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
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

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.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible