I don't believe it... How panto went upmarket

Pantomime, for so long just a bad joke, has become respectable this year with top actors, writers and directors lending their names - and artistic credibility - to the genre
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Out-of-work actors, fading soap stars, comedians and local radio DJs have always regarded the pantomime season with hungry eyes. The annual cross-dressing pun-fest also provides a welcome boost to the coffers of Britain's theatres.

But for serious lovers of the dramatic arts, the typical Christmas fare of Aladdin, Puss in Boots or Jack and the Beanstalk marks the annual nadir in the theatrical calendar.

This year, however, pantomime is enjoying an unprecedented degree of artistic respectability as some of the most respected actors, writers and directors lend their names and talents to new productions of old favourites.

The man responsible for taking the panto upmarket is Sir Ian McKellen. His portrayal of Widow Twankey at the Old Vic in 2004-5 was hailed by the critics as one of the most compelling theatrical experiences of the year. His Aladdin broke the theatre's box office record as well as attracting a new audience to a dramatic form that was slipping badly out of fashion with the theatre-going middle classes. Observers said they had never seen so many black cabs full of children pulling up at its box office in south London.

Sir Ian's bold experiment will be repeated this year, as he teams up once again with the award-winning director Sean Mathias for a second season of Aladdin at the Old Vic. A clutch of other theatres have learnt the lessons of last year's success at Waterloo and will be following suit.

Richard Wilson, who has just directed a new play for the Royal Court theatre, will play Baron Hardup in Cinderella in Wimbledon, south London, while Simon Callow is set to play the panto villain Abanazar in Aladdin in Richmond, west London. The Old Vic in Bristol is staging the world premiere of Philip Pullman's Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp. Meanwhile, John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli the dwarf in The Lord of the Rings, will also play Abanazar in Aladdin in Woking. It is the first time he has appeared in pantomime since his first season as an actor in 1969.

Rhys-Davies is among big names lured into rejuvenating Christmas shows by a new company, First Family Entertainment (FFE), which brings together two of the largest theatre owning and producing companies in Britain, Clear Channel Entertainment and Ambassador Theatre Group. Their aim is to return to a type of pantomime more firmly rooted in the tradition of the great 19th century theatrical clown Joseph Grimaldi, rather than the coarse humour of the current casts consisting of reality TV cast-offs and Z-list celebrities.

Purists may point out that the parachuting in of celebrity guest stars is nothing new, dating back to the late 19th century, when Augustus Harris, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, hired well-known variety artistes for his pantomimes.

His shows were hugely popular, and marked a renaissance for an art form that began in Restoration England as a vague copy of Italy's Commedia dell'arte but was by then dying out. This time, according to Wilson, a theatre director and actor, it is the promise of better-written scripts and proper budgets that could be prompting another of panto's rebirths.

"I always said I would never do pantomime, but I was persuaded it might be a good thing," he said. "It's hard work but it's only five weeks so I thought I might as well have a shot. I might never do it again, but it's worth having a go."

Susan Hampshire, who will co-star as a fairy godmother, said she hoped that good pantomime, rather than ones "full of television jokes", might encourage more young people to go to the theatre.

"People are reassessing pantomime and realising how important it is as a child's first experience. But it must appeal to grown-ups too, and be proper family entertainment. It should be good quality," she said. "I'm quite excited to be part of it. I think people for a long time have been thinking they should revitalise panto, and I suppose Ian McKellen doing it made everybody get their act together."

Rhys-Davies admits that it took him some convincing to overcome his prejudice against the form. "I never liked pantomime because I used to take my two children and it was so camp and so suggestive and so packed with sexual innuendo that I really resented it. The last thing I want to have to do is try to explain these things to a puzzled eight-year-old," he said."When I got offered this I said no, because panto is so tacky and awful I didn't want to do it. But it's pretty clear these guys [FFE] really want to reinvigorate the tradition of panto, so I got turned around in my opinion."

