A Christmas Carol: pantomime

Time for another Christmassy post. Oh no it isn’t. Oh yes it is…

When I started planning out subjects for this month’s posts, pantomime was one that made the list early on.

Others will choose to focus their Christmas ‘must dos’ on elves on shelves (or not, depending on this year’s press about it), cookie exchanges, or indeed recipes for beach barbecues for the big day.

It all goes to show that Christmas really is very different, depending on where you live, and the traditions that have grown up around that location.

In the case of pantomime, it’s many things. Call it an alternative reason to get together – instead of the carol concert or the Christmas outing.

Call it a reason to test out multi-age entertainment – with jokes that work for the kids and others very much aimed at the adults.

Call it a reason for grandparents to treat the grandkids, and soak up a little of their excitement. Call it the need for a good story, and a happy ending, in the season of dark mornings and short days.

For those somewhat mystified as to the nature of a pantomime (or panto for short), Wikipedia leaps to the rescue as ever – reminding me that it is an entertainment of generally British beginnings (with plenty more influences too).

Meanwhile, time to line up the performers.


Christmas Past

I’d love to tell you that I remember my first panto – but I don’t. But I do remember the one that set the standard – for many things, as it turns out.

Aged eight or so, my Brownie Guides pack arranged an outing up to Edinburgh to see a proper panto – one with known names. It was only an hour away, really, but it felt like a big deal.

We went in a coach, for starters. We came back in the dark. It felt very grownup and exciting.

I suspect we were at the King’s Theatre, the classic Edinburgh theatre for Christmas pantos. These are the real deal of pantos, often with celebrities included.

But part of the pattern with pantos is that many performers get hooked, and appear in new pantos year by year. (I say new. Most pantos stick determinedly to fairytale subjects.)

In this case (as currently in Edinburgh), part of the attraction is the familiar faces, still identifiable in new costumes and a new storyline.

The year I went, the key attraction was the Scottish comedy duo Francie and Josie, which my father certainly knew of old. I don’t remember who played which parts – I don’t even remember which story it was, to be honest.

But it was an early introduction to pantomime set in a local tradition – in this case, lots of use of Scots, and lots of jokes relating to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Thirty-odd years on, I can still sing the song that they taught that night, Parliamo Glasgow. So that’s a fairly clear indication that it had an impact on me.

(Stanley Baxter was the comedian who started the notion, and the song was evidently written for him – for pantomime performance. I have been able to find the words, should you want to learn it yourself.)

The other key aspect of the trip was: chips. With brown sauce – or as it’s better known:
salt ‘n’ sauce. It was a treat, partway back on the coach.

I’m sure the place must have reeked of vinegar, but the comfort factor was high, especially important when getting back relatively late.

Having set up such expectations, the next step was to be in pantos myself.

Fortunately, at secondary school, our drama teacher was also the director of the local amateur dramatics society, whose performances included an annual panto.

One year I was in both the school panto and the local panto, along with a good number of friends. (I was never anything particularly important – usually a member of the chorus.)

The rehearsals were a huge source of fun, even though my parents must have been pretty fed up with all the ferrying me about. Singing and limited gesticulation with arms: those
I could do.

(And I do remember some of us getting locked in a music practice room, along the corridor from the stage, and only just getting out at the last minute, thanks to someone’s nifty work with a hairpin to unpick the lock.)

And while the school panto (‘Scrooge’) was only on for one night, the one in the local theatre (‘Jack and the Beanstalk’) ran for a good ten days, I recall – matinee and evening performances.

There was no point coming home in between, so we would all stay on (probably with leftovers sandwiches), play card games and so on.

I don’t know whether there was a veto on more after that – or whether the school work went up. I had probably reached the outer limit of my ‘am dram‘ abilities, in any case.


Christmas Present

We’ve been to a panto with Junior Reader in the last few years – thanks to the efforts of the local theatre near where my parents live.

Two years in a row, a cast almost entirely of kids impressed us all, firstly with ‘Ebeneezer’ (a musical version of A Christmas Carol), and the following year with ‘Oliver!‘ (the popular musical based on Oliver Twist).

This year, no panto – and timings weren’t quite right for alternatives here either.

But today, we made up for it a bit. We had our own extra mini tradition of watching the annual children’s TV panto – where the presenters of various programmes come together to perform a pantomime, one which is also done live and filmed.

Part of the fun is ‘spot the presenter’ – where the storylines usually incorporate some catchphrases of particular shows too.

And this year, I was able to point out some of the special guests, including ones I had watched in my own childhood.

There were audience participation songs. The baddie saw the error of his ways, even if there was less opportunity to shout ‘he’s behind you!’ than in some years.

Familiar storylines, in-jokes. Familiar cast – maybe with special guests. ┬áSlapstick moments, and little times of genuine pathos. Doesn’t that sound like most people’s notion of their own Christmas?