I always enjoyed our annual outing to the pantomime as a child. Our nearest big city was Liverpool, and a family group of eight or more used to trek all the way there to see such stars as Frankie Howard, Ken Dodd, Jewell and Warris, Norman Wisdom and Tommy Steele do their stuff. Actually, it was all the other stuff I remember the best – the ghost houses, the collapsing furniture, the silly jokes, the pratfalls… To this day I can remember some bloke coming on with a spade and saying: ‘What English town am I?’ The hero looked at him and said, ‘No idea.’ ‘Bury’, was the answer. Half an hour later he came back on with the spade, running around the stage this time, and asked as he ran:’ OK, what English town am I now?’ ‘Bury!’ said the hero. ‘No, Canterbury,’ he said, and ran off. Simple stuff, and I can’t explain why it has stayed with me for quarter of a century and more.
One of the best things about having children is that it allows you to go to the pantomine again, so this year we trotted off to Mother Goose, which was at the Bristol Old Vic. No big names there, neither from TV (“Simple Simon is played by Kurt Witters of ITV’s “Oo La La”) nor from the world of sport (“Simple Simon is played by Graham Taylor, late of England”), just people performing well. The star, if such there was, was Chris Harris who played the dame and co-wrote the script, and who I thought was wonderful, just as dames should be – cheeky, friendly, outrageous, knowing and innocent. The script was full of local references to Bristol, half of which I didn’t even understand. When Chris Harris as Mother Goosed was asked where she lived, she said ‘Cotham, that’s Cotham with a “K”, and everyone laughed, and I can’t for the life of me see where the joke was.
But the best joke of the evening was quite accidental. We happened to go on a night when local team Bristol City were playing Liverpool at home in the Cup (my old panto haunt versus my new one), and from time to time Mother Goose would find ways of bringing us the score. ‘Nor score yet,’ she would roar, as she came on. ‘City have just scored,’ she would say at random to the chorus of village people dancing on the green…
My six year old son, Adam, and his friend Max were bemused by the idea that in pantomime, men often dress up as women and vice versa. I think they tumbled early on to the fact that Mother Goose was a man, but found it hard to take that her son Jack was a girl… somebody said to Mother Goose, ‘Your son Jack is a fine young lad’, to which Mother Goose replied something like: ‘if you believe that, you’ll believe anything’. It was predictable, and if she had not said it, we would have been desperately disappointed. Later, Mother Goose was talking to the village youth, all played by girls, and said: ‘Now listen here, girls and…’ (double take)’…’girls. Good old corny stuff, and I love it. The joke that Adam and Max liked best, and they recited it all the way home in the car, was the following rhyme:
Pull your socks up
Your legs are hairy!”
It wasn’t the only Christmas show we went to. While in Toronto at Christmas time, we went to see The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky style, done by the National Ballet of Canada. It was not our first choice. Our first choice was a pantomime. They do not, however, appear to have pantomime in North America. So we went to see the Nutcracker Ballet instead, and mind-crushingly boring it was too, apart from the music. Our son Adam was puzzled. He had seen The Nutcracker once before, in a version directed by my wife for the Natural Theatre Company of Bath, which was a narrative version going back to the old E T A Hoffman story and bringing out the sinister side a bit more – it was, actually one of the scariest bits of theatre I have ever seen. After that, the Tchaikovsky version is incomprehensible and full of sugar substitute and totally uninspired, and our hosts, who had not seen my wife’s version, felt exactly the same. The Canada Ballet programme said their aim was to introduce children to the magic world of ballet. With our lot, they succeeded in persuading them that it was a fusty, self-satisfied, ingrown, uninventive world. In the Mother Goose programme, Chris Harris wrote: “We believe that panto is probably the first time children have ever seen theatre. We owe it to them to make it the most memorable visit they ever have, the one they look back to in years ahead…”
I can’t quite believe he means that he wants children never to have such a memorable theatre visit again after their first panto, but I think our lot will go back to a panto more readily than a ballet now…
Incidentally, I was wrong about the absence of panto from North America. My wife tells me that when she spent a year teaching drama in Wisconsin – way back in the 1970s,this is – she persuaded her group to put on Cinderella. The two men playing the Ugly Sisters took some persuading to get into female clothes, and she spent a hilarious afternoon in a local woman’s shop getting evening slippers for them. One of the Ugly sisters, she says, refused point blank to shave off his beard for the role, though this actually served as an extra joke. When it came to the show, half the audience in this Calvinist outpost had left before the end in protest against the cross-dressing and half had stayed to cheer and make the rafters ring. How I wish I had seen Americans putting on a panto…
But I do remember at a panto in down-to earth Liverpool one year, a daring director decided to do a bit of Commedia Dell Arte, and gave us ten or fifteen minutes miming and dancing after the show as an encore, with Harlequin and Columbine doing their stuff. As a ten year old I hadn’t the faintest idea what was happening and nor did anyone else in Liverpool. Somebody, somewhere, must be living in retirement thinking of the time he tried to get traditional panto back on stage, and failed.
The Oldie January 31st 1994