Feature Lesley Blanch, Panto, December 1943

Panto has been a unique feature of the British Christmas season for centuries – even when Britain was at War – until the Covid 19 pandemic forced theatres to close their doors. A few months ago hundreds of protesters – including about half-a-dozen pantomime dames – gathered in Westminster to protest against the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although you can’t see a performance in person, Peter Duncan has responded to the lack of pantomimes around this Christmas in British theatres by filming a production of Jack And The Beanstalk.

To get in the mood, this feature by Lesley Blanch, originally published in British Vogue in December 1943, brings alive the joyful fun and fantasy of this very British tradition.

It’s always On the Road to the Middle of Next Week: unless it’s Nowhere in Particular, with Past Events casting their Shadows before. It’s the Enchanted Cavern, the Flying Palace, the Wicked Wood, the Widow Twankey’s Kitchen, or the Fairies’ Home in the Heart of the Rose . . . It’s the Pork-Butcher’s Shop, It’s the Magic Transformation Scene, It’s the Harlequinade — in short, it’s the Christmas Pantomime.

 And how we dote on every frantic antic; every time-honoured traditional rumbustious caper. This is our show, as national as a Union Jack. What do we care for progress or probability? We have always liked to see the broker’s men smashing up the Throne Room of the Golden Palace. We still like to see Dame Suet, in elastic-sided boots, at the Ball. Or the Widow Twankey, in emeralds and ermine, (after her boy Aladdin struck it lucky), yet still washing out his pants with maternal zeal and mountains of soap suds. We shall always want our Principal Boy to be a buxom blonde with plenty to her. We don’t care if she and her hips are forty, and look it. She’s Prince Charming to us. We love the pneumatic glossy curves of her tights. We wait for the moment when she’s slain the Dragon of Wantage, armed only with ostrich plumes and a top B flat, and comes downstage to give us a fruity rendering of “Half a Pint of Mild and Bitter.”

Who wants Cole Porter now? If the management try to pep up the show with too many transatlantic rhythms we resent it bitterly. We know the long and unique traditions behind our Panto. We savour the cosy, local, almost parochial flavour of the best ones. We like a topical crack or two. Mussolini, for example, will be heaven sent. But we are likely to prefer something crude about the blackout at No. 15, especially if the lodger comes into it. The fact that we are, on the face of it, slicked up to appreciate sophisticated crosstalk means nothing. Every Christmas we’re right back where we started, enjoying all the dated, yet timeless buffoonery, the artless rhymed couplets, the punning sallies, and the endearing crudities of the Demon King, who hatches a fowl plot; the Princess, whose suitors don’t suit’er; the saucy window cleaner Crikee, or Rum-ti, up on the collapsing ladder, who never sau-cy much before. And when Aladdin’s Ma is described as “a bit of old China that’s seen some service” it brings down the house.

This is the fruity flavour of our music halls. Broad innuendo and red-nosed comic gusto. Slap-bottom comics crashing about, belching and winking. And then, all the romantic pathos of the little lost Babes in the Wood, Buttons watching Cinderella eat the Orange, (that scene will go over big this year), Dick Whittington’s seraphic cat, miaowing his good, kind advice, or the shimmering fairyland of the Transformation Scene, as remote and idealised as a heavenly vision. Pantomime is a strange blend of materialism and poetic fancy, like the British character itself.  

And when the smart young people of today think they can guy an old Panto, with Pollock-print decor, stylised gestures, mock-heroics, false busts and all, they fail dismally. They are self-conscious about something which is, basically, natural, (as apart from real, of course). They have forgotten the essential innocence of the audience, and their acceptance of the fundamental aspect of panto.

Good is very, very good, with radiant shining goodness, for all to see. And bad is wicked, with darkness, sulphuric gnashing and snarling in plenty, with a make up which has obviously influenced Mr. Robert Helpmann’s later characterisations. There are no improbabilities, for having accepted Mortals and Immortals, all codes of conduct are likely, from low behaviour: in a Pork-Butcher’s shop to Pumpkin Coaches in a Palace. Panto has no connection with the old Morality plays, and yet, in its simple philosophy of Good and Bad, its triumph of Virtue over Vice, it has a fundamental likeness. It is yet another rendering of man’s eternal struggle between his two selves.

Panto must never be mistaken for children’s entertainment such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Where the Rainbow Ends. True, the young are partial to Panto, but, as it has been succinctly observed, it usually takes four grown-ups to escort one child to the show.

