The Big, Bonkers, British, Christmas Pantomime

Oh, yes I did! An attempt to explain the bizarre tradition of the British Christmas pantomime.

Carolyn Wells | Longreads | December 2021 | 11 minutes (3,198 words)

Do you want to come to the Christmas pantomime? I am visiting family in England, and people keep earnestly asking me this question. It is not an invite I ever receive in Canada, where I now live, and upon questioning my American colleagues, I discover none of them are trotting off to see a pantomime this year either. It’s a uniquely British festive tradition. Jane Moody, Professor of Humanities Research at York University, has even proclaimed the pantomime “quintessentially British: as British as Earl Grey tea.” Yes — even on par with tea. 

It is hard to explain a pantomime: middle-aged men prancing about dressed as flamboyant washerwomen, humans playing animals, princesses, dastardly villains, and lots of bawdy jokes. Growing up, I would go and see a panto every Christmas, so this is all normal, but from an outside perspective, I can see it could raise the odd eyebrow. In the words of Sir Ian McKellen, “You can’t start to explain what a pantomime is — it’s like explaining the rules of cricket.” So I turned to a dictionary definition for help: Pantomimes are theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, involving music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy, based on a fairy tale or nursery story. 

The range of fables is extensive, with productions at every town theater. This year, I was offered Dick Whittington (a real mayor of London who died in 1423), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Puss in Boots, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. This is probably where I should admit I have never been a big fan of pantomimes, at least partially because they require a level of audience participation that makes my eyes twitch. When someone on stage shouts, “Oh, no he isn’t!” you are dutifully required to shout back, “Oh, yes he is!”— a frustrating back and forth that goes on for some time without satisfactory resolution. You are also encouraged to aid the hapless hero by shouting “He’s behind you!” when a villain sneaks onto the stage. Personally, my annoyance at the hero’s lack of spatial awareness has always made me reluctant to offer this assistance. 

And then there is the worst part: the constant fear of being brought onto the stage. This prospect makes my nieces and nephews squeal excitedly, while I slide further down into my seat, wishing for better camouflage than red velvet. One year my niece did receive this ultimate pantomime honor — chosen to go on stage to dance — and she still gleefully talks about it. I, on the other hand, cracked at my last panto, leaving halfway through and muttering to myself about the dreadful jokes as I walked home. Very Scrooge of me. However, this year I was determined to be jolly and embrace the Christmas tradition, bravely agreeing to a weekend of back-to-back pantomimes, with an evening performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and a matinee of Dick Whittington.

It is hard to explain a pantomime: middle-aged men prancing about dressed as flamboyant washerwomen, humans playing animals, princesses, dastardly villains, and lots of bawdy jokes.

Ahead of the performances, the auditoriums buzz with excitement. Tiny girls twirl in fairy costumes before turning to whack their brothers with their wands. Mothers bounce wide-eyed toddlers with one arm, clutching paper cups full of wine in the other, and elderly grandparents adorned with Christmas hats stand stoically in rings of lightsaber brandishing 10-year-olds. It is a reminder that pantomimes are an event for the whole family — and the whole community — with both shows opening with a nod to their local town. “Hello, Woking town!” Snow White yells from her castle as delighted kids scream greetings in return. And in a theater one town over, Dick Whittington greets his audience with, “Hello Guildford! Bet you’re glad you’re not in Woking!” 

Woking gets off comparatively lightly compared to Croydon: “I knew I’d reached Croydon because I saw a banner up saying, ‘Happy 30th Birthday Grandma!’” Nods like this to adult humor and sexual innuendo are a big part of the British panto — in Snow White, the Evil Queen invites two henchmen backstage with her, with a knowing wink to the audience, “I’m a cougar!” Meanwhile, her jester bemoans about the size of his privates when “It’s Cold Outside.” In Dick Whittington, his love interest proclaims, “I’m missing Dick!” to knowing chuckles from mothers now grasping their second wine. 

