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Pantomime: just a bunch of cliches and bad jokes? Oh no it isn’t

This article is over 16 years, 8 months old
With pantomime season upon us again, broadcaster and writer Michael Rosen asks, ‘What’s behind it?’
Issue 1981

Two people walk on to a stage. They start talking.

Should the two people pretend that we, the audience, aren’t there? Should they pretend to talk in a way that sounds very much like real speech, a bit like real speech, or not at all like real speech? When they talk to each other should they look at each other as they talk, or should they look at us?

Behind each of these questions sits the history of entertainment and the peculiar, weird, crazy institution of pantomime poses some interesting problems in that history.

Very nearly all TV and film drama is based on the illusion that we are looking through a window into real life.

In part, this is because of the 19th century theatre that used the proscenium arch that rises up and over the front of the stage as if it was an invisible fourth wall through which we look in on people in and around their houses.

This style of drama produced both complete tosh alongside some of the most powerful artistic moments we know of, by such people as Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw and Harold Pinter.

But of course that proscenium arch doesn’t have to be that fourth wall. We’re quite happy to watch a stand-up comedian walk on to a stage, look us straight in the eye, and start talking to us.

That’s a tradition that reaches back much further and it’s the one that ­pantomime inherits.

In truth, the kinds of pantomimes that are running in theatres, community centres, schools at this very moment are an extraordinary mish-mash of traditions.

Firstly, this style of talking at an audience while appearing to talk to each other reaches back to “folk” and “mystery” plays.

These were entertainments put on by working people, based on a myth like Saint George and the Dragon, or later the Christian stories. They were acted out in places like pubs, or village and town squares.

Meanwhile, in Italy a tradition grew up of entertainments using a set of stock characters—two lovers who don’t ever hit it off because the man is of a lower class than the woman, the woman’s miserly father, the wisecracking woman servant, the military man, the forlorn lover.

Each wore a mask and the little plays worked through a set of misunderstandings, disasters and comedy routines.

Believe it or not, the TV comedy Are You Being Served? was partly based on this “commedia del arte”.

Alongside this you have the folk and fairy story traditions. Some of these are remnants of ancient epics—Jack and the Beanstalk has its roots in Norse myth. Some are legends grafted on to historical events, like Robin Hood. Some are fantasies that seemed to have cropped up in the 18th century or early 19th century, like Goldilocks, or earlier in the Middle East, like Aladdin.

Finally, you have the music hall. This was an urban working class entertainment, put on mostly in specially built places—if you want to see a perfect example of a small one go to Hoxton Hall in Hackney. The shows mixed up “variety” (juggling and the like), comedy patter routines and singing acts.

Some of this was jingoistic crap, but some of it was subversive material often sentimentalised later. What people think is schmaltz, My Old Dutch, was sung in front of a backdrop of the workhouse.

At the end of the song about being together for 40 years, the couple left the stage separately through the men’s and women’s doorways of the workhouse.

Now, all we have to do is mix up all these different elements and we have, by the beginning of the 20th century, the panto.

That wisecracking woman ­servant, who we see as Juliet’s nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has become the panto dame. The low class lover has become the young, jokey male lead character.

The “routine” moment, sometimes a bit of slapstick in a kitchen, derives from those comedy routines in “­commedia” known by the name “lazzi”.

The issue, though, is what you do with it. You can turn it all into a piece of entertainment that plays to every possible prejudice and ruling ­ideological idea—royalist, sexist, ­racist and grossly sentimental—or you can use the form and play with the expectations.

At the Hackney Empire, the dame is played again this year by Clive Rowe who’s black. At the Old Vic, she’s played by someone who we all know is gay, Ian McKellen.

Many of the stories that panto uses have moments in them that can ­emphasise or remove the class antagonism, depending on the ­production—think Robin Hood.

And the contemporary or local gags that panto should always have, can take sides too. The Thatcher era was very productive for these.

So, like a lot of the culture around us, panto can cut several ways. Ideally, it should be an outing for all ages that is daft, odd, surprising, slightly subversive and at times bloody funny.

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