Miles Kington: You can turn anything into a pantomime if you try

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The Independent Online

The nearest we get to chatting about culture in the pub, usually, is discussing last night's telly. So it came as a bit of a shock when someone said they had been to the theatre the other day. It was the lady with the green/brown hairdo. (She has recently reverted to whisky mac as her favourite winter tipple, and tinted her hair accordingly. Or at least given her coiffeuse some imprecise instructions to tint her hair accordingly.) She had been to Bristol for an evening out.

"I say it was the theatre," she said. "It was a panto, actually. A production of Rapunzel."

"Rapunzel?" said the man with the dog. "That's not a pantomime! That's a fairy story!"

"So?" said the lady. "You might just as well say that Mother Goose is a fairy story! And Cinderella! But they're pantomimes as well. You can turn anything into a pantomime if you try hard enough. So why not a fairy story? Even if it is just named after a flower?"

"Flower?" said the man with the dog. "You're going too fast for me. What flower?"

"Rapunzel," said the lady with muddy green/brown hair. "I didn't know this, but rapunzel is a flower. The heroine of Rapunzel, that is to say Rapunzel, is given that name by the wicked witch after one of the herbs in her garden."

"What herb?"

"Rapunzel," said the lady patiently, though not so patiently as before. "In this fairy story. Made into a pantomime. By the Knee High Company. From Cornwall. Who are on tour. And have got as far as Bristol."

"I have heard of them," said the resident Welshman from his corner table. "They must be quite famous if I have heard of them. But I have never heard of a herb called rapunzel. I have never read a recipe which said, Take a few mixed herbs such as basil, coriander, mint and rapunzel. I am on the side of the man with the dog here. I don't think there is such a thing."

All eyes swivelled to the landlord. Behind him, on a dusty shelf, he keeps a basic reference library which helps him to clear up disputes in the pub. He looked at it. It was all dates and quotes and names of planets and people who had won Oscars, and how to rig a ketch... Ah!

"Food for Free, by Richard Mabey?" he suggested. "A book on European wild flowers?"

"Fine," said the Welshman. "Hand them over."

The books were handed to him. It is an old pub tradition that the person actually asking the question doesn't look up the answer. Does away with the temptation to cheat.

"Rapunzel exists all right," he announced after a couple of minutes. "The English name for it is rampion."

"Rampion?" said the lady. "I thought that was the smart name for wild garlic?"

"No, that's ransoms," said the Major, desperately pleased to know something.

"Mabey says that rampion is very rare now," said the Welshman. "It must have been popular once, because it featured in so many recipes pre-1700 and so few afterwards. The flower was blue. You could eat the leaves. And the roots. Ah, and the Latin name was Campanula rapunculus..."

"Rapunculus!" said the Major. "There's your link! Rapunculus! Rapunzel!"

"Mabey, baby, you're the one..." sang the lady, for no apparent reason.

"Still, I'm not sure that we should really use a German name for an English flower," said the Major.

"Why ever not?" said the Welshman. "I think the Germans have got the right idea. They're down to earth, like us. Not like the French. I mean, take the French word for 'forget-me-not'. It's 'Myosotis'. What kind of word is that? I'll tell you. It's Greek. Posh. Pretentious. In German, they say 'vergissmeinnicht'. 'Forget-me-not'. Same as us. Of the earth, earthy. The French are poncy. Of the ponce, poncy."

"Where does the word 'poncy' come from?" said the green/ brown lady, curiously.

The landlord reached for the big Jonathon Green dictionary of modern slang which we often refer to, and that was the last we heard of Rapunzel.