The British are more renowned for being prim and proper than guffawing loudly at the mention of a small penis. So how did these raucous shows become so beloved in this country? Jeff Thompson, a local theater critic and pantomime lover, informed me we can probably blame the Italians: “In the 16th century, Italy had a brand of entertainment known as Commedia dell’arte (comedy of the artists)…a cast of mischievous characters including the Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon, occasionally masked, some with juggling and acrobatic skills, others as musicians…it was rehearsed chaos of knock-about humor, with the players appearing in colorful, outrageous costumes.” 

Different companies toured the Italian states and Principalities, appearing on street corners and market squares, and it is likely that they also came to London. Thompson explains that “an Italian influence was evident in London during the 1500s, hardly surprising because London was a major trading port, and Shakespeare himself…wasn’t slow to exploit this popularity when choosing Italian locations — The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, etc.”

By the 1700s, the Georgians — who loved to make things fancy — had adapted the Commedia dell’arte into the Harlequinade. According to Thompson, “the same characters were there — Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon, but the Harlequinade productions could now be seen on stage with music…the storylines were classical tales and familiar fables. Progressively, domestic stories and political satire were also introduced, and the late 1700s and 1800s saw the introduction of elaborate state scenery and ‘phantasmagorical effects’, which echo into contemporary productions.”

The master of the Harlequinade was a man named John Rich, who managed Lincoln Fields theater in the 1720s. I was rather pleased to learn that Rich introduced the term slapstick into the English language — his harlequin used a wooden bat to knock things down — but he would probably rather be remembered for his incredible shows. His pantomimes fused comedy, music, ballet, and myth into tremendous spectacles, provoking us Brits to have a moan about the death of serious theater. 

Jane Moody notes that although actor/manager David Garrick initially joined in on the whining, he was sensible enough to realize there was money to be had in this tomfoolery — after all, by 1732, John Rich was able to build Covent Garden Theater with his profits. So, presumably after wrestling with his artistic conscience, Garrick decided that “If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet, I must give them Harlequin.” He compromised by only producing his pantomimes for the Christmas season, associating pantos with the fun of Christmas rather than “proper” theater. The Christmas panto tradition survives to this day. 

Things developed further as Britain entered the Victorian era. The Industrial Revolution made life increasingly difficult for the working class, and the local Music Hall became a means of escape. As Thompson points out, “Beer and laughter went well together…in a time of malnutrition, epidemics, and a cruel penal code. Performers added to their living by moving away from the Harlequinades to the Music Halls and developing new acts, the pantomime as we might now recognize it was emerging.”

Although the issues have changed since the Industrial Revolution, the panto is still a place of release — somewhere to laugh at your problems — with both pantomimes I attended making fun of British politics and COVID-19. Dick Whittington adapted the song “12 Days of Christmas” into “12 Days of Lockdown”: “On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, six lateral flow tests, five toilet rolls, four booster jabs, three hand sanitizers…” Meanwhile, the villain, King Rat, said that he needed a wife “so she could spend inordinate amounts of tax-payer money on renovating his house,” a joke referencing a recent scandal involving Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wife, Carrie Symonds. Jeff Bezos doesn’t escape either: King Rat’s Ratazon exploits its workers and destroys local businesses, and over in Snow White, her engagement to Harry provokes quips that “Prince Harry marrying an actress will never work.”

In Dick Whittington, his love interest proclaims, “I’m missing Dick!” to knowing chuckles from mothers now grasping their second wine.

The key to these jokes is being able to speak freely — not always a given in a traditional monarchy. However, the Theaters Act of 1843 indirectly boosted pantomime by lifting restrictions on the use of the spoken word in performances and limiting the powers of the Lord Chamberlain to only prohibiting plays when “fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do.” Wordplay and audience participation were added to shows shortly thereafter, and the Victorians did not stop there: elaborate sets and live animals added to the theatrical gimmicks. 

And as explained by the Victoria and Albert Museum, if animals were not available, people would do; some actors made careers of dressing in elaborate animal costumes known as skins. One of the most famous Victorian animal impersonators was the actor and acrobat Charles Lauri Jr. He had quite the extensive range, from a poodle to a kangaroo, and a quote attributed to him demonstrates the true method actor he was: “I need hardly say that I am an entire believer in studying from life. When getting my poodle part, I had one always with me at home, and it was from that I learned nearly all my tricks.”

By the end of the century, productions had reached an epic level and could last up to five hours. FIVE HOURS. You could walk across the whole of London, and Lauri Jr would still be dressed as that poodle. The 1900 Drury Lane production of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast was a particularly long, lavish show, as, apparently unable to pick a story, it was a mash-up of both Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. A critic for the newspaper The Star was not sure what to make of it, even after five hours of consideration: 

The Drury Lane pantomime…is a symbol of our nation. It is the biggest thing of its kind in the world, it is a prodigal of money, of invention, of splendor, of men and women, but it is without the sense of beauty or the restraining influence of taste. It is impossible to sit in the theater for five hours without being filled with weary admiration. Only a great nation could have done such a thing; only an undisciplined nation would have done it. The monstrous, glittering thing of pomp and humor is without order or design; it is a hotch-potch of everything that has been seen on any stage.

Hotch-potch is a good description of pantomime — a bizarre blend of continental and British traditions. Professor Jane Moody describes it as “The raw energy of Music Hall, the sauciness of Burlesque, the acrobatic power of John Rich, and the archetypal plots of Commedia…The story of pantomime is a story of transformation and endless adaptation.” It still is. The pantomimes I saw included singing, dancing, improvisation, impersonation, and acting. At one point, the Evil Queen in Snow White rode a pterodactyl over the audience — an impressive theatrical feat, but not a point I remember the Brothers Grimm dwelling on. A sense of joy radiates off the stage as the cast gets to showcase their talents and tricks, led by the star of the show, the Pantomime Dame. 

Men have played women throughout theater history, with female performers banned from the stage until after the Restoration in 1660. Pantomimes stuck with that convention, and one of the stars is still a man dressed as a careworn mother — the Dame. Dan Leno shaped the Dame in the 1880s, playing roles like the Queen in Humpty Dumpty or Widow Twankey in Aladdin. As Jane Moody tells it, “he began to domesticate the Dame, and to imagine her as a mother, facing problems which he and his audiences knew all too well: poverty, unemployment, and abandonment.” 

Nowadays, Moody considers the Dame to “embody the collective ties which bind us together as families, as neighbors, and as citizens of a particular town or city.” The Dame is often played by a big star: Sir Ian McKellen, Les Dawson, and Christopher Biggins have all taken a turn. In Snow White, the traditional Dame was replaced by Gok Wan as the Mirror, who at one point lost it and just started laughing: “I have an MBE! Two weeks ago I was at Windsor Palace and now I’m on my hands and knees in Woking! Leave it!”

After the performance of Dick Whittington, a Christmas miracle happened (with a little help from the press relations officer), and my sister, niece, and I got to meet both the Dame, Sally the Cook (Peter Gordon), and the baddie, King Rat (Kit Hesketh-Harvey). They arrived still in full makeup and sat with us in the stalls while cleaners vacuumed up the remnants of popcorn and tinsel around us. I felt a little starstruck, but nothing compared to my 14-year-old niece. She has been coming to this pantomime since she was 3 years old — when King Rat scared her so much she was carried out of the theater in floods of tears. Now they were sitting next to each other. 

“Oh, I have warped the minds of a whole generation,” Hesketh-Harvey said with relish. “My record is nine children screaming with fear in the first 45 minutes.” He has been in pantomime for 12 years, Gordon something similar. They are both local and even remember the theater being built. “The theater is a real community hub,” says Gordon, “and panto is its lifeblood. The regional theater would go under without panto — it’s so dependent on the income.” Hesketh-Harvey agrees, “Panto is just so important. It’s a huge tradition — huge. You get these baffled Canadians and Americans coming and they just don’t get it. But it’s the last great variety show… a time to come together and celebrate the joy of community and create family memories. Besides, if it wasn’t for panto we would just be two old farts sitting on a sofa.” 

