There’s something about December’s tidal wave of pantomimes that brings out the naysayers: they’re too adult, too childish, too vulgar or too dull, but above all, they’re never what they used to be. I took a deep dive into panto’s annals, and soon discovered that this emotive topic has stirred up centuries of theatre critics into nostalgic furies. Here’s a brief critical history of an ever-evolving, ever-ridiculous, ever-faintly-disappointing genre.
Eighteenth century and Regency Pantomimes
Panto started, of course, with the stock characters of the Italian commedia del arte. Harlequin loves Columbine, but her greedy father Pantaloon tries to separate the pair in league with Clown, agent of large-trousered chaos. An airy spectacle of mime and slapstick. But even in its early days, there were complaints that this frothy concoction couldn’t keep its nose out of the sordid business of real life.
The rise of famous clowns such as Grimaldi allowed the panto to poke fun at Georgian society under the heavily censored reign of the Lord Chamberlain. As The Times editorialised, on the occasion of Grimaldi’s retirement, “a good pantomime should be a running commentary…upon the whims and speculations of the year….it forms a powerful engine — though sometimes a fantastical one — for striking, sharply and rapidly, at the monstrosities of the time.”
Leigh Hunt particularly felt the medium’s satirical force. In 1817 he called it the age’s “best medium of dramatic satire”. But by 1831 he was grumbling that: “It is agreed on all hands that Pantomimes are not what they were… Pantomimes seem to have become partakers of the serious spirit of the age, and to be waiting for the settlement of certain great questions and heavy national accounts, to know when they are to laugh and be merry again.”
The relative political stability of Queen Victoria’s reign transformed panto from biting satire into a more elaborate, if toothless, affair. The Lord Chamberlain loosened his grip on the stage, and an 1843 Parliamentary Act meant that any theatre could now use spoken dialogue. As a consequence, plots became newly sophisticated. Lavish settings and rhyming couplet dialogue told stories borrowed from French fairytales (Cinderella, Mother Goose) English folk stories (Babes in the Wood, Dick Whittington and his Cat, Robinson Crusoe) or 1001 Nights (Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor). Harlequin got the last laugh, as him and his clowning pals finished the evening’s entertainment in an old-style Harlequinade.
Playwrights enjoyed the new-found freedom by making wordplay, punning and rhyming couplets a mainstay of the new panto. In Blanchard’s 1859 Jack and the Beanstalk the cow-swapping hero utters the groan-worthy line: “Though this transaction bears a strange character,/ I look upon you as my Beany Factor!” Hilarious as the puns were, in 1859, an anonymous Punch writer chafed against the reduced status of the clown-based brutal slapstick of his youth, set forth in his brilliantly titled polemic, Bring Me My Red Hot Poker! (Being a Plea for Cheap Pantomimes).
“I believe in the butterslide, I reverence the “spill and pelt”, I look upon the policeman as an institution to be grossly misinformed, scoffed at, and smitten…Away with your elaborate introductions and gorgeous transformation scenes!…These Pantomimic wind-eggs laid with such enormous cackling, and served up to us with such accompaniment of puff-paste! What theatre will have the courage to present us with a real Pantomime which shall cost the management nothing but invention…?”
As the V&A’s excellent pantomime history pages set forth, Harris’ production of The Forty Thieves, which opened on 27th December 1886, began at 7.30pm and ended at 1am. There were 500 people on stage and two enormous processions. In Scene Five, each of the Forty Thieves had his own band of followers. It took over 40 minutes for them all to march out from a cave at the back of the stage. As The Times grumbled,
“The pantomimes, “invented, arranged and produced” by Mr Augustus Harris, are all so resplendent and so bewildering in their magnitude that there seems at first blush as little to choose between one and another as there is between the monster audiences that assemble regularly on Boxing-night within the walls of Drury-lane. There is a magnificent sameness about the whole thing. Who can say that if the same pantomime were given year after year, with only a change of name, it would not, like some sermons, escape detection?”
The satirical energy of Regency times was lost in a fug of wild, electric lamp-lit extravagance. Pantomime was now associated with the Victorian cult of Christmas and of the idealised child: most opened on Boxing Day, and the most successful spectacles would keep entertaining families until Easter. But Harris’s other innovation was to embrace the new, anarchic, music hall spirit.
