Sunday, January 2, 2011

It's behind you: the very British tradition of pantomime

Do a panto quiz

At Christmas time, theatres all over Britain put on pantomime, a uniquely British form of theatrical entertaiment, aimed at children and adults alike, and commonly referred to as panto. After a bit of a bad patch, panto is again as popular as ever, if not even more so.
Panto is based on traditional fairy stories, such as Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, Puss in Boots and Dick Whittington, and generally uses a standard set of conventions.
Learn about these conventions by doing a gapfill quiz; read a little about the revival of panto; find links to the best panto on YouTube, so you can get a bit of the flavour of it for yourself.
In the quiz there are references to various types of humour involved in panto, such as double entendre, innuendo and slapstick. I discussed these in a recent post, and it might be worth having a quick look at that first. There's also a quiz about them. This section on pantomime conventions is partly adapted from Wikipedia.


Click and drop - Fill the gaps by clicking on the phrases in grey in the top boxes and then clicking on their corresponding spaces in the text. If you change your mind just repeat the process. You can find the answers after the exercises.

Printing - To print out for class use, do a normal Print-preview. The exercises will print two to a page.

1. Cross-dressing and risqué humour

played by a young woman
played by a man
of the children in the audience
make her female charms
the 'pantomime dame'
the 'principal boy'
of perfectly innocent phrases
risqué double entendre

One of the main features of panto is a bit of cross-dressing. The leading male juvenile character, known as - was traditionally , and usually in tight-fitting male garments (such as breeches) that evident. Although this custom is apparently dying out.
An older woman ( - often the hero's mother) is usually in drag, which gives lots of scope for some OTT camp humour. This is often a well-known comedian.
Much of the humour involves , often wringing innuendo out . This is, in theory, over the heads .

2. Audience participation

the poor victims
usually fancies the prince
the hero
'Oh yes she is!'
one of the ugly sisters
an essential part of panto
the villain
'Oh no he isn't!'
'He's behind you!'

Audience participation is . For example, if in 'Cinderella' should say, 'Cinderella's not very pretty, is she?', she will be met by cries of . Or that the prince is going to marry one of them, the cry will be, .
And if Little Red Riding Hood wonders out loud where the wolf is, the children will shout out, Very often one of the cast, for example Buttons in Cinderella, acts as a go-between between the action and the audience.
The audience is always encouraged to cheer , to boo , and "awwwww" , such as the rejected dame, who .

3. A song, an animal, heroes and villains

encouraged to sing
symbolized Heaven
in a single costume
a well-known tune
symbolized Hell
in 'animal skin'
challenged to sing 'their'
the evil villain enters

There is often a song, usually with re-written lyrics. The audience is the song, often one half of the audience being chorus louder than the other half.
The pantomime animal, played by two actors is another essential element. It is typically a horse or cow, with the two actors , one as the head and front legs, the other as the body and back legs. The role of the back end is often mocked in comedy as the most lowly role in theatre.
The good fairy always enters from stage right and from stage left. This is a hang-over from pantomime's roots in Commedia Dell 'Arte where the right side of the stage and the left side .

4. A bit of slapstick

free-standing entertainment
a decorating or baking scene
full of streamers
throwing messy substances
often finished with
throw a bucket of 'water'
more or less part of
members of the audience

Sometimes the story villain will squirt with water guns or pretend to , which is actually , at the audience .
A slapstick comedy routine may be performed, often during , with humour based on , such as paint and flour.
Until the 20th century, British pantomimes a harlequinade, a of slapstick. Nowadays the slapstick is the main body of the show.


Jack and the Beanstalk

Introduction to a short video extract

This gives a very good idea of how innuendo and double entendre are used in panto. The fact that the 'leading boy' really is a 'boy' (or perhaps more of a 'lad') only seems to increase the potential for innuendo here. The person who posted it on YouTube wrote:
Neil Morrissey and Denise Van Outen perform an original song from Simon Nye's version of Jack & The Beanstalk, recorded at the Old Vic in London. Adrian Edmondson makes an appearance at the end. This song is typical of an English panto - filled with double entendres meant to sail right over the heads of the children into the ears of their adults.
Although it sounds to me as though the kids are getting most of the jokes alright, at least the older ones. This version of the panto has references to two other children's stories: Jack and Jill, and Goldilocks (she of three bears and porridge fame). Jack and Jill is a nursery rhyme, which starts,'Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water.', which explains some of Morrissey's dialogue. Neil Morrissey is especially well-known for 'Men behaving badly', and Adrian Edmondson for 'The Young Ones', two very popular British TV comedies.

Some examples of risqué double entendre from the video:

  • Jack: How did you get away?
  • Jill:     Well, I told my father I was going to do some embroidery with a girlfriend.
  • Jack: Wow! You've got a girlfriend. Girls, boys. Girls, girls. It's all free and easy these days, isn't it?
  • Jill:     Oh Jack, I can feel something between us.
  • Jack: I'm sorry.
  • Jack: What could we do together that wouldn't cost anything and would leave us both satisfied and slightly flushed.
  • Jill:     Sing a song together about our predicament?
  • Jack: (disappointed) OK
Much of the humour in the song comes from Jack's responses to Jill's innocent lines:
  • Jill:     It's getting harder to resist.
  • Jack: ... it's getting harder.
  • Jill:     Last night I was dreaming, that you and I were wed.
  • Jack: ... that's funny, 'cos I too was tossing ... and turning in my bed.
  • Jill:     This waiting's just too much to bear.
  • Jack: (looking at her bust) ... much to bear. (sounds like - much too bare)
  • Jill:     I can't believe how big our love has grown.
  • Jack: ... how big it's grown.
You can see the video clip here. See also 'ITV Pantos on YouTube' below.