It was a delight to sit and chat with these two gentlemen — the villain and the Dame — as they highlighted some of the things I had experienced for myself with the panto: the history, the sense of family, the community, and the joy in laughing at life. But after a two-year hiatus, I had forgotten how risqué pantomime jokes could be. The humor is reminiscent of the British Carry On films, but this was a series that ended in 1992. Is it still okay for Snow White to be, “Off cottaging with seven men? We’ve all been there!” Or to joke: “I’m dyslexic, but I’ve read ten out of two people are!” Hesketh-Harvey admits that “Pantomime and woke don’t sit well together. Pantomime gives the finger to the woke generation, but the joy of it outweighs everything else.”

But it does not outweigh everything. In 2017, Irene Ng expressed serious concerns in a panel event hosted by The Stage: “Pantomime makes the dominant culture, or color, feel better about themselves. All the humor was taking the mick out of people in a derogatory way, whether someone is blind, handicapped, ‘ugly’, or of a different race.” Dongshin Chang, an academic who has written on the portrayal of Chinese characters on the London stage, has criticized Aladdin, saying “the character names in Aladdin are rooted in dated attitudes towards Chinese people. Wishee Washee is a clear reference to Chinese business interests…Underneath the fun and entertainment, the association with laundry may also be considered a manifestation of prejudice.” In 2017, a mother named Natalie Wood made an official complaint about Dick Whittington at Manchester Opera House, saying it was too smutty for children. There were also several complaints after a pantomime advertised for a “Chow Mein Slave of the Ring” for a production of Aladdin

She has been coming to this pantomime since she was 3 years old — when King Rat scared her so much she was carried out of the theater in floods of tears. Now they were sitting next to each other.

Pantomime is in a bubble, but it still needs to adapt. Hesketh-Harvey may grumble that “It’s amazing what I can’t say this year,” but I was impressed with some of the changes I noticed. In Snow White, the Prince and Snow White share several kisses, instigated by her, before he finally wakes her from her slumber with an unsolicited kiss. Then, in the end, it is Snow White who proposes to him. (Spoiler: He says yes.) The dwarves have traditionally been played by little people, but in this production, they were a hybrid of puppets and people on their knees (which still felt a little uncomfortable). And in Dick Whittington, the Black female lead was a business owner, who at the end of the production wins Business Woman of the Year. 

These adaptations, although small, are signs that pantomime is changing. “The genre continues to evolve,” Jeff Thompson says. “‘Once Upon a Time’ pantomimes were based around fairy stories such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, but increasingly novels and films are being adapted for the stage. There is also a hint of Disneyfication emerging … and I suspect panto will continue to adapt as opinion influences it.” To survive pantomime needs to keep transforming, but it will — it has been adapting for the last 500 years. 

In a few weeks, the Christmas pantomime season will be drawing to a close. But my season isn’t over just yet — newly invigorated by my experiences, I have now agreed to both a stage performance of Cinderella, as well as a radio show my sister is performing in (playing an Ugly Sister, much to her chagrin). But, rather than begrudge giving yet more time over to panto, I am delighted. For like many a good panto plot, there is a twist — this is a redemption story. In Snow White, when the Queen declares herself the fairest in the land, I shouted, “Oh, no you’re not!” at the top of my lungs, when Prince Harry has a ghost behind him, I lent further lung capacity to yelling “He’s behind you!” In Dick Whittington, I got on my feet with the rest of the audience and sang and danced to “Don’t Stop Believing.” And I enjoyed it. I was Scrooge no longer. 

I now understand the point of a pantomime: It brings people together. Not only does the history of pantomime go back hundreds of years, but it goes back through the history of my family. I came to these shows as a child, and now I go with my nieces and nephews. We have created family memories and continue creating them. Panto provides a sense of belonging — not just to each other, but your local theater and your local town. And after a difficult two years, it is so lovely to laugh. My niece told me she will still want to go to pantos when “she is really old, like 25” (cringe) and I will be right there along with her. I promise I will never walk out of a pantomime again. Oh, no I won’t! 

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