This is the time of year when my legendary sunny personality turns grumpy. The reason? In a word — pantomime. One of the best months of the year for openings turns overnight into a theatrical desert in which common sense, artistic taste and intellectual rigor disappear into a welter of bathroom jokes, television comedians and painted canvas animals with two men inside them. In this country we have so little respect for our children that we subject them, every Christmas, to these appalling entertainments full of sexual innuendo, which they don't understand, and bad scriptwriting that is excused by labeling it traditional.
For those readers across the Atlantic who are lucky enough never to have been in England during "panto" season, I should explain. I can give you a lot of guff about how it grew out of commedia del'arte in the 16th century — touring companies of actors around Europe performing simple plots with stock characters, such as Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloons and Pierrot — and how it subsequently developed from dumb show to spoken and sung entertainments in the 18th century, and what happened to it after that, but what it has now, in the 21st century, developed into is what I think of as a specifically English form of theatrical torture.
Fairy tales — "Babes in the Wood," "Snow White," "Cinderella," "Ali Baba," and so on — are purloined by theatre companies the length and breadth of Britain and served up to the nation's children, decorated with terrible songs, to many of which the kids are asked to sing along, as theatre. Children are encouraged to shout back at the characters and are very often brought up on stage as part of the action. There is a large cast of singers and dancers, specialty acts that have nothing to do with the plot (they're often the best bits) and as much sparkle and spangle as the hard-pressed theatre can afford.
The tradition is that the two leading roles are always played by actors of opposite gender. The Principal Boy is usually a pair of female legs attached to a delectable form that has competed on "Strictly Come Dancing" or some other reality show, while the Dame is usually a well-known burly comedian with hairy legs wearing shock-horror dresses which he changes with every scene. This is often the character whose script, while pretending to entertain the children, is replete with sexual images meant for their parents. For reasons I have never fathomed, sometimes great actors queue up to play these roles. On one recent year, Ian McKellen was the Dame and Roger Allam played Abanazer in a specially mounted (and sold out) production of Aladdin at the Old Vic, no less.
Every town and city has a panto in even its most respectable theatres at Christmas. It is as though the collective taste of the theatre-going public has been temporarily amputated for the six weeks of the festive season. The performers are indeed professionals but so tightly are they bound into the conventions of panto that even the experienced stage actors cannot demonstrate their art for the kids and, these days, the Dame and Principal Boy are usually performed by television stars who have never been on a stage before.
But the real problem is that these shows, which are neither real musical theatre nor plays, are in almost every case the only live theatre that England's children will get to see all year. I would have no objection if they were simply part of the rich tapestry that is British theatre, seen alongside many other shows during the year, but for many these are the only experience they will have until they are adults. No wonder the theatre is declining among the young.
It should also be stated, as firmly as possible, that London particularly and our other big cities as well, produce wonderful theatre for children and young people throughout the year. It is harder to find audiences for these brilliant, thoughtful, and humorous productions because there is no longer the habit of taking children to the theatre from an early age. Except, every Christmas, to a panto.
I thought pantos were silly, unfunny and boring when I was six years old and I still do. So, as Scrooge would say, "Bah, humbug!"
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