There's nothing like a dame: Panto gets serious

Panto is in the rudest of health. Oh yes it is... Robert Hanks celebrates this uniquely British tradition, which is increasingly attracting the stars of serious theatre
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The Independent Culture

If Gordon Brown is serious about promoting symbols of Britishness, can I suggest that he gets out to the theatre over the next few weeks to enjoy the panto season? Pantomime is one of our most characteristic traditions: alone among art forms, it is exclusively British. No other nation has felt it worth its while to import the tradition; put off, no doubt, by the peculiar local taste for poor jokes and cross-dressing.

At the same time, pantomime transcends our own national boundaries, being enjoyed in Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast as much as in London or Birmingham. And it is genuinely traditional, with its roots in the Italian commedia dell'arte that first arrived in this country in the late 16th century. Yet it is always renewing itself with new stars and topical jokes.

Panto is inclusive, abolishing distinctions between swells and hoi polloi, black and white, men and women, straight and gay. And it comes ready equipped with a suitable national motto: wouldn't "Oh no it isn't" look good engraved on your passport, with its overtones of communal solidarity (because we all shout it together) and of the healthy scepticism that is our island birthright?

At one time, of course, to be associated with pantomime would have been disastrous for a politician – Gordon Brown himself has been compared with Baron Hardup a number of times, and not in a nice way. But since Sir Ian McKellen first played Widow Twankey at the Old Vic three years ago, panto has become increasingly respectable, even classy. Last year, the Barbican in the City of London followed the Old Vic with its first panto – Dick Whittington, written by Mark (Shopping and F***ing) Ravenhill; this year, Jonathan (Beautiful Thing) Harvey is following in his footsteps with Jack and the Beanstalk, while the Old Vic has a Cinderella written by Stephen Fry.

And the calibre of stars prepared to appear in panto has risen sharply. Proper theatre types such as Simon Callow and Richard Wilson have started showing up, and recent shows have been invigorated by an infusion of American celebrity. After a successful panto debut as Hook in Peter Pan at Wimbledon last year, Henry Winkler, the former Fonz, is reprising the role at Woking (where, last year, the lucky punters got Patrick Duffy of Dallas and The Man From Atlantis fame as Baron Hardup in Cinderella). Paul Michael Glaser, the original Starsky, is losing his panto virginity, also playing Hook, at the Churchill in Bromley (Antonio Fargas, the original Huggy Bear, is practically a panto slut – this year he's in Jack and the Beanstalk in Derby). Most startling of all, at the Sunderland Empire, Baron Hardup is to be played by the 87-year-old Mickey Rooney.

All in all, the world of panto is looking unusually fresh and healthy. These are not words that are often written; complaining that panto is going downhill is part of the tradition. In his history of pantomime, "Oh Yes It Is!", Gerald Frow quoted 19th-century laments for the decline of the form – in 1831, Leigh Hunt moaned that "pantomimes are not what they were".

One thing this proves is that nostalgia is part of the fabric of panto. Parents take their children because they were taken themselves, and, if my experience is anything to go by, enjoy it a lot more the second time around. They go for familiar stories, familiar jokes, familiar faces from TV (in the case of Winkler and Glaser, from the TV of 30 years ago).

Just because you're nostalgic, though, doesn't mean that things never get worse. In the Sixties, panto was still a big deal. In 1964, at the height of his fame, Cliff Richard found it worth his while to play Aladdin, with all four Shadows in support as Wishee, Washee, Noshee and Poshee. But a decline set in in the 1970s, with budgets squeezed and an over-reliance on TV celebrities with minimal relevant experience (it sometimes felt as though the British panto had become a giant pension scheme for ex-stars of Neighbours). With crummy sets, dreadful, irrelevant pop-songs and jokes too lousy even to groan at, the commercial panto often left you feeling slightly grubby and ashamed, as if you'd been watching some sordid porn film.

Panto hasn't been entirely laundered; those who still hanker for that kind of thing can find Faye Tozer from Steps in Aladdin at Newcastle, or Brian Conley in Cinderella at High Wycombe ("A pumpkin full of entertainment" shrieks the poster, directly under his name; I should have a word with my agent about that, Brian).

And I don't want to pretend that it's only the Ravenhills and McKellens who do good panto – regional venues such as the Theatre Royal in York have been setting the standard for years.

But there's definitely more talent and more confidence in the form now. The reasons are partly commercial; the scene is dominated by two large production houses, Qdos and First Family Entertainment, who between them have pushed up levels of investment.

But it seems, too, that panto is filling a cultural gap. The success of television shows such as Doctor Who has demonstrated a renewed hunger for family entertainment (and Who fans will already know that John Barrowman – Captain Jack Harkness – will be celebrating this Christmas by playing Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome, alongside Don Maclean of Crackerjack and Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday).

But on top of that, panto offers a safe, neutral space; safe not just for audiences, but for the writers and actors. It's intriguing that Ravenhill, a man known for plays containing, in his own phrase, "blood, sperm and all things brutal", found in the transvestism and double-entendres of panto an outlet for a rather sweet and charming side to his nature (though there were one or two risqué lubrication jokes); while McKellen could put aside his years of campaigning for gay rights and just have a ball in drag.