Pantomime takes a music hall turn
The 1880s were producing stars: character comedians, singers, dancers, magicians, acrobats. And all were ready to be shoe-horned into pantomime’s infinitely flexible mould. Harris introduced a new kind of celebrity casting (of course, Grimaldi had long been a box office draw) by picking up male impersonators Nellie Power and Vesta Tilley to star as Sindbad and Captain Tralala respectively in his 1882 Sindbad The Sailor. The panto’s author, Edward Blanchard, fumed as he saw his book cut to shreds and improvised over by performers used to extracting laughs from rowdy music hall crowds:
“My smooth and pointed lines are turned into ragged prose and arrant nonsense. Hardly anything done as I intended or spoken as I had written, the music hall element is crushing the rest and the good old fairy tales never to be again illustrated as they should be.”
Other, more pragmatic pantomime writers left whole scenes blank for improvisation: the book for Drury Lane’s 1892 Hop O’ My Thumb reads: “Mr Wolf very drunk, fired out of door by Barman. A Fight Ensues. Any special business of the Bros Griffiths could come in here. i.e Insert their Burlesque Kangaroo Boxing Match”. Adams fumed against this new flexibility to “special business”.
“[Music hall performers] bring with them not only their songs, which, when offensive in wording, are sometimes made doubly dangerous by their tunefulness; not only their dances, which are usually vulgar when they are not inane; but by their style and manner and ‘gags’, which are generally the most deplorable of all.”
These shows were also the Trojan Horse that brought a whole mass of cross-dressing mayhem in through the gates – spilling in from a mass-market entertainment scene that loved a woman in tight trousers and a man in tights with equal frenzy. “A woman in male attire…cannot but appear indelicate” frothed Adams, seemingly insensible to the irony that indelicate was exactly what a thigh-slapping, boot-strutting Principal Boy sought to appear. Pantomime dames were imported straight from the speciality acts of male comics like Dan Leno, who delighted in impersonating drab middle class women in bonnet and shawl – the glitz and camp glamour would take another half century to arrive.
Music hall loved a kiddie turn, too, so accordingly the era’s pantos had a prodigious appetite for performing children. West End offerings such as the Drury Lane pantomime would feature over a hundred on stage who would perform night after night (no rotating casts there) both as principals, and as extras in huge ballets herded on for infant colour. One Victorian stage effect even relied on 12 young boys being paid to tumble under a cloth, to represent a swirling river.
Pantomime Waifs (1884) exposed some of the worst excesses; it was a book by Ellen Barlee, a Victorian Helen Lovejoy whose desperate concern for the (admittedly often maltreated) children of the stage took flights of fancy as wild as Peter Pan ever attempted. Her work was inspired by a fellow missionary, who apparently cried out on his deathbed “incoherent words of theatres, ballet, women, children, help!” And help she did, in a work that lamented that “we revel at the sight of childish dancers who…are trained to a career of sin, misery, and ruin.” Although she added, coyly, that “decency” prevented her from “revealing the true fearfulness of Juvenile Depravity” she had uncovered, she feared that “a very large proportion of them lost their characters before they were fifteen years of age”.
Pantomime, with its increasingly diaphanous costumes and spangled teenage dancers, was no longer the kind of place a respectable Victorian paterfamilias would take his children.
The New Pantomime
The early twentieth century brought with it the New Woman, all cropped hair and trouser-wearing confidence. Female principal boys had been a way of shoe-horning in music hall stars, but with the outbreak of war in 1914, they became a firmly entrenched necessity. Often, they tended towards the Gibson Girl curvaceous ideal. As Herbert Farjeon complained, “Prince Charming is apt to run to thighs and size; to be over-limby…Miss Madge Titheradge’s principal boy is the best I have ever seen because it is certain to cause a flutter in the hearts, not in the boys of 20, but in the girls of 10.”
Victorian panto had been an animal of compromise – old fashioned Harlequinade joining the new beast of high-glamour, narrative spectacle. But the Harlequinade was chipped away at with every passing year. In 1930, The Stage’s reviewer seemed genuinely upset at the Clown of his youth’s peripheral role in Drury Lane’s pantomime of Sleeping Beauty.
“The Clown…is seen again at one of The Toyland Railway scenes, and he makes another welcome re-appearance right at the end of the pantomime to throw into the auditorium crackers. These brief episodes have to console us for the absence of a full, regulation Harlequinade of the old sort. Presumably we must be thankful for small mercies.”
