Panto History

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Panto History' page

A study of the characteristics and history of pantomimes at Nottingham Theatre Royal as recounted by a previous performer from Annesley Woodhouse


6th December 2012

‘Once upon a Pantomime’

This was the interesting title of the final address of the year, delivered by entertainer Mr. Trevor Lee of Annesley Woodhouse.  In effect, it was not so much an address as a performance, for Trevor deployed, as his visual aids, a number of pantomime props, particularly comical headwear.  Not only did he talk about the theme, he stirred up the spirit of the panto season by subjective rôle-play and approprate intonation.  As in all good productions, he ensured retention of his audience by encouraging and leading the traditional ‘sing-along’ during the final few minutes. As festivity was high on the agenda, the occasion was enhanced by the availability of minced pies and wine beforehand and afterwards!

Wolverhampton-born Trevor has dedicated much of his career to panto before turning to his present mode of entertainment.  He performed first on his home ground at The Grand Theatre; later at The Theatre Royal in Nottingham.  It was from the latter venue that most of the material for this presentation was gleaned, as Trevor cited instances from Theatre Royal pantos since 1877, naming national celebrities who have taken lead rôles from year to year. [1]   He showed images of past programmes and posters to stimulate the imagination. [2]   These, Trevor explained, are visual aids towards excitement and stimulation.  Through the years, psychology has enhanced the artwork for maximum effect on a changing, perhaps less literate, audience.  Posters, in particular, have become larger, clearer, more colourful, and variable in design and lettering techniques.  They, together with programmes, make more use of images, including caricature work.  Programmes are in the form of printed booklets, clearly set out and headed, generally on glossy paper.

Of course this presentation had more of a cultural and entertainment than a local history content.  However, Trevor paid lip-service to the historical background, beginning with a brief summary of the origins of panto.  In essence, he said, the tradition is steeped in European folk-lore.  Panto reached England round about the year 1700, the first Nottingham Theatre Royal production occurring in 1865. [3]   It must not be forgotten, either, that English pantomimes are set historically, generally in the Georgian or Victorian era.  Presentation, both visual and oral, necessarily involves some concentration on the social background of the time, although the fictional aspect of the story may well dilute the acuracy of this.  The link  between panto and history, then, is integral.

Its name is a derogative of ‘panto-mime’, suggesting from the suffix that its essence lay in mimicked actions more than in costume or scenery.  Various themes made up the content of panto, but the comedy pantomime that is well-loved today was largely thanks to Joseph Granvoldi.  His contributions tended to have three or more characters.  Central to these was the character called Harlequin, who always wore a suit decorated in diamond-shaped patches, the colours of which were intended to symbolize character traits.  Yellow, for example, represented jealousy.  Red marked anger, whilst blue conveyed an air of conjugal faithfulness.  Harlequin carried a slapstick, typically a rod with tasselled upper, and this had the amazing power to transform a situation.  Beginning perhaps in Italy, by the time the typical panto was being produced in Drury Lane, London, newer characters had superseded Harlequin.

The essence of a good pantomime lies with its local references.  Known places and references must be written-in to the script, for it is to these that an audience can relate, and it is these which evoke the greatest glee and comfortable involvement.  One way in which this is done is visual, by means of the set. But perhaps more prominent are the scripted words of the characters, making local references to contemporary events and situations.

Trevor then revealed some of the strategies which build up the success of a panto.  Much will be achieved in the opening moments.  The chosen overture stimulates pre-curtain excitement, and the immediate follow-up needs to convey vitality, vigour and constant change.  The atmosphere must never be allowed to remain static, but must accelerate through perpetual sequences of action charged with audience participation.  Only in the later stages, as the performance rolls towards an anticipated conclusion, can relaxation of this become feasible.  One should not make the mistake of taking the progression of a well-known story for granted.  Even though most pantomime themes and storylines are well-known, this is just in accordance with the storybook.  The local flavour and treatment of the plot adds and detracts enormously; it must ensure that no two productions of a pantomime story are ever the same.  Only the basic ‘tale’ is consistent, and to some extent this is skeletal to the production.

Following the overture and curtain-raising the opening set comes into view.  It may be a street-scene or a village green, or a similar open-air environment.    Being three-dimensional, it will have been built locally by carpenters and artists, leaving a clear foreground space.  It is into this that groups of the cast will enter at the start, usually in a rush, though not necessarily together.  This haste helps to stimulate audience participation, particularly when it is accompanied by relevant orchestral music from immediately below the stage, the instrumentalists and conductor being more or less in view.  A ‘happy song’ will then be roused by all on stage.  Typically, The sun has got his hat on might be a favourite choice.  In any case, it will be a song that the audience is expected to know well, although participation is not invited at this stage; atmospheric build-up is more important. 

After the song, the introductions begin, as a lead character or characters, conspicuously costumed, will then enter and begin to speak.  Usually this means the ‘dame’.  It may be two dames, who can either compliment each other or stand as opposite numbers.  The background cast may stay, shrinking further back, or they may leave at this point.  One strategy that is sometimes used at this point is the throwing of gifts, or sweets, at random spots in a now-enthusiastic audience.  Soon afterwards, the principle boy or girl will be introduced.  If the former, it is not unusual for him to be played by a girl, generally one of national renown [4] .  In most pantos, there is also a character known as the ‘buttons’; he is the ‘fall guy’ throughout the plot.  Others who form a key part will then follow, both ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.  Often this is where audience participation begins, as they are asked to warn of the approach of ‘wicked’ characters by booing or hissing, or sometimes by verbal exclamations, such as ‘He's behind you!’  Effectively the representation of good or evil is made through characterization.  Fairies, for example, represent the former power; imps, witches or demons denote the latter.

A further introduction is to the pantomime animal, which is almost obligatary.  Traditionally, the animal is played by two actors bending forwards into one costume, hence representing the fore and rear of the beast.  Horses are regular inclusions; there is also the cow in Jack and the beanstalk and the cat in Dick Whittington.  This tendency has been made into the butt of certain music-hall comedy jokes and songs.

The story of the pantomime is then carried through, becoming more and more complicated by interactions, before eventually drawing together in the finale.  As the end of the story approaches, strategies encourage greater involvement from the audience.  Children will often be called onto the stage to take part in contests, or just to ‘help’ with tasks specifically included for their benefit.  The traditional ‘sing-along’ is almost mandatory, perhaps made more interesting by the omission of words and the substitution of actions. 

The ultimate scene is the finale.  It usually includes a wedding, or promise of a wedding, for the main character at least, although the less desirable and less beautiful personalities may also receive such a promise.  In their case, this tends to be unexpected, and the amity and joining may well cut across a rivalry that has followed them throughout the plot.  A finale will be summed up in a monologue, sometimes, though not invariably, by the lead actor, and often it will end in rhyme.  The last part of the performance is a song in which all members of the cast join.  Each comes to  the fore of the stage, individually or as one of a group, and takes a bow to receive applause.  Finally, the curtain falls and rises again on the entire displayed cast, and the production manager may make an announcement with appropriate gratuities. 

During the progression of the action, scene changes will be frequent and varied, often reverting back to previous settings for consolidation or furtherance of the plot.  Where a setting is revisited, it is usual for the background or props to have changed in some way without dispupting their familiarity.  Curtain ‘drops’ are used to mask most such changes, although they are sometimes done just by dimming the stage-lightiing.  It is the minor characters, perhaps those who came on at the introduction, who exercise this change manually.  From time to time, the curtains open to show no set whatever, and one of the leading characters comes to the front.  He or she will then begin a monologue, perhaps assisted by the arrival of others.  At or near the half-way point in the action, perhaps at a cliffhanger, the curtain will descend completely, followed by a second curtain.  The audience lights will then come on, and it will be announced that there will be a short intermission.  The audience members, perhaps in need of exercise (or other physical requirements) are then able to vacate their seats and leave for the foyer, where sweets and ice-creams, or liquid refreshments for adults, may be purchased.  Others prefer to retain their seats and chat, or peruse the programme further.  The practice of ice-cream salespersons entering the auditorium, once widespread especially at children's matinees, has largely been discontinued, as, of course, has smoking on the theatre premises.

Trevor's contribution was something different for the Society; refreshingly lighthearted, and certainly on a theme to which all could relate regardless of age or aptitude for local history.

© Roger Peacock for NALHS: 14th December 2012

[1]     Just a few of the celebrated personalities selected by Trevor were Arthur Askey, George Formby, Leslie Crowther and Ken Dodd, who have taken lead rôles in different years.

[2]     The poster illustrated, Cinderella, was performeded at Nottingham Theatre Royal in 2012.

[3]     The earliest Theatre Royal pantomimes to which Trevor referred were Cinderella (1882) and Puss-in-boots (1890).

[4]     Cilla Black, for example, played the part of Jack in the production of Jack and the beanstalk.

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 11/02/2013.

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