Pantomimes are curious affairs, aren’t they? They’re packed with really odd customs and traditions that we take for granted! I mean, just consider the following:
- The principal boy is really a girl who always wears tights and slaps her thigh shouting ‘Bless my soul’ or other strange remarks
- The widow or dame is always played by a man in drag
- Said widow or dame always throws sweets into the audience for no apparent reason
- There is always a pantomime horse, cow or other animal played by two people in a costume
- The main characters always get lost in a wood, jungle or gloomy cave whereupon a monster picks them off one by one – even though the audience continuously shouts ‘He’s behind you!’ At the end, the monster always comes face-to-face with the dame, whose face promptly scares the monster off!
- The dame always has to create a meal with her hapless helpers leading to riotous slapstick and a large dose of audience participation – including the lines ‘Oh no it isn’t’ with the audience shouting back ‘Oh yes it is!’
- There is always a pantomime villain – often an evil uncle
- There is always a supernatural force for good – often a fairy godmother
- Everyone breaks into song at the drop of a hat with lyrics set to the hit tunes of the time
- Everything always works out for the best in the end – unless, of course, you happen to be the villain!
But somehow the formula really seems to work as pantos are a much-loved part of the festive season. And they always attract the biggest names to play in them. Check out the wonderful pictures of pantos from the 1950s and 1960s in Thursday’s Manchester Evening News to see some of the stars who trod the boards in the city. Tommy Cooper, Bruce Forsyth, Des O’Connor, Bob Monkhouse, Norman Wisdom, Vince Hill, Shani Wallis – they’re all there. It’s like a who’s who of British variety acts! Oh, and look out for Tanya the elephant too!
So how did some of these panto traditions come to pass? Pantomime itself dates back to classical theatre as well as the 16th century commedia dell’arte of Italy and British masques and music hall of the 17th century. The first pantomimes were silent – hence the mime element of the title – but gradually became more topical and comic in the 18th century. Panto incidentally comes from the Greek ‘pan’ or ‘pant’ meaning ‘all’.
The cross-dressing may derive from the medieval tradition of the festival of fools where everything was turned topsy-turvy for a day or two. Or it may be a relic of the time when men played women’s roles. Shakespeare’s leading ladies were always men.
You may have noticed that the good fairy or fairy godmother always enters from stage right and the villain from stage left in pantos. This is a throwback to medieval mystery plays where the right side of the stage symbolised heaven and the left side hell.
All very logical when you think about it.
Oh yes it is.
*Hope you’ve enjoyed this brief scamper through the panto tradition. If you’ve got any further explanations, drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.