The antidote to children growing up "like feral animals" was families doing magical things together to open up children's imagination, he said. "Panto's been dead on its feet. Instinctively, if you're a working actor, you shy away from it. But we can turn it around and raise the stakes."

According to Mathias, directing a traditional pantomime while maintaining high standards of artistic integrity is fraught with pitfalls. "It was a living nightmare," he said. "This is one of the hardest disciplines I have ever come to. I was there to try to protect the story and be the arbiter of taste. You want to appeal to adults by making it sophisticated and edgy, but you don't want to exclude the children. It has to be vulgar but charming as well. Trying to keep it rooted in the Victorian tradition of storytelling but still bring something new to it."

He admits that Kevin Spacey, the director of the Old Vic, was "deeply bewildered" by the concept of pantomime - an art form which has failed to take root in the United States or anywhere else in the world except Canada and Australia. Sir Ian assured him that it encapsulated everything that was good about performance. "So many disparate elements of theatre are on display - magical scenery, dance and song and rhyme, cross-dressing, audience participation, soliloquy - often stretching back to Shakespeare and the origins of Western theatre tradition and yet unique to Britain," said Sir Ian.

Philip Pullman, whose National Theatre production of His Dark Materials broke new boundaries in children's theatre, believes youngsters are poorly treated by society in general and the theatre in particular. "We don't know how to deal with youngsters in this country; we test them, drill them, label them and give them facetious rubbish for entertainment," he said recently. "Children are so amenable, so willing to be pleased, that they will applaud poor stuff if they are not given anything better; but they don't need smutty innuendo, they need real wit. They don't need poverty-stricken language, they need beautiful language. We should not compromise one inch in what we give to them," added the former English teacher.

However, there are those who believe talk of a profound change in the British pantomime is overstated. Nick Thomas is managing director of Qdos, Britain's biggest pantomime-producing company with an annual turnover in excess of £30m. He is particularly scathing about the claims of First Family Entertainment: "Pantomime is to make people laugh, and some of these people have about as much chance of making you laugh as I have," he said. "This is pompous tosh and it's insulting to the likes of Lily Savage, Brian Conley and Julian Clary who have put millions of pounds into the box offices of the Ambassador Theatre Group."

The new First Family Entertainment line-up was not devoid of the kind of performers it appeared to be criticising, he added. Alongside Callow and Wilson, the casts include the model Caprice and entertainers such as Bobby Davro and Christopher Biggins. And to be sure, traditional stalwarts such as cross-dressing, girls as principal boys and lots of audience participation will still be on the agenda in all the shows.

"You can't reinvent the wheel. Panto's been going for nearly 300 years. When it began, it was with boxers and wrestlers and clowns."

So could it be that a tradition which has been filling theatres since the days when David Garrick bowed to popular pressure to stage his own "Harlequinade" at his Lincoln Inn Fields Theatre is to be transformed? Or could be that the future really does lie - in the best tradition of pantomime - behind us.?


The star of One Foot in the Grave appears in this First Family Entertainment pantomime. Wilson has earned critical acclaim for his portrayals of Uncle Vanya in Uncle Vanya and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. It's likely his catchphrase, "I don't believe it", will be heard.


Last year's sell-out success set an Old Vic box office record and helped re-establish the credibility of the pantomime as an art form. This year, Sir Ian returns as Widow Twankey along with Roger Allam as Abbanazar and Frances Barber as Dim Sum. Sean Matthias directs.


The author of the award-winning His Dark Materials turns his pen to one of the best-known pantomimes in the British theatre. Described as a vivid retelling of the most famous story from the Arabian Nights, Pullman's play promises an intelligent and compelling theatrical experience.


The Forsyte Saga's Susan Hampshire downshifts from high drama to play the Fairy Godmother alongside Richard Wilson in Wimbledon. Previous starring roles include Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair and more recently on stage in The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett.