Panto is dead? Oh no it isn't]: The big-city stage is now the territory of sports heroes and soap stars. If it's traditional entertainment you want, try the village hall, says Peter Dunn

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John Surry, a retired languages don at Winchester College, sits at home in the seaside village of Burton Bradstock in Dorset, fine-tuning political jokes while his wife, Marion, runs up his dresses, nice little spangly numbers that have been known to show the occasional flash of academic calf.

Not, one should hasten to add, that Mr Surry has become a cause for concern. For this is pantomime time once more in villages the length and breadth of England and Mr Surry is to play Dame Ammonia Goodbody in Sleeping Beauty, a lavish production to be staged, as usual, in the Women's Institute Hall. Tickets go on sale tomorrow in the village post office. Elbows will be bruised as locals queue to guarantee a sell-out for the week's run, starting on 7 February.

Mr Surry's knockabout performance, with Mike Read (retired from Lloyds Bank in Bridport) playing Tickles, is eagerly awaited. He got the taste for playing pantomime dames in the dons' quinquennial pantos at Winchester - 'I tended to give a very Hitler-type impression' - and is famous far beyond Burton Bradstock for the political barbs he writes into his lines in the official script.

'Teaching is a performance art anyway,' he says. 'Being up on stage in front of people and trying to make them laugh is very similar to teaching modern languages - but no marking, thank goodness.

'I like to pitch my dames halfway between the very feminine style of Danny La Rue and the crude, bearded, thoroughly noisy type. One has a few little basic things, like pouting, but nothing that makes anyone in the village think 'Oh, yes '

'A village pantomime entertains children, of course, but I think you have to bear in mind that its major audience is adult and relatively sophisticated. I mean, they read broadsheet newspapers like the Telegraph. When I played Mae South-West in Mother Goose, one of the things the Dorset Evening Echo picked out is how many topical references we had - national, not just private village ones.

'It's no doubt predominantly a Conservative village but you can get away with quite a lot. I've always felt it's absolutely fair game to criticise people who have power. I've one or two betes noires. John Gummer for one. And Jeffrey Archer. I've quoted Clive Anderson's remark to him, 'Is there no beginning to your talents?' Michael Howard's going to get a bit this year - a most oily specimen.

'I once told a joke in Cinderella when I was one of the Ugly Sisters. Richard Shepherd had tried to introduce a Freedom of Information Bill with a three-line whip, so I said, on horseback, 'We'll stop. I've lost my three-line whip. Whatever shall we do if we meet a shepherd?' I had to explain this one quite a lot to the lighting man, but I like to keep the audience alert, particularly if I've got colleagues coming down from Winchester to see the show.'

The rise of Burton Bradstock's village pantomime is part of a general revival in live Christmas theatre across rural and small-town England. Some feel that this is partly due to the debasement of big-city pantos, which have come to be dominated by soap-opera stars and sporting celebrities.

Val Gale and her husband, Brian, who both had experience in the London theatre, gave the Burton pantomime its professional sparkle in the late Eighties. She says: 'Big stars nearly killed the pantomime in the professional world. It was like variety with a different name. And anything goes there these days.

'I'm not a prude but I do feel that pantomime is family. And that's the beauty of these village productions. They're clean, as they damned well should be, and you can put in all those little extras. I remember Brian introduced ultraviolet light to Burton, similar to the Black Theatre in Prague. Of course, it took their breath away.'

Evidence of the revival in rural theatre is provided by Dorset Community Council's first village panto competition, which has drawn 29 entries. Felicity Lewis, one of the organisers, is dazzled by what she had seen so far. 'We've just been judging four pantos and all of them were Aladdin, isn't that gorgeous?' she says. 'The thing was, you couldn't have seen four more different productions. West Lulworth was completely OTT and they got right away from tradition. Their Dame was female and their genie was Irish. And Chideock was lovely, lovely, with a Chinese Aladdin.'

Another of the pantomimes she has seen was Willie and his Magic Egg, at Shillingstone, with 31 children in it. 'Myra Wood, the director, who wrote it herself, must have been nuts. Oh, it was lovely. They all piled on to the stage. There simply wasn't room to move. It was like a cocktail party on the Isle of Wight. The kids were fairies, or candles, or fishes. There were crabs, lobsters and starfish, all home-grown. I should think every mother in Shillingstone had been sewing for weeks.

'Winterborne Stickland had a very short pantomime but I've never seen anything move so fast. They had their usual piano piece and WI choir and this dragon that came up through the hall.

'Village panto was a thriving tradition in the Fifties. They used to take them to other villages in the old mummers' tradition, and all that's hitting again today. I think it's thriving because people move out of the cities and want more entertainment, and can bring with them an extraordinary range of talents.

'Every production is special to each village. People go because so-and-so's in it and he's dressed up as a woman. It's all very precious to them. If you're writing your own script you've got to be a bit chary - to know the ones you can tease. All these interrelationships; you can insult one person and then find it's your cousin.

'They can also have a great healing effect on rifts. One of our locals wouldn't set foot in the village hall for years because of some rows she'd had. Then she came along to the panto and said, 'Isn't that nice?' '

Mrs Gale remembers the tears and joys of village panto with great affection. 'The village pantomime is a wonderful thing,' she says. 'Try travelling to London from Dorset or anywhere else these days and it's an impossibly expensive item. So village children could be denied a marvellous experience.

'In a village it doesn't matter how humble your pantomime is. It's the magic of live theatre in all its glory; and that's the way, perhaps the only way, that children are going to have the doors open to them for the first time in their lives.'

(Photographs omitted)

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