Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day & The Panto

Someone on the radio (BBC) mentioned pantomimes and set off a string of memories. Pantos are unknown in the USA, but in Britain have always been always a part of the Christmas season. They are fun versions of famous fairy tales, with topical humour, songs and occasionally, depending on the talent of the cast, dancing. Pantomimes are presented by amateurs and professionals alike; big productions often star a well-known comedian or pop star in a leading role. When I was young my parents would take me to see a pantomime, usually on Boxing Day - the day after Christmas Day.

In panto there's gender-bending aplenty: the male becomes female and the female male. So, for instance, in "Cinderella" the ugly sisters are portly men in drag and Prince Charming is a leggy gal in tights. It's odd, though, the custom of having a "principal boy" (prince, hero, whatever) played by a good looking girl with legs up to here seems to have faded, according to clips I've found on YouTube. Maybe the guys didn't like having their best leading roles commandeered. The custom of the "pantomime Dame" endures though - guy dressed as a comically frumpy woman - the strident mother or cruel sister, etc. usually played by well-loved comedians in professional productions.

Panto is hard to describe - it's one of those shows where "you really have to be there" to catch the atmosphere, the excitement of children in the audience. It's the custom for kids to shout back to the actors and their excitement becomes infectious....for example, as the villain appears, ready to do harm, the kids all shout, as one, "He's behind you!!!".

At the civil service legal office where I used to work, one Christmas-time, late 1970s or early 1980s, someone persuaded the tribunal chairmen (respected lawyers) to act in our adapted version of a pantomime: "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp" (first two photos below). A few in-jokes were included in much-modified scripts, to further engage an already enthusiastic audience of staff and visiting charimen. This has been one of my treasured Christmas memories. Unexpectedly magical, it was! The chairmen were all such good sports and spot-on - exactly in the mood with plentiful witty ad-libbing. Most have now "gone before" to the great tribunal in the sky, others are High Court Judges.

Christmas-time at the office was always fun. Some years we'd have a fancy dress party. A record of one of these survives: yours truly as Dick Whittington (last photo - under the clock).


JD said...

you have panto in the USA
it's called WWE wrestling!
slightly more violent than ours but still a pantomime.
An English writer (can't remember who) called it A Noble Pantomime

Twilight said...

JD ~~~ Hi! I've never seen any of that, JD, but have heard that it is just as you say. But there's no need to even watch WWE wrestling to get a taste of pantomime - all we have to do in the USA is watch the political scene! :-)

Janet said...

Panto has a recently reviving forefather - the Mummers Plays - cross-dressing, conflict and farce with a thinly-disguised moral facet (though there is also a possibly older element of death and rebirth, interesting as the plays are always around the Winter Solstice time).

Twilight said...

Janet ~ Hi there! Yes, thanks for mentioning that. There has to be a fairly complex "family tree" in pantomime history, with branches from various ancient traditions: Saturnalia, Feast of Fools, Lord of Misrule, Mumming, masques, as well as elements of burlesque and variety theatre later on too. and, as you say it's high season has remained around the time of Saturnalia, perhaps it's earliest distant relative. :-)

Twilight said...

Correction...."its high season has remained....... its earliest distant relative......"

I'm throwing apostrophes around willy nilly this morning!