway.

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.

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