Unsung National Treasures – 3 – Pantomime

The Russians have ballet, the Italians have opera, the French have impressionist art. The British national art form though is not high culture, in fact it’s not considered to be any kind of culture. It’s so much part of the background at this time of year that its true status in British life is invisible. You see, the British national art form is Pantomime.

Most people who aren’t actually British have no idea what Pantomime is. A few non-Brits who have over-wintered in the UK may have been taken to a pantomime by unusually malicious British friends but by and large pantomime is a peculiarly private national vice. And I do mean “peculiarly”.

First of all – what pantomime is not: It’s not venetian. It isn’t mime. It isn’t dance.

And now what it is: it’s silly, it’s funny, it’s vulgar, crude and innocent. It’s childish and seasonal. It’s frequently a young Britlet’s first and maybe only introduction to theatre. Most interestingly of all, it’s a loose collection of rituals and conventions wrapped up in any one of a dozen or so traditional plots. And that’s really the point of going to a pantomime – waiting for and enjoying the wierdness as it comes out and beats you over the head with the subtlety of a string of sausages.

The principal boy in the pantomime might be a prince or a pauper, Charming, Aladdin, Jack; it varies from pantomime to pantomime and almost doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters about the principle boy is that she should have shapely thighs. The principal boy, you see, should be played by a girl.

Principal Boy

This delightful piece of cross-dressing is counterbalanced by the Dame, usually a maternal figure, usually on the side of good guys, always presented as a grotesque and always played as camp as Christmas by a middle aged man.

Pantomime Dame

The actual heroine, Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, is sweetly played by a fully dressed woman, and she really is rather dull, bless her. She’s often by a soap star who has seen better days; there’s an odd cachet to playing panto these days, but it is one which no-one bothers even trying to explain when looking for work abroad.

Some pantomimes have demon kings and others have fairy godmothers and most have a comic sidekick or two. I hesitate to say “straight man” in this context, however anything less homoerotic than a pantomime is hard to imagine.

Pantomimes are full of slapstick and prattfalls, full of clowns clowning around, full of awful puns, appalling jokes and ludicrous double- and single-entendres.


The dramatic tension in a pantomime doesn’t come from plot or characterisation, it comes from where and how the ritualised elements will be incorporated. There should be a horse played by two actors in a single costume; camels are permissible in Aladdin, Sinbad or Ali Baba, but they aren’t really hardcore because if you are playing the back hump of the camel you can just about stand up straight. You see, that’s the whole point of the pantomime horse: one bloke you can’t see has his head up the bum of another bloke you can’t see, and I still say it’s not homoerotic. Though I admit you’d be deeply worried by pantomime if you were an anthropologist from Mars.

Someone will hold a ritualised argument with the audience – oh yes they will – oh no they won’t – oh yes they will, and at some point two actors will rotate on stage in such a way that one of them cannot see the other – despite loud shouts of “He’s beHIND you” from every audience member under the age of seven. Anyone under four foot tall in the first ten rows of the stalls will be brought up on stage to help sing a song the words of which will are painted on a bed-sheet and winched down from the flies. Sweets will be thrown at the audience.

Pantomimes are gloriously surreal, like Music Hall on acid. What I find fascinating though is that nationally we have no idea what we have here. We don’t take pantomime to the world as our national art form even though that is precisely what it is, with the Carry On films, I’m sorry I haven’t a Clue and McGill‘s seaside postcards expressing the same innocent filth in other media. We are almost unaware of just how peculiar and wonderful pantomime actually is. Panto is brilliant, wierd, idiosyncratic, silly, ritualised, great fun and uniquely British.

Ladies and gentlemen, as my panto-season gift to you, I offer you the unsung national treasure which no-one wants to publicise abroad.

Oh no they don’t.

Thank goodness.


25 responses to “Unsung National Treasures – 3 – Pantomime

  1. I was lucky enough to work backstage on a Panto here in Perth many years ago. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

    In your list of similar British umm – drama – are the traditional post-war BBC series – The Goons, Round the Horn, Take It From Here and all those other fondly remembered shows.

    Luckily, Australia has sufficient British roots to continue the tradition.

  2. I was taken to Panto when i was a child. I’ve never been the same since.

  3. Really enjoyed reading your panto post. All my life, my mother has told me stories of going to the panto during the holiday season. I always wanted to see a panto and never made it across the Atlantic during the season for it, so I decided to direct one at the performing arts school where I teach. We used a script from the UK, a version of Mother Goose, and it had everything except I did not choose to make the lead boy a girl. (I don’t think that would have played well in our age group.) We did have an 8th grade boy who was brave and talented enough to play Mother G. It was riotous fun and our students loved it. I will do another one day,for sure.

  4. We have our own little British export here in Copenhagen – the Crazy Christmas Cabaret just these days is having its 25 years anniversary panto anniversary šŸ™‚

    Most things are exactly as you mention – though also here, the principal boy is played by a man. And the audience is 16 or up or so – mainly as it is in English but with the humour on display, it’s probably as well.

    Mrs SG V and I have seen the show and shouted on request (oh, yes we have!) almost every year since 1988. One nice thing is that the company always sneaks in one or two references to previous years – a comment, a name or something – to provide some kind of continuity.

    This year it was “Fogg’s Off!” – loosely based on Jules Verne. One little known historical fact is that Dr Bent Van Helsingor (a character included every year and played by lead actress Vivienne McKee – so there is one male role played by a lady!) was the inventor of the hot air balloon šŸ˜‰

    Merry Christmas and happy pantoing!

  5. I’m a veteran of a few panto’s myself, it’s a difficult thing to explain to my Americans friends but it’s rare to find and Englishman that has never worn a dress. Great blog. Merry Xmas

  6. I just got back this evening from my very first panto experience (oh, yes it was!), and I have to say that I loved every minute of it. I loved the horrible acting, the tired jokes and the shouting, singing and laughing along with the actors on stage.

    What I loved the most was watching my children enjoy their first theatrical experience. They were enchanted, and I felt that I was watching a lifelong memory being created before my eyes.

    This is a wonderful British tradition that I am proud to take part in.

  7. Archie, I’m so pleased that the migrants to Australia packed panto with them in their trunks.

    Solsouterthoughts, panto does that to people!

    Village Green, good to hear you’re starting a tradition on that side of the Atlantic. Your production sounds great.

    Santra, I thought of you and the Copenhagen troupe when I was writing this. Good to know they’re still going strong.

    Stephen, you do know I am now going to ask every Englishman who stands still long enough when they last wore a dress. I work in Yorkshire. It should be interesting research.

    RasinCookies, I am thrilled that you took your children to panto – I do hope you say long enough here for it to become a family tradition.

    Thanks all for reading and commenting.


  8. Glad you made it back safely, and with such a wonderful description of pantomime. I have read about it in several books, usually it is the back ground scenario for a mystery, and I have never found such a great description of what pantomime actually is. Sounds like exactly the sort of theatrical experience that I would love to death.

    Somehow, as I read the ingredients, I can’t help but thinking that the gentlemen who live in the Castro District of San Francisco could make pantomime into a most high camp art form if they took it to their “bosoms”.

  9. They’d be great at it, hmh. Panto’s camp as Christmas, which is presumably where the phrase comes from. Not homoerotic at all, but camp as they come. As it were. See, I’m doing it now.

    Glad to have helped explain some cultural byeways for you.


  10. I love panto, but only if it does it properly, with principal boy, good and bad powers speaking in (badly) rhyming couplets, preferably a ghost/spider/mummy that chases everyone away one character at a time, and all that.

    My greatest acting ambition is to be a panto villain, but I have yet to perform in one in any capacity. I love the shouting, the traditions, the singalong, the costumes (the dame’s, mostly), the truly random insertion of songs only vaguely related (if at all) to the plot, the slapstick, the person in a minor role who’s never done any theatre before and looks really confused…

    I prefer it with only a small number of celebrities, or no celebrities, but it’s wonderful. Terribly, terribly, British. And wonderful.

  11. May I bring up an issue of semantics (oo-err, fnnarr fnnarr)? I’m sure that in my youth, ‘bosom’ was very much as singular word describing the whole lady’s chest area. It was a word that unerringly brought to mind Nurse Gladys Emmanuel. Now, however, I see ‘bosoms’ far more often (once again, fnnarr). Is it just me?

  12. Thank you for adding to the list of traditions – I’d forgotten the rhyming couplets bit and I hadn’t realised that the chasing-away-one-person-at-a-time was traditional, but it does explain an otherwise completely inexplicable scene in the version of Cinderella we saw in Blackpool last week. It was at the tower circus, and Dandini was standing in from one of the circus acts – I swear blind his voice was being played by someone off stage while he lip-synched. Very odd to watch a live performer who looks badly dubbed. Not traditional but disturbingly appropriate, somehow.