The revival of panto

Panto got into a bit of a rut in the eighties and nineties. According to actor and director Simon Callow, that was partly because theatres started to rely too much on celebrities rather than using actors and comedians.

But I wonder if it didn't also have something to do with a certain intellectual snobbery, which bundled panto together with TV programmes like 'Are You Being Served' and the 'Carry On' films, as being rather low brow humour, fit only for the hoi polloi. 'Do we really want our children watching that smutty stuff?'. But I think we now realise that this all part of the rich mixture that is British humour.

Perhaps it's also because kitsch, when it's not carried off with panache, just remains kitsch. And panto, it must be said, is high kitsch. Well, the panache is back, with stronger casts and better productions than ever.
Callow, a renowned Shakespearian actor, said in an interview with the Daily Mail (The emphasis is mine):

'Pantomime has undergone a huge revival,' ... 'Ten years ago, pantomime was in the doldrums and had declined because it had lost touch with its roots.'

'Recently theatre producers began to realise what a waste this decline was, because pantomime is the first introduction to the theatre for most children.'

'It's one of the few occasions which bring together every generation, class and culture. You can't be snobby or elitist about pantomime, because it is a theatrical skill for which you need an excellent variety of brilliant performers.'

'The revival started in 2004 when Sir Ian McKellen famously made it acceptable again for prominent actors to do pantomime when he played Dame Widow Twankey in the Old Vic's production of Aladdin.'

McKellen is internationally famous for his role of Gandalf in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, but is as well known in the UK for being one of the greatest theatre actors of our time. So when he starred in that panto, it had enormous influence in the theatre world. McKellen talked about his pantomime experience on the BBC News website.
The 65-year-old star called his panto debut "a bit of an adventure". ... "I believe there's more pure theatre in a pantomime than you get in Shakespeare, and if it works, it's unforgettable," he added, ... "The widow has hung up her boobs for the rest of the year but she's going to take them down again because she had such a good time," said McKellen.

ITV Pantos on YouTube

These four excellent pantos include some of the best-known comedians on British TV, as well as straight actors such as Julie Walters and Siân Phillips. This is modern panto, heavily influenced by TV comedy, but all the old ingredients are there (apart from boys who are girls). It is panto just as it should be. They were all written by Simon Nye, who first made his name with 'Men behaving badly', and the quality of the writing shows, especially in Jack and the Beanstalk. On Christmas day, all four are shown 'back-to-back' on Britain's ITV. You can find the cast lists at Wikipedia.

Incidentally, all four star Julian Clary, 'known for his deliberately stereotypical camp style, with a heavy reliance on innuendo and double entendre' (Wikipedia). Although I've never been a great fan (kitsch is not really my thing - except in panto), I strongly believe that Clary, who was (and is) incredibly popular with the general public, probably had more effect in the nineties on changing attitudes in Britain towards homosexuality than any other single factor. In Cinderella he plays the good fairy, which you could say (in the nicest possible way) is exactly what he is.

Adults-only panto and children-only panto

Comparing these with the series of TV pantos from the Paul O'Grady Show, also on YouTube, makes me even more convinced that kids are essential to panto. The humour on the Paul O'Grady Show is supposedly more adult, alternative even; what's more, the cast includes excellent actors and comedians. But for me it lacks something; there is a studio audience, who we never see, but they sound as if they're all adults. Somehow a bunch of adults going 'boo', 'hooray' etc, just ends up being a bit tacky, and the edginess of the humour of traditional panto is lost. I'm afraid I find it all a bit flat, and even a little embarrassing. I do like alternative comedy, and I also like pantomime, but I'm not convinced that the two mix.

But if the Paul O'Grady versions are missing the kids, cleaned up 'children only' versions like the one from CBeebies are equally missing the adult humour. And while I'm sure the kids love it, it's not like the real thing.

Panto-related videos on YouTube

  • Monty Python - Pantomime horses
  • Derek - 'What, dear? Me, dear? Gay, dear? How very dare you!', The Catherine Tate Show, with lots more innuendo (some of it pretty strong)

Panto links

The revival of panto

  • BBC News - on Ian McKellen and panto
  • Ian McKellen - on panto, from his own website
  • Daily Mail - Shakespearian actor Simon Callow tells of his relationship with panto

Panto in the press

  • The Guardian - We're still behind you! Why we'll never grow too old for pantomimes
  • The Guardian - How we get hooked on panto
  • The Guardian - Why today's panto prefers to see boys playing girls who play boys
  • The Daily Telegraph - Top ten pantomimes for Christmas
  • The Daily Mail - Oh no you can't!: Killjoy officials ban panto stars from throwing sweets to children

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