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British Billy and the Great British Panto

As holiday traditions go, there is little that makes me feel more festive than a good old traditional pantomime, or ‘panto’. As the chill winds ruffle my whiskers and the frost nips my nose, panto brings warmth, laughter and fun to the winter season. A good family pantomime can generally be found at a theatre in most towns and cities of the U.K., and we are blessed in this region with some of the finest.

As holiday traditions go, there is little that makes me feel more festive than a good old traditional pantomime, or ‘panto’. As the chill winds ruffle my whiskers and the frost nips my nose, panto brings warmth, laughter and fun to the winter season. A good family pantomime can generally be found at a theatre in most towns and cities of the U.K., and we are blessed in this region with some of the finest.

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 UK, which will be taking place at theatres and town and village halls up and down this land from now until January.

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, Henry Winkler and Mickey Rooney among them - have shown real talent and genuine affection for what is a uniquely British art form.

Jimmy Osmond, Steve Guttenberg, David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson have all trodden the panto stage. As if that wasn't enough to set my whiskers twitching, I've just discovered that Vanilla Ice is to star in panto in Chatham, Kent. He will play Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It's his first time performing in panto, so I expect he's feeling excited right now as he anticipates this career highlight.

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.

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 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.

This year I'm tickled to end of my tail to learn that our local Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds is presenting Dick Whittington and his Cat. You can find further details at www.theatreroyal.org .

Some other local pantos that you might enjoy are:

Norwich - Sleeping Beauty
http://www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk/whatson/shows/sleepingbeauty.aspx

Ipswich - Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood
http://www.wolseytheatre.co.uk/

Kings Lynn - Cinderella
http://www.kingslynncornexchange.co.uk/event/cinderella

Lowestoft - Jack and the Beanstalk
http://www.marinatheatre.co.uk/index.html

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.

** No federal endorsement is intended or implied.