Christmas can be the most hectic and stressful time of the year, so when the golden opportunity comes along to set aside the red-hot credit card and the endless list of things to do, the choice of entertainment to get you into the Christmas spirit is all important. For some that might mean sitting at home, feet up with a mug of hot chocolate or glass of mulled wine watching TV offerings such as the Absolutely Fabulous Christmas special. For others, a trip to the cinema could be beckoning, with attractions such as ‘Arthur Christmas’ in 3D, written by Cardiff born Peter Baynham.
For those of us who needed a reminder about another way to enjoy the run up to Christmas or to help dispel the post Christmas blues, Sainsbury’s marketing team has come up with the answer. Oh yes they have! In their Christmas advertising campaign Jamie Oliver has invited a host of colourful characters to enjoy a Christmas banquet. The guests include Cinderella, her three ugly sisters, Captain Hook, a man-size goose, a fairy god-mother, and last but not least Dobbin. Panto season has arrived. Oh yes it has!
Panto has its origins in the 16th century Italian commedia dell’ arte tradition, namely ‘artistic comedy’ yet has become a traditional British form of Christmas entertainment. It begs the question, what is it about panto that has helped it survive down the ages and still be rated by T.V advertisers as having a selling hook (excuse the pun) and by the Royal Mail, as deserving to have its characters featured on this year’s festive postage stamps.
Panto offers a mix of song, dance, cross dressing and drama, featuring much-loved characters from childhood stories. When I talked to Christmas shoppers on the streets of Cardiff, it was obvious that what they expected from going to a panto was to enjoy the visual spectacle and receive a dose of good clean fun.
Panto’s are primarily targeted at children but obviously they need to attract the adults to pay for the tickets. The comedy element of a pantomime therefore, needs to entertain both adults and young alike.
An all important comedic ingredient of a panto performance comes from the sight of hairy men dressed as women with huge bosoms, huge hair, faces plastered in heavy make-up and tottering around the stage in high heels. Added to this is the slap-stick humour and the saucy, but mild enough innuendos to go over the heads of younger children.
The other ingredient unique to panto is the actively encouraged audience participation. Panto’s wouldn’t be panto’s without the audience enthusiastically booing at the villains and frustratingly trying to help the goodies, by screaming out the whereabouts of the baddies, using instantly recognisable catch-phrases such as “He’s Behind you- Oh no he isn’t- Oh yes he is.”
Some might argue you could sit in front of the television and be entertained by the wide range of Christmas listings, so why make the effort to go and see a pantomime?
To get the opinion of someone who truly understands the value of live comedy, I talked to comedian Robin Morgan, who organises comedy events in Cardiff. I asked him if the choice of entertainment on TV meant pantomime had lost its special place.
In today’s high tech world of special effect films showing in multiplex cinemas and the technology to turn your own living room into a home cinema experience with widescreen high-definition television, I wondered if pantomime was becoming out-dated. Having noticed that some productions have introduced 3D effects e.g. Aladdin, I asked Robin Morgan whether he felt pantomime needed to move with the times, to try to compete with its Christmas entertainment rivals.
Probably sharing the motivation of many panto goers, I’ve booked a seat in the New Theatre in Cardiff, to enjoy a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Matt Smith, Marketing director of the theatre, is the man behind the scenes of this year’s pantomime ‘Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates,’ starring one of the country’s top dames, Christopher Biggins and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin.
Having been totally gripped by the spirit of panto, I couldn’t resist getting into character, “ooooo, aaarrgh shipmates, shiver me timbers,” when I interviewed Matt Smith. He was very optimistic about the future of pantomime.
I’m looking forward to enjoying the traditional, magical treats of panto. I‘ll be screaming out ‘he’s behind you,’ booing at the baddies, and laughing at the antics of Dame Christopher Biggins. I won’t be too disappointed if Dobbin doesn’t make a personal appearance, after all he might get seasick but I’ll be celebrating the fact that he’s still treading, or should I say trotting, the boards of theatres up and down the country. For any doubting Thomas’ out there, I can assure you Dobbin is still alive and kicking. In fact he’s behind you!
Pantomimes showing in South East Wales: