Monday, December 5, 2011


It has been many years since I have attended my last pantomime, a form of entertainment primarily enjoyed by the British. My experiences are mainly from London in the years before WWII, but the peculiar art form of the pantomime continued to flourish 50 years ago, and probably still does. Other major cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, have their own productions.

Pantomimes have names that are familiar to most British children, usually relating to fairy stories or legends. Some examples are: Dick Whitington and His Cat; Puss in Boots; Little Red Riding Hood; Sleeping Beauty; and Beauty and the Beast.

There are certain additions to this entertainment. It is primarily designed to attract families with young children, and performances begin in December, lasting into at least early January, when many school children are on holiday.

The plot is usually very loosely based on the traditional story. Almost always there is a Principal Boy, (played by an attractive young woman in tights), and a Principal Girl, usually wearing a pretty dress. There is usually a Dame, played by an older man. There may be a horse (played by two men as "front legs" and "hind legs").

The Dame is usually played by a famous comedian; in some instances, a pair of comedians appear.

The show is designed to make use of popular songs. Any relationship to the plot is strictly coincidental.

A typical ending will bring the Principal Boy and Principal Girl together, perhaps singing a duet.

The humor (especially as introduced by the Dame) if often broad, but never quite obscene. The young people I knew usually tired of the "treat" of attending a pantomime after puberty. However, I did have one more experience of a pantomime. I was living and working in London after graduating from Oxford. Almost every week my best friend (Perry Calwell), also a graduate of Oxford, and I would visit a "settlement house". These were establishments to be found in the poorer quarters of a city, largely used by young people as a place to gather and entertain themselves. A few staff members, typically young university graduates, lived on the premises, while working at jobs in central London, a short bus ride or tube journey from the settlement house.

Perry and I, with support from the staff, decided to write and perform a pantomime one year. We soon faced the problem that one could never count on the appearance of cast members at our weekly rehearsals. Perry and I spent a lot of time and many evenings working on this project, despite our frustrations. We convinced ourselves that our efforts were worthwhile, as they did serve to keep a good many teenagers "out of trouble".

We did eventually put on a performance, which (despite it's major shortcomings) was very successful. At the end, Perry and I agreed that this was the last time we would try to put on a pantomime. I have not attended one since.

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