Foreigners find our national drama bewildering, if not boring. Americans are apt to judge it by their sophisticated vaudeville standards. They find it both corny and screwy, while dismissing the Harlequinade, (now, alas, rarely seen), as a bit of bad ballet. But to real fans, the sequinned moonshine of the Harlequinade is the supreme moment in all the long train of Pantomime delights. The immortal figures come tumbling, capering and gliding across the stage. Columbine flits past, her tulle skirts flying. Harlequin is a prismatic streak of quicksilver. His postures, or ‘Animations,’ are all traditional, significant ones, direct from the Commedia dell’Arte: his black mask raps out a sinister, dramatic note among the capers. Such capers. Such divine antics. This is the very texture of magic, and all the immemorial shades close in. Now we are with Rich, the greatest of eighteenth-century Harlequins. Joey Clown, with his string of sausages and his red-hot poker is our link with Grimaldi. The miming, or wordless pantomime of the Harlequinade is handed down direct from those days when Drury Lane and Covent Garden, by means of some sharp practice concerning Patents, forbade the spoken word in any other play-houses. And enforced their ruling to the extent of clapping a French clown into prison for uttering the word “Rosbif“.

Pantomime proper, which, in spite of its name, is as wordy as may be, derives, originally from the Greek: I imitate all. During the Roman feast of Saturnalia, held late in December, men and women changed clothes as part of the general spirit of topsy-turvy carnival. That, it is said, is why our Principal Boy is always played by a girl, and our Dame by a man. This spirit of impertinent misrule continues throughout, (Broker’s men in the Palace, and Robbers vanquished by sparrows). But gradually, the pantomime has come to be identified with the various personalities and mannerisms which the greatest players have each imposed on the original structure. What once began as an impromptu bit of business has passed into the sacrosanctity of tradition, lovingly handed down.

And today, when families are scattered apart, when night-shifts, odd working hours, and all the pressing business of the war has eaten up our leisure, it is a comforting thought that those who cannot reach the many Pantomime shows which will be playing all over Britain will perhaps be able to recapture some of its magic by means of the BBC’s Boxing Day version. For the last two years this has been entrusted to that greatest of authorities, Mr. MacQueen Pope. And it really does succeed. With incredible skill, he has made the ether ensnare all the fruitiest, juiciest flavours, all the nostalgic delights. While as for the troops, out East, Ensa is sending them Cinderella, to be performed at the Opera House in Cairo.

Panto is garlanded with great names. Colly Gibber, Garrick, Grimaldi, the Vokes family, the Woods, the Lupinos, Ellen Terry, Dan Leno. Little Ticb, George Roliey, Vesta Tilley, Fay Compton . . . Some years ago C. B. Cochran, always a devotee of Panto, put on a memorable version of The Babes in the Wood, at the now vanished Oxford Theatre. He had the Dolly Sisters to play the Babes, and the famous Fratellini family clowning and acrobating through the traditional pattern. It was a costly and inexplicable failure. But it lived in the memory of those who saw it as yet another of those many perfectly presented entertainments for which the London theatre must always be grateful to Mr. Cochran.

Yes: Panto still flourishes. The managerial mantle of such impresarios as Harris and Julian Wylie have fallen upon such enterprising traditionalists as Tom Arnold, or Prince and Emil Littler, as well as Jack Hylton, who, though new to the Panto orbit, carries on with style. We still have a rich array of talent around us. Dorothy Ward and her husband, Shaun Glenville, are probably the Royal Family of Panto. She is our darling: a dashing, swashbuckling piece of pure virtuosity, who plays in the heroic, grand manner; and dresses the part, too. Our frontispiece shows her in Mother Goose, her new costume specially designed by Oliver Messel. She represents the all-done-by valour style — Prince Charming or Dick Whittington—as opposed to the more gamine type of Principal Boy who plays Aladdin in the all-done-by-mischief way. Fay Compton is another stunning swaggerer, very much in the grand manner. So was Clarice Mayne, now married to Jimmy Nervo who, with Knox, usually forms a particularly fruity knockabout partnership like the Bold Bad Robbers.

The Dame is, I think, most perfect when played traditionally, by a comic of such genius as Shaun Glenville. George Jackley, G. S. Melvin or Douglas Byng, before he acquired the cabaret style, were each perfection in their own line. Nellie Wallace was the only woman I have seen to play the Dame with that mixture of crudity and gentility which is the Dame’s own signature.

Of Principal Girls I have little to say. It is a thankless role. Beyond looking pretty, in a docile, sugary way, they do not seem to matter very much: they are a symbol of goodness, usually persecuted, to be rescued, restored, but, to put it brutally, they should not be more than an eye-catching stooge. And with that I tender apologies to such a charmer as Miss Polly Ward, who plays the Principal Girl with great success. She has the tact, the stage sense to subordinate herself to the more robust aspects of Panto.

And here I should like to make one slighting reference to those younger players who try to play Panto à la mode, in chic jumpers with slim, kitten-hips, and the latest hair-do. Sophistication has no place either side of the Panto footlights. Be one of it, or with it, or leave it alone. And that goes for audiences too. Take it, or leave it, literally.

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