Aladdin‘s bizarre blend of Chinoiserie, Arabian Nights fantasy and orientalist stereotypes didn’t stop it being one of the most popular pantomime, both then and now. In 1942, Hsiao Ch’ien wrote, with mingled nostalgia and criticism, of the weirdness of pantomimes “that would be very entertaining if such poetic fantasies remained the monopoly of the amusement world.” He went on: “As a child I was very fond of standing before those magical mirrors in a fun palace to see myself twisted and transformed…Since I grew up I have long missed this secret pleasure, until I went to a Birmingham pantomime called ‘Aladdin’ in which my country was made out to be a Turkish bath, with my people all in fancy flowery jackets.” And he suffered the discomfort of “suddenly to be discovered by a fair lady sitting next to me, who screamed out, ‘Look, here is one!’.”
Blue jokes and red politics
As the 20th century progressed, smut encroached still further into the world of the panto. A 1947 Spectator reviewer was unmoved by festive spirit when reviewing a BBC Radio 4 broadcast from theatres, finding that “These samples of provincial pantomime leave the impression that the traditional “business” is being jettisoned to make room for more vaudeville and jokes which, even in these enlightened times, cannot be considered suitable for children. Or is pantomime now designed for adults only?”
But the venerable, stiff organ was still less receptive to the infiltration of gay culture into the panto. Music hall star Dan Leno played a dame in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but any hint of sexual subversiveness was muffled in drab layers of petticoats. But then Danny La Rue stepped off the 1950s club circuit, where he dressed up as sequinned showgirls and oozed gender-ambiguous sex appeal in heels and falsies. Time & Tide in 1969 wrote of his long-running, wildly successful pantomime Queen Passionella and the Sleeping Beauty. “This music hall-cabaret version of the Sleeping Beauty raises an unusual problem for a pantomime. Should it have an X certificate? The jokes, most of which are coloured blue, are a bore for children as they can’t understand them…”
In 1975, another Spectator reviewer, Toby O’Brien, documented the new openness towards panto’s century of gender subversion: “Nowadays, of course, the rhyming couplet, except in some theatres in the provinces, is out, and in its place are blue jokes mostly about homosexuals, which even in our permissive society are scarcely suitable for children…”
Lost Empires and Principal Boys
Blame television, Andrew Lloyd Webber, changing public tastes or declining producer budgets: pantomimes loosened their grip on the West End in the 1950s and 1960s, even with the added lure of celebrity castings like Cilla Black, Cliff Richard, and Twiggy.
Retired panto performer Roger Foss’s 2001 WhatsOnStage interview neatly sums up the complaints: “Pantomime is a dying form,” he laments. “Standards have fallen because producers have to pay out so much for TV stars who often aren’t very good on stage. That leaves less to spend on other aspects of the production.” The 2013 survey of the National Database of Panto in Performance found that the female Principal Boy, whatever the dimensions of her thighs, was falling from favour to the extent that only one in 10 productions featured one.
And now? There are no shortage of complaints about pantos being too rude, and hilarious, thundering Telegraph editorials have become a seasonal stock in trade. Viz: Cinders’ seasonal smut seems such a sorry sight or Cinderella: panto has too much filth and not enough fun.
Harlequin vanished long, long ago. And his more persistent friend the clown is a mid-twentieth century casualty, as children and adults across the land are gripped by an epidemic of self-diagnosed coulrophobia. The protests against wildly extravagant scenery seem oxymoronic now that spectacle is woven into pantomime’s core – even if these days, it’s delivered by glittery, digitally printed backdrops not the screen and plaster work of dozens of well-respected artisans. The fairy scene is a casualty of dwindling casts and child employment laws – no longer are there casts of hundreds of ballet school kids ready to be strung up in gossamer wings – but the vacancy is filled by unpaid ‘community choruses’. The laments at the rising tide of music hall stars in the 1880s have initiated a stream of increasingly bizarre celebrity castings: from Twiggy in the seventies, to Pamela Anderson, and full circle to variety turns filched off Britain’s Got Talent.
So what’s left? A fascinating flotsam of traditions, each hotly protested when they were introduced, then desperately clung to as obsolescence threatens. Animal impersonators, fairy godmothers, pantomime dames, lavish scenery, slapstick and the immortal “slosh” scene, bloated running times and stuffed family audiences, diving for sweets.
And its centre, rusting but still going, a live wire of satire and topical energy that still throws out sparky critiques of the year’s political events. Every year pantomime is completely the same, completely of its time, and a complete travesty compared to the glories of our youth. How could it ever be otherwise.