If you are missing out on your Panto fix, take a look at the Panto Day website. There’s lots to watch and do. Videos, podcasts and a downloads page including a cut-out and glue Panto Cow! Heart Project Trustee Stephen Hocking, who has worked in the theatre all his life, looks back to his first experience of Panto and the history of this uniquely British tradition.

Drum roll...Fanfare…Town Crier enters, unfurls a scroll  and announces: My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen - Today is Panto Day! Audience: Oh no it isn’t. Town Crier: Oh yes it…. you get the idea. Of course you do, because this beloved British artform is part of our culture.

The celebration of Panto Day is now in its tenth year and there is a lot to celebrate. Despite Covid there are more than 50 professional pantomimes across the country including 4 within an hour's drive but more than 200 have had to postpone or cancel. That number is dwarfed however, by the number of village pantos lost.  

CODS production of Aladdin 2019

I saw my first pantomime, Babes in the Wood in 1961. I remember little of the show, except being in a packed auditorium full of noise, excitement and expectation. Then the houselights dimmed, the band struck up the overture and the curtain rose on a stage filled with action colour and music. I was hooked.  Quick scene-change 8 years later and I am now a schoolboy stagehand at that same theatre. We are about to rehearse the curtain call. The Dame stops the rehearsal and explains: he will not say the last line of his closing speech (all in rhyming couplets) because it’s bad luck to say the tag line before the first night, so will da-de-dah instead. I realised then that Panto must have a rich and unusual history – and I was right!

It’s Behind You

If you look back far enough, the roots of Panto are in ancient Greece. The first time “pantomime” was used for an entertainment was March 1717 when a new Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing, after the Manner of Ancient Pantomimes was performed. The deviser, John Weaver, dancing master at Drury Lane, wanted to convey story and emotion through dance, elevating its status. Is that Panto? Oh no it isn't.

The next key development came to us from Italy - The Harlequinade featuring Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon etc These were the essential comedy ingredients for Georgian Panto. They performed largely wordless, mimed sequences and featured knockabout comedy, acrobatics and lots of stage illusions. The opening scene that set the plot was in verse, sung and spoken (remember the rhyming couplets). They were serious and could be dull. Then  a transformation scene and the Harlequinade was enacted. The superstar of the harlequinade was Joseph Grimaldi. He made Panto his own and the Clown the principal character.

Joseph Grimaldi - The First Panto Superstar

I talked to Dawlish resident and Panto expert Dr Tony Liddington. He is that rare academic who is equally adept as performer and director. He has used acrobats and stage illusion in professional pantos he has directed and has played Grimaldi. Though we no longer have the Harlequinade, Tony points out that the energy and slapstick humour remain. Though Grimaldi never appeared in a circus, all clowns are still nick-named “Joey” in his memory.  

Grimaldi retired in 1827 and slowly too did the Harlequinade. During the Victorian era pantos moved towards the format we recognise today. Verse was used only for speeches of the Fairy and Demon as it often is today.

Dan Leno as Mother Goose

The Victorian era also produced its Panto Superstar: Dan Leno. Tony has played Leno too. The diminutive Leno usually performed Panto with the super-sized Herbert Campbell – what a pair they made as Babes in the Wood! These two were Music Hall stars. Sir Augustus Harris, manager of Covent Garden is credited with introducing Hall stars to the Panto in 1871 and was accused of “vulgarising” a hitherto artistic entertainment – “making it an entertainment for the workingman” as Tony puts it. That explains why in commercial Pantos, there is seemingly an incongruous appearance of some current celeb lacking a little in the acting department!

Boo – Enough History

The children are bored. They are chatting and rustling sweet wrappers – a sure sign to get on with it so here are the juicy bits:

  • The first recorded Panto Dame? 1731 when a male actor played the cook in Dick Whittington.
  • The first principal boy 1815. The first we have the name of: Eliza Povey who played Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk in 1819.
  • It’s for the children? The original pantos were part of a bill that could last 4 hours. The audiences were drunk and rowdy. The early plots based on Greek and Roman stories and aimed at adults.
  • It’s for Christmas? Not originally. Grimaldi played most summers at Sadler’s Wells – at that time a spa and open only during spring and summer. Pantos could open at any time.
  • Widow Twankey? Aladdin had been staged for 73 years before his mother gained the title Widow Twankey in 1861. Twankey incidentally refers to an inferior brand green tea.
  • Buttons? Cinderella had been on stage for more than 100 years before Buttons got his name.
Madam Vestris - notable principal boy and Panto innovator.

It’s In Front of You

Like many of you, I am hoping that by next Christmas, things will be back to some sort of normality. I am looking forward to taking my granddaughter to her first Panto and I’m sure she will be hooked just as I was. I asked Tony Liddington about the future of Panto. He believes that village Panto will be an important part, growing from inside the community and bringing new ideas.

Sandford Village Panto - Dick Whittington 2019

Karen Snow, Secretary of Sandford panto told me:

We have found that it is a wonderful way of uniting people from our village. We feel it is held in high regard locally and I'm sure it will be sorely missed this year both by the participants and the audience too.

And so say all of us…Oh yes we do!

Dec 18, 2020

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