The Palladium is producing its second pantomime in two years after a very long period of its parting from a great London tradition. And throughout the land the majority of our theatres will have pantomimes, or at least shows with a seasonal bearing over the weeks of Christmas and New Year.
Cinderella, Aladdin, Babes in the Wood, Dick Whittington and Mother Goose – somewhere there will be a production based on these great pantomime titles. The shows are cast with, more often than not, television names or lesser pop stars – or, as they seemed to be called these days, a celebrity. This is nothing new – pantomime has always had it eye on the modernity. In the 19th century you could hear comment on the day both in dialogue and in song. As musical tastes changed so would the song content in pantomime change as well.
Faced with the major change in musical taste in the sixties pantomime bit the bullet and invited the pop singers to star in the Christmas fare. Cliff Richard (with the Shadows writing the pantomime songs), Tommy Steele, Frank Ifield were to be seen at the London Palladium – and – with a traditional Dame in place.
One great tradition of pantomime is cross dressing. The leading man being played by a glamorous female star and his/her mother (The Dame) by a man. The slapping of a well-shaped thigh at the sight of a beautiful young girl (played by a girl) was never given a second thought, though in today’s climate of transgender it may well disappear. The grand Dames of the past gave portrayals of grotesque women – but it was a case of laughing with and not at.
Pantomime has remained a mystery to those not brought up with it – there is no close relation in American theatre. When, during the Second World War, America joined the fray and American servicemen were often in London. They flocked to the theatre and were attracted by Musicals and Intimate Revue – especially the Sweet and Low series starring Hermione Gingold. In the first of these there was a sketch called ‘Low-down on Whittington’ in which, as a Duchess dressed to the nines, Henry Kendall explained, or attempted to explain, the mysteries of English pantomime to an American GI played by Bonar Colleano. No wonder the Duchess was not too successful when her reply to ‘say, Duchess, who’s the dame?’ was ‘That’s not the dame, that’s the principal boy’.
That sketch proved so popular that it was revised and revived in the last of the series as ‘Pantomime – return visit’ with Kendall once again resplendent as the stately Duchess explaining to the bewildered U.S. sailor, played by George Carden, simple pantomime traditions. The soldier was now a sailor but the bewilderment remained.
In earlier times a pantomime would run from Christmas to Easter with most artists going into seaside summer shows, thus working much of the year. Now the pantomimes play for just three or four weeks and the tradition of the summer shows has all but disappeared.
In such a changing world it is still rather wonderful to have a Christmas tradition that can be enjoyed by the entire family. Walt Disney may have discovered a gold mine in the production of family friendly shows based on his movies but he has not been able to replicate the joy of children entirely involved with the outrageous happening on the stage. Not to mention the parents picking up on the naughtier comments that (hopefully) go above their children’s heads.
Go to a pantomime this Christmas!!
RSB Illustrations from the Overtures archive