Pantomime, then, is showing signs of being the drama par excellence of the 21st century, one that connects all parts of our society and our history, and doesn't feel like an exercise in piety. Mr Brown, sign up to the project now: the nation needs to see your Twankey.

These are behind us...

By Elisa Bray

Worst panto joke

Why are pirates called pirates? Because they arrr...

Most popular panto

The most popular titles are now Peter Pan and Cinderella, while titles such as Goody Two Shoes and Puss In Boots are hardly performed.

Origins of Panto

These date back to the Middle Ages and to Italian commedia dell'arte.

First panto in Britain

On 22 December 1716, Lincoln's Inn Theatre, London put on Harlequin Sorcerer. It was the first in a series to be staged by the actor-manager John Rich.

First performances

In 1773 the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane presented Jack the Giant Killer. The first Cinderella stage production was at Drury Lane in 1804, but the first recognisable story-led version came later to Covent Garden in 1820 as an Easter pantomime. Buttons and the Ugly Sisters appeared in 1860.

Early panto favourite

Harlequin was a central feature of pantomime up to the 20th century.

Most surprising panto

For its first pantomime in its 25-year existence, last year London's Barbican Theatre commissioned the controversial author Mark Ravenhill to write Dick Whittington & His Cat. The result exceeded all expectations, achieving a box-office income of £500,000 and an audience of more than 36,000.

Best Dame

Sir Ian McKellen raised eyebrows when he played Widow Twankey in the Old Vic's production of Aladdin. The performance was hailed one of the most compelling theatrical experiences of the year. The production broke the theatre's box-office record.

Panto disaster

In the 2004 Jack and the Beanstalk at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow, the 4ft 5in Janette Tough, playing the schoolboy Wee Jimmy Krankie , was badly injured when her 10ft beanstalk collapsed.

Most profitable panto

Birmingham Hippodrome has boasted the most prestigious panto for more than 30 years. This year's Aladdin will gross more than £1,750,000 in five weeks. It stars John Barrowman, the TV comedian Don Maclean, The Grumbleweeds, Masashi Fujimoto, Lila McConigley, Pete Gallagher, Daleks, and a 3D genie.

Most advanced effect

A 3D genie debuted in Bradford's Aladdin last year – the audience wore special glasses. It cost £140,000 to develop and £40,000 to £50,000 per run.

Most unlikely stars

George Takei, Mr Sulu from Star Trek, was a genie in Aladdin in Reading in 1987. When he shouted "yoo-hoo", the audience responded " yoo-hoo Sulu". In 2005 Nadia Almada from Big Brother (below) was an unlikely mermaid in a version of Peter Pan at Southampton's Mayflower Theatre.

No leg to stand on

In Lincoln in 2006 the normally one-legged Long John Silver appeared with two legs. The audience voted with their feet.

****

The top six pantos this christmas

By Elisa Bray

Peter Pan

Henry Winkler – Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli in Happy Days – plays Captain Hook. This is the Golden Globe Award-winning actor's second panto appearance – his first was replacing David Hasselhoff last year when the Hoff took a TV role offered by Simon Cowell. Clare Buckfield of Dancing on Ice plays Peter Pan.

New Victoria Theatre, Woking, 8 December – 13 January (0871 297 5466)

Aladdin

Don your 3D specs to see a cartoon genie appear among the actors. This panto's written and directed by Paul Elliott, choreographed by Paul Robinson and stars John Barrowman, the TV comedian Don Maclean, the Grumbleweeds, Masashi Fujimoto, Lila McConigley, Pete Gallagher and some Daleks.

Birmingham Hippodrome, 19 December – 27 January (0870 730 1234)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Former EastEnders star Ross Kemp plays the villainous Henchman, while Bobby Davro, Harry Potter actor Warwick Davis and the winner of BBC Radio 2's Voice of Musical Theatre 2006 competition, Aimie Atkinson, also take the stage.

New Wimbledon Theatre, London SW19, 7 December – 20 January (0871 297 5474)

Jack and the Beanstalk

After the success of the Barbican's first pantomime, Dick Whittington, last year, this year's show promises flying fairies, slapstick and frivolous fun. Expect humour beyond the usual gags, as it's penned by Jonathan Harvey, responsible for Closer to Heaven, Beautiful Thing, Boom Bang-A-Bang and Gimme Gimme Gimme. Starring Mel Giedroyc (Mel and Sue) as Fairy Liquid, Steve Furst (Little Britain) as the wicked Beastly Boris and ex-Hear'Say member Suzanne Shaw as Princess Melody. Andy Gray is Dame Dolly Deluxe.

Barbican Theatre, London EC2,1 December – 12 January (020-7638 8891)

Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs

The caustic comedian Jenny Eclairis the Voice of the Mirror in this production, which also stars the EastEnders actress Leila Birch and Martin Johnston as the Henchman.

Towngate Theatre, Basildon, 6 December – 6 January (01268 465465)

Cinderella

At the age of 87, the Hollywood star Mickey Rooney (left) makes his pantomime debut. He plays Baron Hardup, alongside Les Dennis as the luckless hero Buttons, Liberty X's Michelle Heaton as Cinderella and Andy Scott Lee as Prince Charming. The former Emmerdale actor Dale Meeks is Dandini and his wife Jan is the Fairy Godmother. The Sunderland Empire celebrates its centenary this year.

Sunderland Empire, 8 December – 6 January (0844 847 2499)

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