He’s Behind You

Something quite strange happens to British theatre at this time of the year. Up and down the country they get taken over by men dressed as women, women dressed as boys, people in animal costumes (quite often a horse or a cow), custard pies and all playing to packed houses. From the land that gave Shakespeare to the world and is still exporting the finest theatre around the globe, what is all this about?

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Princess Elizabeth as the ‘Principal Boy’ in pantomime

Well, its Pantomime, a peculiarly British theatre form that is a good few centuries old and is very much part of the cultural landscape – theatre for everyone.  Only this week, photographs emerged of the current queen appearing as the ‘principal boy’ in pantomimes, taken between 1942 and 1944. As a child I fondly remember been taken to the theatre every Christmas, on a family outing, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, grand-parents and cousins, to see the local pantomime. With an older, more jaundiced eye, I have tended to frown at the tradition, as not being ‘real’ theatre, but it remains unarguably popular. Last year, the largest producer of the seasonal offering had in excess of 30 shows going on across the country, with a take of £25 million. So what exactly is it, in terms of form and what is its history? According to Professor Jane Moody, from the University of York, in her article It’s Behind You – A look into the history of pantomime

The story of pantomime is a tale of dragons and serpents. It features men dressed as women, and women masquerading as young men. Pantomime presents a tale of good and evil, where hope triumphs over adversity after danger and virtual despair. It has its roots in ancient Greece, and via Italy and France, insinuates itself into Britain. Pantomime’s unique fusion of eccentricity, ambiguity and absurdity has much to tell us about [British] national identity.

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According to writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, pantomime is the only art form ever invented in England. It’s a splendid witticism, albeit untrue. Pantomime has become quintessentially British: as British as Earl Grey tea or a good Indian curry.

Pantomime’s history is a story of border crossings, as plots and performers slip across national, linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Panto season

By complete coincidence, given my post last week, pantomime has its roots in Commedia dell’arte, which spread across Europe in the 16th Century, from Italy to France, and by the middle of the 17th century began to be popular in England. Soon after, the Commedia characters started to appear in english plays and on english stages. The history of Pantomime is well documented, and one of the best and accessible is from the Victoria and Albert Museum which covers the tradition in good detail:

  1. Early Pantomime – The transformation from Commedia to Pantomime
  2. Pantomime Acts – Which explains all about the Pantomime Dame, The Principal Boy and the animal impersonations.
  3. The Origin of Popular Pantomime Stories
  4. Victorian Pantomime – The development of the form and the introduction of ‘stars’ into the lead roles.

Accompanying the lecture below by Professor Jane Moody, which looks at the history of pantomime – part lecture and part performance – there is also the article mentioned above, It’s Behind You, which deals in another historical aspects.

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If you want a sound-bite (slightly patronising) outline, watch this one:

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But it will come as no surprise, that despite its continuing popularity, the tradition is changing and some claim, beyond recognition. Has the Christmas pantomime had its day? written by Gillian Orr in The Independent and Curtain falls on traditional panto – oh yes it does! written Jasper Copping in The Telegraph both discuss what has changed and why. But despite this, the audiences still roll in. My own nephews, who have to be torn away from their computers, tablets, phones usually kicking and screaming, still love to go to the ‘Panto’ and are duly taken by my sister, with grandparents in tow.

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The current copy of Timeout London lists a total of 24, yes 24, Pantomimes happening across the city alone this year – and these are just the professional ones. Thousands of amateur groups get in on the act too – a nationwide outbreak of cross-dressing, if you will.

Having said that Pantomime is peculiarly british, they do take place elsewhere in the english speaking world, usually where the British used to rule – Canada and Australia being good examples. Even in Hong Kong, we have a traditional Pantomime performed every year by the The Hong Kong Players. I have to say though, I do find this a colonial hangover, an anachronism, and for me, somewhat embarrassing.

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