    Surely a bosom is fully, and possibly rather starchily clad, Scribbler, while bosoms are in a state of partial or complete undress? Though healing magic hands was referring to more than one presumably fully clad and possibly false bosom, hence bosoms.


    Interesting though.

    Thanks both for reading and commenting.


  13. Interesting indeed – and leading to the question, ‘At what stage of undress does a bosom become a set of bosoms?’

    Not overly important but a nice image to dwell upon.

  14. My eleven-year-old daughter was in the dance chorus of the panto at our local theatre. It was Cinderella and it was utterly brilliant. She missed two weeks of school but she gained a world of theatre experience.

    The panto was the best I’ve seen, slightly biased though I may be. The two ugly sisters were the campest and the funniest ever and their interaction with the audience was riotous but perfectly balanced.

    And they had a real live Shetland pony so none of that heads-up-bums lark.

    Thanks Aphra for bigging up the good-old British Panto!

  15. Pingback: A lad in a panto « The Singing Librarian Talks (or Writes…)

  16. Mike Whitaker

    You’ll be pleased to know that the panto tradition is alive and well in the most unlikely of places such as Cambodia! At the beginning of February this year, I saw the Phnom Penh Players version of “Hamlet” done as a pantomime. It was aimed at the English language community there, but needed explaining to any non-Brits. It just so happens that I have recently finished writing a panto based on the Carry On characters with a villainous Baron and pantomime horse etc. The script is at this very moment winging its way to Phnom Penh with a view to a possible world premiere in Cambodia. Anyone else interested in reading it?

  17. Danny Whitehead


    As the writer of the Phnom Penh Players’ “Hamlet: The Panto”, I’d love to hear your feedback – particularly as I didn’t even get chance to stay in Phnom penh for the show due to work commitments :(.

    I’d also be very interested in reading your script, and can put you in touch with the PPP board members, who I am sure would be very interested in giving you a world premier!

  18. Mike, the thought of ‘Hamlet the Panto’ is surreal enough without adding Phnom Penh into the mix. My mind had simply blanked out the cognitive dissonances which is why I ignored your post for so long. Oh yes it is.

    Danny, how exciting that my blog is providing a place, a forum, a stage for playwrights to meet and – er – play.

    I’m foolishly careful of other people’s email addresses but the moment one of you gives me the go-ahead I’ll forward your email address on to the other one of you.



  19. Mike Whitaker

    Dear Aphra,
    I’ve just read your entry and Danny’s and would very much like to get in contact, so please pass my email address to him.
    Thanks for your comments and the facility you’re providing for playwrights to meet!



  20. As director (and last minute dumb big evil guy) of the before mentioned Hamlet Panto in Phnom Penh and hopefully of the next one, I want to say to Mike: I already have your script; got it right before my holiday and will read it soon. To Danny, but more to anyone who he promises to send you his script: don’t hold your breath, his motto in life is: “Deadlines are great, I loves the swooshing sound when they fly by.” But the script was bloody great though.
    My average English might have been a give-away, but I’m Dutch and I directed a Panto buwahaha; we’re taking over all the good stuff.

  21. Hello Barry and Aphra!
    Barry – glad you got the script and hope you like it. Let me know your thoughts via Seb Blockley or Brian Webster who have my email address or…..
    Aphra – if you could extend your liaison services to Barry and let him have my email address, I would be most grateful.



  22. Willdo Mike.



  23. Pingback: The Fairy Godmother Meme « Aphra Behn - danger of eclectic shock

  24. I came across your site whilst trying to explain to a Serbian (female) friend, also an English teacher, about the idea of a Principal Boy, and thigh slapping… a few years ago, trying to explain ‘pantomime’ to my Polish language students… you should have seen their faces! ‘Pantomime’ there simply means ‘mime’. Alas, my friend is contemplating the costume for a fancy dress party, but is afraid her legs aren’t up to it… Oh, and yes, I’ve worn a dress, most lately 4 years ago as that ‘Lady’ from Little Britain in our school Christmas show – staff panto for the students… not the first time either. Doubtless not the last. And I’m 6’2″, bearded, heterosexual and wore combat boots under the dress! Seemed perfectly natural to me…

  25. I’m lucky enough to be an actor in an annual community pantomime in Edinburgh. You don’t really realise how much work goes into a pantomime, or indeed any show until you actually get up on stage and vow to embarrass yourself infront on 200 people!

    You’re explanation of pantomime, and it’s place in British culture wowed me. Simple terms for a simple man. Thank you!

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