You shall go to the ball - but don't expect to live happily ever after

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As the pantomime season is approaching again, I want to tell you a true story.

Two years ago my wife and I were invited to a charity dinner in the Guildhall in Bath. It had been arranged by a local restaurant tycoon called Ahmed Chowdhury, who was raising funds for a hospital back in Bangladesh, and although I do not attend many charity events, being a mean-minded and suspicious person, there must have been some reason why we decided to go to this particular one. Perhaps it was the influence of my wife, who is a warm-hearted and generous person.

We found ourselves seated at a large round table where all the seats were taken but two. These were empty, explained Mr Chowdhury to us, because they were expecting the two stars from the local pantomime to come along after the performance and grace at least the pudding course with their presence. The pantomime referred to was the one at the Bath Theatre Royal, which my wife and I had not been to see, on the grounds that the one at the Bristol Old Vic is usually better value.

I don't mean by this that Bristol is better value than Bath, necessarily, but that the Bristol Old Vic panto is a genuine local product, usually devised by local performer and top-class panto dame Chris Harris, and full of old-fashioned sight gags, digs at the Welsh and other local jokes rather than references to TV. If you want TV references and guest celebrities, you can always go to the Bristol Hippodrome or Bath Theatre Royal, where most of the parts are played by people I have never heard of from TV sitcoms, or, even worse, people I have heard of. One year recently in Bath they got Rolf Harris to play Buttons. They got him about 30 years too late.

Another year in Bristol they hired Frank Bruno to play Robin Hood. I am all in favour of casting against race, but casting against talent is another thing even if it did lead to the best line in the show, when one of the Merrie Men reacted to the approach of danger by saying: "Now is the time to act, Robin!" and Frank Bruno said, "Don't look at me, then.")

Well, the prince and the princess did show up eventually, and a nice young pair they were too. You might expect them to keep their distance from each other out of working hours, but I am told by actors that love on-stage is very often followed by romance off-stage as well, and what was charming was that the two of them had obviously fallen in love during the course of the show.

He was a young English actor I had never heard of. She was a young Australian actress who had made a name for herself in Neighbours, though what the name she had made for herself was I cannot tell you as I have never seen Neighbours. But I know they were in love because he told me so and she nodded happily in agreement.

"After the show has ended we're going round the world together," he said. "We're just going to take off and hold hands round the world."

She nodded happily again and said this was so, and they were going to be happy for ever and ever. I said that falling in love during the run of a pantomime was not the best basis for lifelong happiness and that when the greasepaint had worn off and the happy cries of the matinee audiences had faded, it might be a different matter. They assured me that it was not so, and said they were so sure that it was the real thing that one day they would come back together and prove it.

Well, time passed. The dinner came to an end. The panto came to the end of its run some time well into the next year. Winter turned to spring, Bath rugby team got to Twickenham yet again for the Cup Final and we got a postcard from Heidelberg in Germany saying: "The fairy tale is still alive and well and we are both very happy", signed The Prince and The Princess. For a moment I couldn't think what this meant, as the style didn't sound like that of any of my friends, but my wife remembered the careless words of the pantomime prince, who had indeed taken our address, and deduced that he had kept his promise, as you would expect a prince to do.

Thereafter we got postcards at lengthy but regular intervals, about once every five months. One from France, I think. One from Italy. One from the other side of the world somewhere. There were always signed The Prince and The Princess. There was never any name or address, so there was never any way of replying or congratulating them.

We got the last one a month or two back, from California.

It was signed just by The Prince this time.

It said: `The fairy tale is over."

Nothing else.

Sad, I suppose. But the fairy tale had lasted a lot longer than any pantomime ever does.

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