In the middle ages, mystery plays performed from the back of a farm cart or on a simple platform by mummers and troops of itinerant actors, toured the country’s fairs and market days.
There is a decided nip in the air. As you go out of the front door in the morning, you reach for your coat and blow into your hands.
Those little jobs that you had saved for the light evenings have been set aside in favour of your favourite program or book and the comfort of your favourite armchair.
The kids, always one step ahead of us, have been dropping heavy hints about ‘surprise’ Christmas gifts they hope to receive, each of increasingly unfathomable technology, expense and questionable wisdom.
Then, just as you are informed of your own special role in the forthcoming festivities, you are gently reminded that, “Everyone is coming to us over the Christmas holiday,” and a desperately brilliant diversion flashes into your mind. “Let’s all go to the pantomime this year.”
I can still remember my first panto even now, the setting off after dark all muffled up with coats and scarves and gloves, (‘Gloves not to be lost in the crowd or left on the top deck of the number twenty three bus into town,’), the frosty pavements and the halo around each street lamp. Then the much repeated stories of pantos past, outrageous characters, amazing transformations and the spicy horror of perhaps being called from the audience to join in song with the other children on the stage, all filled a very young and impressionable head with awe and wonder.
All this, even before we alighted in front of the theatre, there to gaze in wonderment at the glittering theatre marquee with its garish posters of giants, fairy god-mothers, handsome princes and towering castles, all surrounded by a myriad lights and the thronging, expectant crowds of bright-eyed theatre-goers surging about the plush crimson and gold staircase of the chandeliered foyer.
It was as if we were being invited to step into the very heart of the tale ourselves.
It is somehow amazing and wonderful that much of that same outrageously anarchic experience, that the Christmas panto represents, is still with us today.
Gloriously unfashionable, incredibly silly and quite outside the usual experience of modern youth, it is probably still fair to say that the pantomime will, even so, represent most children’s first experience of theatre even to this day.
So where did it all begin? Well, no one seems quite to know so opinions differ. Pantomime, as we recognise it now, seems to be a creation of the Victorian era but parts of its traditions originate far earlier than this.
Why is the part of the dame generally played by a man? Why is the principle boy traditionally played by a girl? How is it that, almost uniquely in the theatre, the audience is encouraged to become so raucously involved? Why are the costumes so tastelessly gaudy? Why are the sets so extravagantly dated, traditional and over indulgent, each imitating a tinsel-sprinkled Christmas card?
It’s all a bit of a mystery.
And a bit of a mystery is where it seems all to have started.
They brought to the general population simplified bawdy and sensational interpretations of biblical stories moral tales and were probably the first examples of play acting that simple folk experienced.
In the sixteenth century, the impromptu buffoonery and gender role swapping of the Comedie del Arte brought an Italian influence to popular performance.
But in sixteenth century England the stage was still no occupation for a lady and women were banned from taking part altogether, so any female role in the tale must, of necessity, have been played by a man.
Throughout Elizabethan England, while Shakespeare was pre-eminent, the law still prevailed and you can just imagine the lewd part of ‘The Nurse’ in Romeo and Juliet being played by a short, stocky bloke of rugby forward proportions.
It is just this tradition that is being honoured today in the part of the panto dame with the emphasis being place more and more on the outrageous comedy of the situation.
By the Victorian era, women had entered the acting profession but the strict public prudery of the age demanded that decorous dress of the fairer sex should always prevail. However, by this time, the music hall, so enjoyed for its risqué entertainment had become so popular that pantomime began to adopt many of its characteristics like the sing along and audience participation and a legal loophole was discovered to get around the ladies’ restrictive dress code.
Actresses were now permitted to play even male roles on stage provided that they modestly covered their legs so breeches (pants) were stipulated as part of their dress and ‘breeches’ roles then became more and more popular as the breeches themselves became ever more revealing, thus exposing the shapely females legs to an appreciative male section of the audience.
Modestly draped piano legs may have prevailed in the home but at the panto the female leg held sway in the character of the principle boy (still referred to today as the ‘breeches’ role.)
More often, these days the ‘breeches’ roles have given way to the young male lead being played by a handsome pop star and you can see how, just as in Victorian days, casting is driven by the desire to fill theatre seats in accordance with popular demand and to give the pantomime audience what it wants to see.
In its turn, this too will become eventually a part of the grand tradition that we know as British pantomime.
So what’s it to be for us? There is a wealth of entertainment and choice waiting out there. Will it be a traditional panto like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ at the Riverfront in Newport?
How about ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in the Congress theatre in Cwmbran? The enchanting fairy tale story of ‘Snow White’ at Blackwood Miners’ Institute, or perhaps a special trip to Cardiff’s New Theatre for a magnificent performance of ‘Aladdin’ which will be performed over the whole Christmas and New Year period.
To extend your rich season of pantomime, The Borough Theatre in Abergavenny traditionally stages its own pantomime during the spring half term.
It too will present its own version of ‘Aladdin’, so turn up in fine voice to hiss and boo as Abanazar uses his wicked ways to capture the magic lamp.
Well, I don’t know about you but I can’t wait to get off and book my tickets. I really cannot resist a good panto and just for this edition of the magazine, my sketchbook records a few happy panto moments. I just know that this Christmas is going to be the best one ever….. “Oh yes it is!!”