ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England --
However you plan to celebrate the Christmas season this year, let me recommend you book yourself a seat at one of the many pantomimes, or ‘pantos’ as we like to call them here in the U.K., which will be taking place at theatres, town and village halls up and down this land from now until January.
As holiday traditions go, there is little that makes me feel more festive than a good old traditional pantomime. As the chill winds ruffle my whiskers and the frost nips my nose, panto brings warmth, laughter and fun to the winter season.
In spite of the name, pantomime has nothing to do with mime - the actors do actually talk to each other. The plays are based on either a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, such as 'Cinderella' or 'Jack and the Beanstalk'.
It's hard to really encapsulate the panto experience in words. Some have called it controlled anarchy, in which a man dresses up as the dame, and the principal male role is taken by a woman. Actors dress up as horses and cows. There are heroes and villains, slapstick comedy, romance, fairytales, all wrapped up with audience participation, music and dance into a festive riot of family fun. A great pantomime will entertain every member of the family from a toddler through to a grandparent.
Although the panto tradition has never caught on in America, American celebrities are lining up to travel here to the U.K. so they can star in one. The first American to brave a panto audience, to my knowledge, was George Takei, Mr. Sulu from Star Trek, who was a genie in Aladdin in Reading back in 1987. In the past few years, a succession of American celebrities - Patrick Duffy, Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Osmond, Steve Guttenberg, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson and Priscilla Presley among them - have all shown real talent and trodden the panto stage, showing genuine affection for what is a uniquely British art form. Henry Winkler, still remembered as "the Fonz" from Happy Days -has returned several times to Pantoland to play the dastardly Captain Hook in Peter Pan and is dearly loved by British audiences.
Pantomime traces its roots to Greek drama, via Italian 'Commedia dell'arte', Georgian harlequinades and music hall, with a bit of Grimm's fairy tales and medieval mystery plays thrown in for good measure. This explains the strong moral themes of good triumphing over evil, how beauty is only skin deep or why honesty is the best policy.
Panto is constantly evolving and includes topical references to modern trends, keeping the extravaganza that is panto ever popular. This often means the same pantomime will vary from location to location, making each performance truly unique.
It is a long-standing panto tradition that a woman plays the lead male role (principal boy) and a man plays the lead female role (the dame). The principal boy (female) will usually fall in love and win the hand in marriage of a beautiful young princess or heroine (also female). This is all considered perfectly normal.
Another tradition is the pantomime horse - one person has the head and another person the rear end. Occasionally the horse is replaced by a cow, and I once saw a pantomime camel.
There is active audience participation in the form of singing, shouting and generally feeling part of the show by interacting with the characters on stage. Usually there will be a silly song (which the audience is also expected to join in with; words are provided on a scroll suspended from the ceiling).
One of the characters is scripted as a "baddie", and every time he or she appears on the stage, the audience is encouraged to boo and hiss. He or she will carry on a contradictory dialogue with the other actors, and the audience is encouraged to reply with statements such as, "Oh no it isn't!" or "Oh yes it is!"
Similarly, at some stage, one of the good characters will have some form of menacing animal or character lurking just out of their field of vision, and it is traditional to yell until you are hoarse, "It's behind you!" It must all sound a bit odd to you, but believe me, once you get into panto mood, you will be joining in with the best of them.
Of course, my favourite pantomimes are those featuring cats. The story of Dick Whittington, the first Lord Mayor of London, and his remarkable talking cat is a family favourite, as is also the fairy tale, Puss in Boots.
Whatever the theme of the panto, however, the important thing is that you go and experience it for yourself. I promise you, paw on heart, it will be unforgettable.
There are many pantos happening across the local region, as well as in London and other UK cities. Here’s just a small selection:
Jack & The Beanstalk
Norwich Theatre Royal, Dec 13 – Jan 15
King’s Lynn Corn Exchange, December 9 – Dec 31
Beauty and the Beast
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, Dec 13 – Jan 15
Regent Theatre, Ipswich, Dec 17 – 2 Jan