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."