Oh yes they are (still going)

Pantomime has ancient roots. Some of the jokes are pretty old too.

I saw Wee Jimmy Krankie's breasts. Oh yes I did - and it was the second most shocking thing to happen at the panto all night.

Anyone who grew up watching the Krankies on Crackerjack will understand how traumatic it was to catch a (brief) glimpse of what lay beneath the schoolboy's uniform. Those who were too old, too young or too discerning to watch children's television in the early Eighties need to know that the Krankies were a husband and wife comedy team. Frankly, they were a bit odd. She dressed up as a little boy and he played the straight man, whose relationship with the child was never quite explained. The act involved lots of cheesy gags and the distribution of Crackerjack pencils to members of a riotous studio audience.

Their television career ended, without explanation, when the Nineties began. Still, they continue to tour the world, appearing in cabaret (where they first began, with jokes that were a good deal more adult), on cruise liners and, of course, in pantomime. Christmas is the season when stages all over Britain fill up again with polished old troupers like the Krankies who would once have headlined the music halls. Someone has to show the soap stars and Gladiators how to play an audience.

Jeanette and Ian Krankie are appearing in Pinocchio at the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, until well into the New Year. It was before the show, as the 4ft 5in star changed stack heels and velvet body for a costume, that she revealed her chest to me - by accident, and only for a moment.

Once the curtain went up, things got really confusing. Wee Jimmy was playing Pinocchio, but in the middle of a dance routine he/she donned a purple frock and blonde wig and sang Barbie Girl by Aqua. So this was a woman of 50-something pretending to be a schoolboy pretending to be a puppet pretending to be a young girl pretending to be a plastic doll. Post-modernists do it at the panto.

There were enough jokes about Viagra and the Lewinksy affair to make the adults giggle, but most of the humour was older than the theatre. The show was written by Russel Lane, who has also put words in the mouths of Jim Davidson, Little & Large and Russ Abbot. "They call him Memory Lane because he knows all the old gags," said Ian Krankie, an affable fellow of normal size.

He wasn't wrong. The first most shocking thing to happen all night was when the Irish comic Jimmy Cricket, who also used to have his own television series, stepped forward and asked a paying audience: "What's the closest thing to silver?" It can't be, I thought, looking around at an auditorium packed with under-12s and their grandparents. But it was. "The Lone Ranger's bum." Most of those children must have had no idea why they were laughing. Still, the word "bum" is always funny.

For many this was their first experience of live theatre. Before the curtain went up, two young brothers in identical plaid shirts sat absolutely still and drank in the atmosphere. Later, when the beautiful Blue Fairy (played by a presenter from the Scottish TV show Skoosh) asked the audience to blow hard in order to release Pinocchio from a cage, the boys went red with the effort and had to be restrained from leaning right over the balcony. "The children don't know me any more," Jeanette Krankie had said. "But they still warm to it. They identify with the character."

We all identify with the characters in pantomime. Some academics say it taps into the same primal urges as the ancient Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia, which featured a great deal of cross-dressing. The word itself is derived from pantomimus, the Roman name for any performer who used movement, gesture and masks to play all the characters in a scene from history or mythology, while a chorus sang the story in Greek. That performance was a predecessor of the modern dumb-show, the name of which has been shortened to "mime" to distinguish it from the Christmas panto.

The meaning of the English word pantomime has changed several times over the centuries. At first it meant the player of several parts, then in the 18th century became associated with the French ballets-pantomimes, wordless stories told in dance.

The British were also entertained at the time by versions of the Italian commedia dell'arte, which involved actors playing stock characters in masks and costume, improvising around sketchy plots. One of those characters was called Arlecchino, developed by English actors into the mischievous Harlequin, a trickster usually visible only to his love Columbine. The harlequinade (which was also called a pantomime) involved a curtain-raiser based on mythological or folk tales, which ended with the magical transformation of two lovers into Harlequin and Columbine. The main performance that followed was based on their efforts to escape from Columbine's father and his servant.

The curtain-raisers became so popular in the 19th century that they were extended, until the harlequinade itself became nothing more than an epilogue (which would eventually be abandoned completely in the 1940s). Actresses were engaged to play the chief male role, or principal boy, and mature comedians dressed up as women to create dames. One of the best, in Aladdin, was Widow Twankey, who was named after a Chinese port and described in 1844 as "a washerwoman with mangled feelings".

Fairy tales like Cinderella and Red Riding Hood provided the plots, which were an excuse for the cast to indulge in singing, dancing, slapstick, improvisation, satire and audience participation. Each show included at least one set-piece transformation scene in which ordinary, plain people were pitched into a fantastic, enchanted world - such as when the Fairy Godmother turned Cinderella into the belle of the ball and a pumpkin into a glittering coach.

Although staged in West End theatres, the shows were perfect vehicles for the stars of the hugely popular music hall scene around the turn of the century. Greats like Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd appeared in pantomimes, which opened on Boxing Day and often lasted until April, while other actors specialised in them and barely made a living for the rest of the year.

Wireless, the cinema and then television finished off music hall, but pantomime imported stars from those other media to boost ticket sales. The English panto did suffer in the decades immediately after the Second World War, when the thigh-slapping, principal-boy parts were sometimes played by male pop singers, but in Scotland the form was stronger than ever.

The Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow was famous for its elaborate pantomimes, including one called The Tintock Cup that ran from December 1950 to the following May, starring Stanley Baxter. He was one of a number of old- style comedians like Rikki Fulton and Jimmy Logan who translated their continuing popularity in Scottish variety theatre into sell-out performances as panto dames. Scots who would not dream of going to a play for the rest of the year crammed in to see these comics, who understood them and spoke their own language, dressing up and taking the mickey out of their own culture.

They still do. Scottish panto is far more likely to star a familiar face from High Road than from Neighbours. Stanley Baxter hung up his wig in 1991, but the tradition of broad Glaswegian comedy has been continued by a new generation of performers like Elaine C Smith, star of Rab C Nesbitt, who is currently playing Sleeping Beauty's nanny at the King's. The Citizen's Theatre is staging Merlin the Magnificent this Christmas, while other venues offer more traditional pantos like Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Aladdin and of course, Pinocchio.

The Pavilion Theatre, which receives no subsidy, describes itself as "the last stronghold of a long music hall tradition in Europe's City of Culture, owing everything to a dedicated staff and patrons and nothing to the public purse". The building has been much battered since it opened in 1904, but the domed ceiling, rococo plasterwork and marble mosaic floor remain, as does the electric mechanism that can slide the roof back on a warm day.

The backdrops are simple and bold, the costumes bright and the tickets cheap. They are also going fast, like the luminous laser wands and Pinocchio noses on sale in the foyer. "We get the real street people in here," said Ian Krankie. "Glasgow people." He was one of them, and actually met his wife at the Pavilion in 1965. Ian was an electrician and Jeanette a comic's side-kick, but they formed a double act on stage as well as in life, and have done well enough to buy a flat in London, a house in Torquay and a boat. "In this theatre they talk back to you. You've got to tell some of the English performers not to invite comment from the audience if you don't want it back. This is the place where [a famous Cockney comic] was dying on his backside and he said, 'What's wrong with you people? What makes you laugh?' And someone out there said, 'A comedian, pal.' " The story must be apocryphal, but it illustrates the truth behind the reason Max Miller gave for never having played the Glasgow Empire: "I'm a comic, not a missionary."

The Krankies also felt daunted, but for an entirely different reason. They lived in England and their act went down well in northern English cities like Newcastle and Sunderland - "we've never done well in the Home Counties" - but Glasgow was still home. And whenever they appeared there, some of the all-time Scottish greats whose names appeared on old framed posters all around the Pavilion had a habit of coming to see how the youngsters were doing. Jimmy Logan was due in that night. "You do feel you're on trial in front of your peers every time you come up here."

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album