Panto: Oh yes it is an art form!

Pantomime is just vulgar and superficial - isn't it? Well, only if you think commedia dell'arte and Renaissance traditions are a little low rent, says an aghast Michael Coveney
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In the current pantomime at the Barbican in London, Mark Ravenhill's Dick Whittington & His Cat, there are certain scenes that press familiar buttons in panto lore: the slapstick "slosh" scene in which characters get covered in gunge; the troop of merry citizens dancing by a painted dockside; the principal boy (played by a girl) flashing her thighs and carrying a red bundle with white polka dots; the flying Good Fair; the evil Rat ascending from below in clouds of vapour.

We have grown up with these images, variously derived from the circus, the harlequinade, the Victorian music hall, burlesque and the medieval morality play. As children, the memory of such scenes is indelibly printed on our subconscious, like our first visit to the movies. As grown-ups, we revisit the pantomime with our children, or even without them, to re-enter a world of mystery, colour and enchantment. But where does this all come from? Why are we British so enslaved by our childhood impressions? And why is pantomime such a peculiar, and peculiarly British, phenomenon?

There is another moment at the Barbican, where Sarah the Cook accuses Idle Jack of talking to the fourth wall. A rule had been broken, except in Idle Jack's case his transgression was ironically (to us, not the characters) an obvious one: everyone in pantomime talks directly to the audience all the time. And this is the nub. Pantomime, unlike theatre generally, is an inclusive art form. It has evolved by ignoring conventions while maintaining them; it embraces the audience while bossing them about; it has strict guidelines of plot and narrative while flaunting them at every turn; and it reminds us all the time that the most important people involved are the audience. Which is why all that talk last Christmas from otherwise sensible people such as Simon Callow, Susan Hampshire and Richard Wilson about "revitalising the genre" is such poppycock.

What these notable thespians really meant was that they were going to be appearing in a pantomime (to make lots of money) and therefore it must be seen to be respectable and they must be doing the genre a big favour. To which the only possible response is, oh, no, it isn't, and oh, no, they weren't. The argument arose because a producing hegemony - Qdos, the purveyor of stars and glitter to the provinces these many years - was challenged by the very company, First Family Entertainment, a wing of the Ambassador Theatre Group, for which it supplied the "product". FFE played the "we're-going-to-make-pantomime-great-again" card (it employed Callow, Hampshire and Wilson), but in the end, it was just the same dear old stuff.

Pantomime is tacky. Pantomime is warm beer and chips with brown sauce. Pantomime is the rear end of the theatrical cow, the showbiz rectum of the spectrum. Ian McKellen, who was a brilliant Widow Twankey at the Old Vic for two seasons, was nearer the mark when he said that he loved pantomime because "anything goes".

Pantomime has evolved sideways, messily but always popularly, through our culture, from the moment a male actor played the part of the cook in Dick Whittington at Southwark Fair in 1731. The precedents went right back to the study of Greek and Roman theatre (the term "pantomime" from the Greek means "we can act everything") in the Renaissance, with cross-dressing (caught up in the conventions of Shakespeare's theatre) developed alongside the commedia dell'arte traditions of dance and clowning. Italian and French troupes in London led to the flowering of pantomimes, many based on the Harlequin and Columbine stories, at the two licensed theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane. It wasn't until the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 broke this monopoly and allowed all theatres to present a full range of entertainment (as opposed to "proper" drama) that the modern pantomime took wing.

The path had been beaten by an extraordinary, pivotal figure in the history of pantomime: Joseph Grimaldi, a clown, or pierrot, at Sadler's Wells, then one of the "minor", unlicensed theatres, at the start of the 19th century. Between 1806 and his retirement in 1823, Grimaldi made the clown central to the harlequinade for the first time. He became known as the "Michelangelo of buffoonery" because of his skills as a dancer, acrobat and comedian. His performances contain the root of slapstick, song and Shakespearean parody that later informed the Victorian heyday.

By the mid-1850s, pantomime was exclusively associated with the Christmas season. Our modern Christmas, in fact, along with the pantomime, was one of the Victorians' great inventions. The first principal boy appeared in 1847, the first Widow Twankey in 1861. Just as Grimaldi established the clown in modern pantomime, so the next great figure of the 19th-century panto, Dan Leno, created the modern pantomime dame during the last 20 years of the century. He had begun his career, aged four, as an infant wonder and contortionist, but an accident made him switch from tumbling to dancing and singing. In 1880, he was crowned clog- dancing world champion in Leeds. He was renowned for developing the dame into a fully rounded character, and his alacrity of movement and cheeky vitality were reproduced in modern successors such as Arthur Askey.

Leno appeared in 16 consecutive pantomimes at Drury Lane, often with other huge stars of the day such as Marie Lloyd and Little Tich. The Victorian rhyming burlesque tradition was spliced with music hall to create the peculiarly British genre that remains an unfathomable mystery to Americans and most other Europeans. But the resulting art form was robustly popular, even though the principal- boy strand did not take root until well into the 20th century. Leno died in 1904 - tragically young and losing his mind - the same year that J M Barrie's Peter Pan and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, arguably the most significant plays of the last century, were first performed.

Peter Pan certainly started the idea of a girl playing a boy, with all those reverse sexual frissons of the Elizabethan boy actors playing girls. And both Barrie and Chekhov introduced a modern psychology into the depiction of familial conflict on the stage. Peter Pan remained a favourite Christmas show right through the last century, and it has recently been relaunched as a seasonal entertainment after Trevor Nunn's definitive RSC version in the early 1980s. Pantomime itself received its next big push in the London Palladium shows of the 1950s.

Since then, of course, the popularity of television stars has revitalised the panto. Audiences like to see faces they know. The degree to which an audience claims an actor as its own personal property is a factor always disregarded by opponents of the "celebrity culture" in the casting of panto. The best dames of our time - Danny La Rue, who revolutionised the dame as "a fellah in drag" ("I know what you're thinking, missus," he used to say as he descended the staircase in a crotch-hugging, glittering leotard, draped in feathers: "I wonder where he puts it!"), John Inman, the Northern comedian Joe Black, the Scottish icon Stanley Baxter and, the best dame I ever saw, Les Dawson exist as nightmarish creations but also familiar friends. No one was more lurid than La Rue, but no one was better with small children when they came up on the stage to lisp their identities and pick up a bag of sweets.

One of the best things about the Barbican pantomime this year is the sight of a principal boy, Summer Strallen, who arouses all the right nostalgia for the role made famous by Vesta Tilley and embodied by such modern leggy beauties as Pat Kirkwood, Cilla Black and Anita Harris.Strallen seems to me to be the flamboyantly authentic article, with the right mixture of charm, demureness and unselfconscious sexuality.

These are pleasant thoughts at this time of year, a period I relish for its retreat to honest vulgarity in the theatre and its noise and hubbub in the audience, looking to have a good time with no intellectual strings attached. There will be time enough, and more, to catch up with Ibsen and David Hare when the carnival has left town.