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.
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.
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.