Before I start, a quick reminder: The Locket (short story) released on Christmas Eve and for this week only it’s cut price so that you lovely people who read the blog or get the newsletter can get a good deal on it. The price will go up on Monday so if you’re interested, now’s the time to indulge! Or of course, mail me for a review copy, if you fancy writing one – good or bad, any review is better than none.
So, that apart, how have you been? Good Christmas / New Year / days off / whatever you’ve been up to of late?
I had a couple of days off over New Year but am now back to work, and the trains are filled with small children in costume and harassed-looking adults all coming back from any manner of pantomimes. The kids as are hyper as a can of pop and a packet of Haribo allows, and the air is heavy with cries of “He’s behind you!” and the like. It’s a bit full-on if you’re shut in a carriage with them and not on a sugar-high, but then it’s Pantomime season, so it’s hardly a surprise.
Pantomimes. They’re such an institution. Sometimes we love them. Often they make us cringe and run for the hills, but Christmas is invariably accompanied by a rash of very frightening posters featuring heavily-made-up D-list celebs costumed as a variety of characters from fairy tales and the like. It’s a strange old tradition when you think of it – not that you ever really do. It’s just another part of the Christmas season, isn’t it?
…Or is it?
I always thought so until a few years back, when I discovered that Pantomime is less global than I had always assumed.
This was a while back, when League of Gentlemen was airing on UK TV (and this is the somewhat twisted comedy-horror series with Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton, not the dubious but well-costumed film with Sean Connery), a friend got tickets for the League of Gentlemen Pantomime, and persuaded me to come along. It was not an entirely usual panto, because the first half was straight League of Gentlemen with all the usual characters: but the story being that the theatre group having been unavoidably detained, in order to save the day, the rest of the characters decided to do the panto instead. Correspondingly the second half was the actual characters (rather than the LoG actors) putting on the panto.
It worked pretty well, actually, because half of the LoG characters fall into the same mould as the necessary panto types; the simple lad, the bad sneering guy, Papa Lazarou (well you define him!) and of course the horrendous but not entirely horrible Pauline, played with some gusto by Steve Pemberton in a dress, to name but a few. Pauline in particular was confusingly good as the Dame – a bloke playing a female character filling a role normally played by a bloke dressed as a woman…! Brain-fry!
And of course there was all the usual banter with the audience. It was definitely an adult panto – not so much in content as in language, as there was lots of swearing – but it was an impressively sharp audience. At one point when doing the stock call and response (normally “oh yes he did” / “oh no he didn’t”), Pauline added a sweary twist in the form of “Oh yes he f*cking did!” and the whole audience roared back without missing a beat “oh no he f*cking didn’t” which caused Steve Pemberton/ Pauline to snort with laughter and comment “ooh, you think you’re so clever don’t you!” It wasn’t complex but it was a very pleasingly unanimous ad lib.
…Well, almost unanimous. As the panto part of the show progressed I suddenly realised that the nice German couple sitting next to me were starting to look first confused and then increasingly and inexplicably terrified. In all honesty, given it was not in their first language I just assumed that they had lost track of the dialogue, but the sheer discombobulation on their faces seemed to be disproportionate to that kind of likely bafflement. When it got to the end of the show, after much clapping and stamping of feet, the lights came up and everyone started filing out, and the two Germans sat in their seats and stared at each other, apparently gobsmacked.
Then one said to the other “But how do they know what to say?!”
And I suddenly realised they didn’t know about Pantomime.
And if they thought it was just a normal trip to the theatre, how surreal must it have been when the audience started talking in unison to the characters?! That would be really, really disconcerting…. And judging by the way they fled, it really was.
I’m afraid that that amused me greatly. However, I was also intrigued. How in the world could they not know about pantomime? Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know the correct response to “Oh yes he is!”?
Well… yes. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t, which is a slightly bizarre idea. It turns out that pantomime is not exactly global. So, for those readers from other shores who have no idea what I’ve been going about, here is a beginners’ guide to a part of British culture that you never knew you wanted to know about (and indeed may still wish not to by the end of this epistle).
So, how do I explain pantomime to you? It is actually terribly British – not Terry Thomas stiff-upper-lip British, but Kenneth Williams, Carry On Whatevering British. It’s seaside postcard humour with a bit of cross-dressing and heckling thrown in. Think last-gen Rocky Horror, but for kids (mostly).
It has its roots in fifteenth century Italy, where groups of players went round putting on half-scripted half-improvised plays based around certain stock characters. (This tradition would eventually come to be called commedia dell’arte and has given us characters such as Harlequin, Scaramouche and Mr Punch of Punch and Judy). Over time the traditions evolved in the UK into modern panto. The improvised element has been given up in favour of scripts, but the slightly anarchic, unpredictable nature of the thing remains to this day; ad libs are commonplace, practical jokes between actors are not uncommon, and at any point where the audience engages, there is the distinct possibility that it will all go a bit off-book for a bit before coming back to the script. The last night in particular is generally a miscellany of the unexpected.
The which said, it’s not just a randomly daft musical. There are certain conventions which are not negotiable and must be fulfilled in any production purporting to call itself a panto.
In panto there is no fourth wall. The characters routinely have scenes where one of other of them sits on the stage, starts off with a monologue (often including song) but ultimately will end up talking to the audience, usually referred to as “Girls and boys”. In particular, at some point we will have the set-up where one character is looking for another who will be sneaking about behind him on the stage, probably intermittently hiding behind the curtains or other scenery.
This is where you bring in the audience participation which terrified the German couple so much, and it always goes the same way.
The dialogue will go thusly:
Character 1: Hello boys and girls, I wonder if you can help me. That naughty Character 2 is hiding from me. Have you seen her?
Character 2 does exaggerated tiptoe across back of stage.
Audience yells: She’s behind you.
Character 1: What’s that you say, boys and girls?
Audience (louder): she’s behind you.
Character 1 turns to look behind him. Character 2 hides.
Character 1: I thought you said she was behind me!
<repeat ad nauseam>
Character 2 comes out and comes right up to him.
Audience (children yelling like banshees now): She’s behind you!
Character 1 turns to find himself face to face with Character 2.
Character 1: Oh, Character 2, you did give me a start!
This may also be used with Character 1 saying “I’ll just put this MacGuffin on the table and have a little sleep. I hope the Character 2 doesn’t get it though. I’ll tell you what, if you see Character 2, boys and girls, you be sure to tell me” and other situations of that type.
The other main formula (which may be used in tandem with the above or separately) is comedy contradiction, so for instance Character 1 having fallen into a snoring nap, Character 2 would turn up, the children would yell, Character 2 would hide and Character 1 would go into the following routine:
Character 1: “I can’t find him anywhere. He wasn’t here at all was he?”
Audience: “Oh yes he was!”
Character 1: “Oh no he wasn’t!”
Audience: “Oh yes he was!”
Character 1: “Oh no he wasn’t!”
Etc till they get bored.
(So if you ever get into a random contradiction with a British person, the likelihood is that they’ve gone all panto on you simply because it’s that time of year, that’s what you do, and they haven’t realised you don’t have the first clue what they are on about.)
The stock character-types do remain – well, kind of.
Firstly there is a Dashing Young Hero. He is played by a young woman, usually in tights and shorts, and slaps his / her thigh a lot for reasons passing man’s understanding.
His (her?) love interest is the Soppy Young Heroine, also played by a young woman, but generally not in competing tights. She gets to wear a girly skirt.
These two are often rather dull but generally have several long songs, often about how much in love they are. They have little or no comedic value but give everyone else the excuse to turn up, so get brownie points for that.
Next you will be introduced to the Pantomime Dame who is generally played by a strapping bloke in drag. Dames with beards are not unknown. She is the older lady who is a bit ghastly and often takes a shine to the Dashing Young Hero who is of course uninterested. The Pantomime Dame is a figure of fun, yes, but we laugh with her rather than at her for the most part. She is played as legendarily unattractive (the beard probably doesn’t help) and is the sort who terrifies her man into submission rather than attracting him. Her attempts to woo the Dashing Young Hero are pure cringe-worthy slapstick, but she often has a poignant moment or two that humanizes her, and is generally the star of the show. She has licence for any amount of overacting, provided her banter with the audience is up to scratch, and generally gets the loudest cheer and the most curtain calls at the end.
The Simple Lad, generally played by a boy of staggering gormlessness, is a bit of an innocent. He may be side-kick to the heroine, and is often helplessly and hopelessly in love with her. He may be the son of the Pantomime Dame (but does not have a beard). Occasionally, if the Simple Lad did not start the show as the son of the Pantomime Dame, he may turn out to have been her longlost child, usually misplaced in some outrageously unlikely manner involving laundry, a handbag, or just severe forgetfulness on her part.
The Simple Lad commonly has a good friend in the shape of the Pantomime Horse or Cow, usually played by two unfortunates (of negotiable gender) in a terrible costume. One of them will then get to spend six months being the butt of “horse’s arse” comments. The horse may dance and is generally male. The cow does not often dance, is generally female, but may have a slightly unsavoury fascination with the Simple Lad, the Dashing Young Hero (played by a girl, lest we forget), or occasionally the Baffled Father Figure.
The Baffled Father Figure is played by an older man. His function is to stand around being baffled and ineffective, for the most part. When the Pantomime Dame (beard and all) invariably gets turned down by the Dashing Young Hero (the young lady in tights) she often turns her sights on the hapless Baffled Father Figure, who is helpless to turn her down despite the potential for fighting over shaving implements of a morning. He is normally baffled but cheerfully resigned to this annexation on her part.
The Bad Guy is often a Baron, though sometimes he may be a wizard (generally in be-turbaned 1001 nights-style, rather than the pointy-hat Gandalf / Harry Potter type). In Aladdin he is almost certainly the Grand Vizier, as any fule kno Grand Viziers are always bad guys, even when they pretend not to be. When the Bad Guy comes on-stage there will be a green and / or red spotlight, and all the audience boos or hisses. The Bad Guy will probably make smart remarks at the audience’s expense and also is likely to be horrible to animals, small kittens and the Simple Lad, all of which will win him the audience’s further opprobrium (we are not so bothered about him being mean to the Dashing Young Hero and Soppy Young Heroine however as they are dull). Usually part of his function is to kidnap the Soppy Young Heroine (played by the girl in a skirt) just at the point where the Dashing Young Hero (played by the girl in tights) is about to declare his everlasting love for her. This event spawns a soppy and incredibly twee song, to be sung by the Dashing Young Hero in his / her tights in front of the curtain in order to enable a change of scenery.
The Bad Guy is the character most prone to chewing of scenery or general overacting. He can and should be as over the top as possible in his dastardliness, so long as it is cartoon-stylee and no genuine bad stuff happens. He is generally the second most entertaining character and second only to the Dame, gets the next biggest cheer from the adults (the kids go for the Dashing Young Hero and his tights as they don’t know any better).
The Bad Guy will probably have a comedy sidekick and like the other supporting characters, this person will probably be very, very stupid. He (usually he) will at some point mishear an important command with comic consequences, and be roundly abused for it. The Inept Sidekick is probably soft-hearted and may well be won over by the tale of woe spun him by the Dashing Young Hero or Soppy Young Heroine, but is unlikely to do much of use otherwise apart from fall asleep or drop things. However the audience doesn’t boo him and may even help on occasion. He’s too inept to be really bad.
The Bad Guy himself, being incredibly powerful and even potentially magical, is completely unassailable. At least, he is unassailable until faced by the Pantomime Dame when he is either terrified or distracted into submission. She enters like a galleon under full sail to perform a terrifying seduction on the Bad Guy, in order to distract him while the Dashing Young Hero and his / her tights go and pick the lock on the door of the Soppy Heroine’s jail, and there is always a happy ending, normally as follows:
The Bad Guy gets his come-uppance (ie explodes, goes to jail, or just runs away). The Pantomime Dame and associated facial hair may then get together with the Baffled Father Figure (who has little say in the matter), or alternatively discovers that the Simple Lad is her long-lost son, accidentally sent to the launderette in a basket of washing, etc etc etc. The whole thing all finishes off with some big jolly number, quite possibly involving high kicks by the Dashing Young Hero and her tights, and much clapping along / singing / cheering by the audience.
The biggest cheers from the children go to the Dashing Young Hero and Soppy Young Heroine, now in matching costumes, and the biggest cheers from the rather more cynical adults go to the Pantomime Dame and his beard, and the Bad Guy, who have probably also had the most fun all evening. Which probably tells you something about the whole thing, though I’m not sure entirely what.
Talking of which, it’s getting on towards time for me to get on a train full of be-costumed, screaming kids who are flying high on Haribo and Tizer, and so with that lesson in the madness of the British, I will love you and leave you. New Year beckons, hopefully looking like a kinder and gentler time than 2016.
I wish you all a wonderful year to come, filled with love, laughter and all that good stuff.
Take care, and I’ll catch you in 2017!