Oh no, he didn't! Or, Oh yes, he did!! These are words that ring out from both children and adults alike during the many Pantomime performances at this time of year in UK. No, we haven't all gone mad. Never heard of a Panto or Pantomime? Well, this could be your lucky day!!
Pantomime, as we know it today is a theatrical show predominantly aimed at children, based on a popular fairy tale or folk legend. The most popular subjects being "Cinderella", followed by "Aladdin", "Dick Whittington" and "Snow White". Although any story linked with a fairy tale or traditional children's story such as Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk etc can be used.
In the UK, the word "Pantomime" means a form of entertainment, generally performed during the Christmas season during the months of December and January. Most cities and towns throughout the UK have a form of Pantomime. The origins of British Pantomime or "Panto" as it is known date back to the middle ages, taking on board the traditions of the Italian "Commedia dell’ Arte, the Italian night scenes in which actors concentrated on miming along with song and dance, and British Music hall to produce an intrinsic art form that constantly adapted to survive up to the present day. Panto has been attempted abroad, usually with a small amount of success. Not surprisingly it has proved popular in countries such as Canada, Australia. However, in America this very British art form has been less popular, although in 1868 a production of "Humpty Dumpty" ran for over 1,200 performances at the Olympic Theatre, New York, making it the most successful Pantomime in American history!
Pantomime has always combined many elements of theatre throughout its existence. By adapting itself it has managed to survive. The main element includes the most important one of tradition with a strong well known story line. The tale has to be well told, incorporating the all important elements of good battling against evil, and emerging triumphant. In this respect, the concept varies little from the medieval morality plays, performed on village greens. To this day "tradition" says that the Pantomime villain should be the first to enter, from the "dark side", stage left, followed by his adversary the good fairy from stage right. This echoes the tradition in medieval times when the entrances to heaven and hell were placed on these sides. The evil character is booed and hissed at as he enters. Whenever he asks the audience whether something is true or not they will always respond in the opposite. Hence the 'oh yes, you did' versus the 'oh no, you didn't' tradition.
Another important element of a good Panto is the slap stick humour. This could be derived from the original Harlequin character who would know when the scenery should be changed, and it is believed he would "Clap" his slapstick to indicate that this should happen, in the form of an audible cue. It could well be the start of the old superstition that it was bad luck to clap your hands behind the scenes at the back of the stage for fear that the heavy scenery would be moved at an inappropriate time thus causing an accident.
One of the main characters in a Panto is the Pantomime Dame, usually the hero’s mother, such as Widow Twankey in "Aladdin" or "Dame Trott" in Jack and the Beanstalk. She was a creation that emerged from the early Music Halls of the Victorian era.
The Ugly Sisters differ from the Dame in that they have to tread the thin tightrope between being hugely comic characters, and yet still remain the villains of the piece. They were originally played by women but from the mid 1800 men took on the characters.
Tradition also states that the principal boy role should be played by a woman and not a man. The Victorian male, living in a society where even the legs of the parlour piano were covered for modesty’s sake , craved the vision of a well turned calf, or shapely ankle.
Whilst ladies were corseted, crinolined or bustled on the street, artistic license allowed ladies upon the stage to wear costumes that revealed shapely legs in tights on condition that they were playing a male role!
Seldom featured, and yet indispensable, Pantomime could not survive without its chorus of dancers, and indeed its troupes of juveniles or “Babes” as they are known. Today, for reasons of economy the troupe will consist of 6 -8 boys and girls.
In addition to the usual characters on stage modern technology in the form of computer graphics has been used to be incorporated in the performances to enhance lighting effects and sounds to help keep the show as modern and up to date as possible.
And so, my friends, you have a very brief recount of the traditional British Panto! For many years to come it will remain as the traditional activity for the Christmas period. A visit to a pantomime may be a child’s first experience of live theatre. If that experience is magical enough, it can leave a lasting impression. In a world where children are surrounded by computer games and videos, DVD's and the all pervasive influences of television, a visit to a pantomime could be a catalyst.
The tradition will continue, children will shout "Oh yes it is!" as loudly as ever, and, when the actor in the white sheet waves his arms behind our hero and goes "Whoo" Whooo!", children of all ages will still cry out "Its-behind-you!"