The other characters are a good deal older. Scan the list of pantos at the back of The Stage and you'll see there were nine Mother Geese, 12 Peter Pans, 20 Jack and the Beanstalks and 22 Cinderellas. But even she didn't get around the most. You could see Britain's most popular panto at Aberdeen, Ayr, Bath, Belfast, Bristol, Buxton, Camberley, Cardiff or Colchester. Or Epsom, Grimsby, Halifax, Harlow, Hounslow, Leamington Spa, Liverpool or Nottingham. Or Oldham, Solihull, Southend-on-sea, Tewkesbury, Wolverhampton, Yeovil or York. With 27 productions around the country, Aladdin was almost unmissable.
Judging from the three I saw, Aladdin has metamorphosed since it first appeared at Covent Garden in the 1780s. The story once told by Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights now opens with the stage villain Abanazer standing in a green spotlight. He learns about a magic lamp with eternal powers from an old book. What he wants is world domination. He's first cousin to the baddie in a Bond movie. The front cloth rises and we are in a pretty market place in Peking. A group of dancers welcome us: "In the morning, bright and early/ There is quite a hurlyburly/ In Peking."
Then the Emperor enters. He is Imperial Emperor of China, Porcelain, Pottery and Pots. From here on he is referred to as "your imperial leather", "your imperial chemicals" and "your imperial mints". Whoever wrote this, wrote the jokes in Christmas crackers.
Widow Twankey appears in the first of many gaudy costumes. She is looking for her two sons. One is Wishee Washee. He is the cheekie-chappie, the overgrown schoolboy, the dunce. You can play him any way you like - so long as it's in short trousers. In Hackney, Dennis Waterman pulled a long little-boy-lost face and sang enough numbers to convince us that he wished he had been a rock star. In Basingstoke, Keith Chegwin was doused in egg, flour, milk and slops. You knew he was doing comedy because Cheggers laughs as he delivers a line and laughs as he completes it. His voice was going but nobody was asking for a refund. He'd been the butt of enough jokes. At Windsor, Wishee was Rod Hull and Washee was Emu. Hull is a delicate bird-like figure who pecks his way around the stage picking up laughs like seedcorn. Emu is a pure showbiz - pushy, thin-skinned, doing anything for attention. They make a good team.
Either Twankey or Wishee Washee puts the sweets in the corner and asks the children to shout if anyone goes near them. Then Twankey's other son enters. The first thing you notice about Aladdin is his legs. The tunic stops a few inches below the hips.
Hackney's Aladdin, Patti Boulaye, had hair that ran further down her legs than her costume. Two Chinese policemen, Ping and Pong, try to arrest Aladdin. Twankey remonstrates with them: "Officers, I appeal to you." She pauses. "Perhaps not." Aladdin has fallen in love with Princess Badroulboudour, otherwise known as Princess Bathroomdoor. Twankey worries that if Aladdin has his head chopped off he will have nowhere to put his hat. Aladdin is probably more beautiful than the Princess. He definitely wears sexier tights. The chances are that Aladdin is a children's TV presenter or weather forecaster and the Princess appears in an Australian soap.
We move to Twankey's launderette, where the Aladdin/Bathroomdoor romance hots up. Soon - OK, in 11 scenes' time - they will hold hands. The wicked Abanazar arrives from Thebes with his green spotlight. From here on he is called Have-a- banana or Abbey National. "Abanazar!" he insists, and everybody goes "Bless you!" He offers Aladdin loadsamoney if he will go into the Cave of Magic. Twankey is keen: "Last time I tasted meat was when I bit my tongue." Aladdin enters the cave and rubs the lamp. Downstage there is a small explosion. A puff of smoke rises up. Five yards behind, the Genie of the Lamp leaps in from the wings. Magic cave, magic of theatre.
Aladdin gets rich, builds a palace and acquires a new tunic. It shows just as much leg, but sparkles more. He asks the Emperor for the Princess's hand. "Why not ask for her whole body?" says Twankey. Everyone changes into their best outfit for the wedding, which is also the curtain call. All we need now are a mime, a tap dance, a couple more songs from Dennis Waterman and a few local references - to Orient in Hackney, to the Windsors in Windsor and, in Hampshire, to Peking getting renamed Beijingstoke.
The rule is never to stray far from TV. Every face is from something, even if it's as modest as Rise and Shine, Scratchy & Co and children's cable TV. It's this dependence on TV that gives panto its weird unevenness. Half the people on stage know what they're doing and half don't. There's the young actress from a soap with a mousy voice you could barely hear in a reference library. There are TV presenters who look lost without an autocue. On stage they can't walk or talk or sing or dance or time a gag. They can barely stand still. Suddenly, theatre looks a very cruel medium.
But you are in safe hands when the dame has had a leading role in a TV comedy series by Jimmy Perry and David Croft. Basingstoke had Ian Lavender, formerly Private Pike from Dad's Army. He was almost unrecognisable as a bustlingly chirpy Twankey.
The only time you remembered the wheedling tones of Private Pike, sidling up to John le Mesurier's Seargeant Wilson, was when Twankey tried to get hitched with the Emperor of China, Porcelain, etc. Hackney had Barry Howard, the champion ballrom dancer in Hi-de-Hi. He made a tall, creakily dainty dame, tottering round the stage with enormous breasts that kept bumping into the scenery to the accompaniment of the percussionist. Howard moved with the fragile hauteur of someone balancing a stack of Wedgewood china on his wig. His striptease act, when he takes off more clothes than most people keep in their wardrobe, was one of those sublimely silly routines that takes us back to music hall. Which is where panto should be.
Hackney Empire, E8 (0181 985 2424), today only, 2.30 and 5pm. Basingstoke Anvil (01256 844244), ends today. Windsor Theatre Royal (01753 853888), to 17 Jan.Reuse content