The panto is as much a part of the British Christmas as turkey and crackers. But its origins can be traced back to the Roman theatre. Here, we present a brief history of pantomime; plus, overleaf, the pick of this year's shows for children
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I WAS terribly confused by my first pantomime. It was Boxing Day - a wonderfully traditional way to commence one's theatregoing, now I think about it - and we had probably been detained by lunch. Anyway, we arrived late for our matinee, with the result that I never quite caught up with the plot. The show was Red Riding Hood, but the title character, as I remember it, was not much in evidence. I imagine that the basic outlines of her story (Girl Meets Wolf, Wolf Gets Girl, Wolf Regurgitates Girl) were adhered to, but they would never have made a full afternoon. So the focus shifted from Little Red to her cousin, or sibling, or possibly just namesake, Robin.

Robin Hood is a pretty good hero for a panto, and he was of course played by a woman. This didn't faze me, but the identity of the actress did. She was Dorothy Squires, a generously lunged pop singer of the period (it must have been 1949, and I, if you have to know, was six) and a natural hyperactive thigh-slapper if ever there was one. She was new to me, but my parents were well aware of her and told me who she was. The trouble was that her antagonist in the show was called the Squire, and between Squire and Squires I never knew who they were referring to. Still, there was enough song, comedy, adventure and modest spectacle to keep me happy. If the purpose of pantomime is to indoctrinate future theatre audiences, it worked with me. I resolved to be on time next year.

The theatre was the Shepherd's Bush Empire, soon to be annexed by the BBC and renamed the Television Theatre: a metaphor for what was to happen to the whole of British showbusiness, pantomime included. Still, the Empire (along with all the other suburban and provincial Empires) had a few years left: time enough for me to collect a few variety bills and a couple more pantos.

I may not have expected to see Red Riding Hood getting lost in Sherwood Forest but I'm sure I took it in my stride. I was learning a useful lesson: that drama can take and combine any stories it likes, from any sources. In that sense pantomime is a paradigm of theatre: certainly of English theatre. My subsequent Imperial trophies were more mainstream panto titles: Dick Whittington and the inevitable Cinderella. Starring in both, as Idle Jack and Buttons, was a diminutive comedian, Davy Kaye, unknown to me but recognised and respected by my elders. I heard no more about him until the early 1960s when he re-emerged as a cult figure, starring in West End musicals and acting - very well - in O'Casey and Shaw at the Mermaid. He may be responsible for my stubborn preference for pantomime comics over pantomime dames. I may be hallucinating but I have a distinct impression that in one of those two shows the dame was played by a woman. No wonder the Empire fell.

The next Christmas my family forsook pantomime, and took itself off to Peter Pan, with the wonderful Brenda Bruce. We returned to panto at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith - another future BBC trophy - for a Mother Goose that I remember with great fondness. Though not done by any resident company it was probably in spirit more of a rep panto than a commercial one. It was, all the same, the last pantomime I saw as a child - my remaining treats were respectful stage adaptations of juvenile classics: Alice Through the Looking Glass or Toad of Toad Hall or even, so help me, Archie Andrews' Christmas Party which we saw at 11 o'clock one cold Saturday morning before paying our respects to Father Christmas at Hamley's. I was part of that last radio generation, with Children's Hour and Light Programme comedy shows (variety bills rather than sitcoms in those days) my formative cultural influences. As I approached the 11-plus, Children's Hour, with its emphasis on narrative and good manners, had, at least temporarily, won out. I wanted plays.

I had come in, without knowing it, at the end of an era in pantomime: the end of an era in British showbiz, of which panto has always been a microcosm. Television had arrived, and would increasingly make the rules.

ACCORDING to David Pickering's Encyclopedia of Pantomime (Gale, pounds 50), the word itself derives from the Greek and means "we can act anything": a pleasing origin for a genre that has thrived on adaptability and inclusiveness. If the name was Greek, the first pantomime performers were Roman: randy improvisational comedians who kept the tradition of performance alive, long after formal playwriting in the Roman Empire had ground to a halt. They also went in for drag. After centuries of obscurity the spirit of the old Roman mimes was elaborately rekindled in Renaissance Italy. Now there were whole improvisational troupes, the commedia dell'arte, with intricate farcical scenarios and ensembles of stock characters: the clever servant Harlequin, his girlfriend Columbine, the irreverent Clown and jealous, tyrannical Pantaloon.

Contemporary English playwrights knew of these conventions but rarely employed them; there is not much commedia in Elizabethan comedy. This changed at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, when the theatres closed by Cromwell were reopened, for the amusement of a court that had been cooling its heels in Europe and had picked up some Continental tastes. One of these was for actresses, previously unknown in England. It was discovered that women looked good on stage. They might look especially good in tights, and a fuse was lit that eventually led to the institution of Principal Boy. Meanwhile, Harlequins and Columbines began to appear as accessories in new British plays.

The key date is 1717. In that year a balletic entertainment called The Loves of Mars and Venus became the first London show to be officially described as a pantomime. The same year saw the first triumph of John Rich. Rich was a manager who also acted, though his success was impeded by the fact that he sounded awful. Harlequin, traditionally a silent role, was ideal for him. He played it in Harlequin Sorcerer, in which Harlequin and Columbine, surrounded by commedia characters, conduct their love through a series of mimes and musical numbers against a mythological background. Rich called this item a "harlequinade" - he subsequently mounted some 40 of them, every one a hit.

As the 18th century progressed, the two forms - pantomime and harlequinade - began to merge. Then they started to separate out again, with the harlequinade becoming a self-contained slapstick appendage to the fairy-tale that was the main business of the evening. A vast number of stories were plundered for pantomime purposes - some were originals - but even the hard-core of subjects that have survived to form the modern panto repertoire cover a wide range. They derive from the fairy-tales codified in the 17th century by Charles Perrault (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots), the Arabian Nights (Aladdin), English legend (Jack and the Beanstalk, Babes in the Wood), English history (Dick Whittington - a real figure, though his cat wasn't), and even the classic English novel (Robinson Crusoe). This eclecticism has an engaging air of smash-and-grabbery about it, and for the first 200 years or so any source was fair game. Actually, none of the classic subjects appeared until the 1780s, and several - Cinderella included - had to wait until the 19th century. The first to appear was Crusoe, in 1781 at Drury Lane: a production notable for several reasons. It was written by Richard Brinsley (School for Scandal) Sheridan; it marked the surgical removal of the harlequinade from the story proper; and it saw the debut, at the age of two, of probably the greatest performer in the history of pantomime.

This was Joey Grimaldi, whose virtuosity in the role of Clown did for pantomime in the first quarter of the 19th century what Charlie Chaplin (probably his only peer) was to do for silent film comedy a hundred years later. Each was the most popular artist (in any medium) of his time; each cut across boundaries of age, class and education. Before Grimaldi, intellectuals had scorned the pantomime, accusing it of debasing the drama and corrupting the audience by its emphasis on spectacle. (Sounds familiar?) Alexander Pope had included John Rich among his victims in his satirical epic, The Dunciad. But Grimaldi fascinated everyone, including Charles Dickens, who edited the comedian's memoirs. Dickens indeed was an unflagging pantomime enthusiast, and probably did as much for the image of Christmas in the theatre as for that of Christmas in the home. Pantomime, by the way, might well be held up as a prime example of the secularisation of Christmas: it has never had any religious content, but it was recognised early on as an efficient means of getting whole families into the theatre.

The golden age of panto coincided with the supremacy of theatre as a mass medium - roughly from the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. (Before, it had been largely an upper-class recreation; after, it was displaced by the cinema.) Being an infinitely adaptable form, it could be mounted by any level of theatre. There is a memorable demonstration of what it meant to the Victorian stock and provincial companies in Arthur Pinero's nostalgic play Trelawny of the Wells. Ferdinand Gadd ("a serious actor if ever there was one") is incensed at the suggestion that he should lower himself to play the Demon Discontent. His wife Avonia, an old panto hand, is not encouraging: "I do assure you, as artiste to artiste, that's a rotten part."

After Grimaldi's death the emphasis reverted from comedy to spectacle. But pantomime was reaffirmed as a clown's medium by the emergence in the 1880s of Dan Leno, who is credited, comparatively late in the game, with the creation of the modern pantomime dame. Leno died in 1904. By then the form of panto was set, pretty much in the mould that I witnessed in 1949 and after.

EARLY TELEVISION was highly parasitic on the theatre, and much of my panto experience was derived from outside broadcasts of live shows. Sometimes they were excerpts, but quite often they were whole. Occasionally they were on ice. Always, they were full of songs - the popular tunes of the day. I remember an extremely peripatetic Dick Whittington, or it might have been Aladdin. Whichever it was, the characters sang, a good half- dozen times, that they would all go riding on a rainbow to a new land far away. They even sang this when they were going home, by boat, or possibly by carpet - there was obviously no reasoning with them. One year the BBC mounted a riotous attack on the whole genre, presided over by Eric Sykes and entitled Pantomania or It Was Never Like This. (It was followed within a year, and even more riotously, by Dress Rehearsal or It's Always Like This.) Ralph Reader's Boy Scout Gang Show also managed a nifty panto parody. A clapped-out Prince Charming and Cinders went through an arthritic dance routine ("I go under his arm, he goes under mine") to the tune of "Side by Side": "The children think we are chronic / All they want are the comics". Their rhyming may have been off but the point was valid.

I didn't see a real-life panto again, though, until 1966. I was a fledgling critic, and the Christmas shows were the magazine's way of breaking me in. I got Cinderella at the Palladium with a transformation scene beyond anything I had ever witnessed on the halls. It also had Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott as an original pair of Ugly Sisters. Scott, a master dame (if you follow me), was a really vigorous nasty; Lloyd was a shy spinster who really wanted to be nice to Cinderella but sort of got swept along. They were the acceptable face of television influence. The unacceptable one was an endless series of gags based on commercials, as if these were the only references the kids would recognise.

I also got to see a duff Peter Pan, and was moved to write that the National Theatre should rescue the play with Olivier playing Hook and Joan Plowright as Peter. Nobody listened; and the National Theatre waited some 20 years to do a Christmas show at all. Then it was a Cinderella which played as if the mere idea of the National doing a panto were so delicious that further inspiration was unnecessary. They will have to try again some time, perhaps with a real Victorian script. The RSC had a better idea - actually the modern equivalent of a Victorian idea - when they mounted their own panto on Shakespearian themes and called it The Swan Down Gloves. This had excellent music, and in the late Terry Wood, a vast actor noted for playing wrestlers, absolutely the best Dame I have ever seen. In another RSC extravagance, Poppy, Peter Nichols attempted to subvert panto conventions as an attack on British imperialism - though people, including the author, complained that it was more like a West End musical than a panto. But then pantos these days often do look like musicals.

The best I have seen, though, was a really conscientious attempt to get back to basics: yet another Cinderella at what is now the Prince Edward Theatre but was then (just) the London Casino. They told the story, they worked the jokes, they sang the songs, and they didn't overdose on audience participation. They had Twiggy as Cinders and Nicky Henson as Buttons: both perfect. Wilfred Brambell and Harry H Corbett arrived as the Brokers' Men and did a nifty routine with Twiggy on "Spread a Little Happiness", long before Sting or Denis Lawson discovered it. Roy Kinnear ("Let us de-camp - for a change") and Hugh Paddick were the Uglies. But it didn't find an audience and they had to take it off. ("God," said Kinnear, "I can even close a panto early.") That Cinderella came closest to my platonic ideal of a pantomime, and its failure saddened me. Still, if they can do it once they can do it again. After all, the point of pantomime is, or should be, that you can do anything. !