By Charles S.P. Jenkins

It is that time of year again when most suburban theatres in London and provincial towns around the country are in the middle of preparations for their annual pantomime. Many local societies and organizations, both theatrical and social, are also organizing amateur pantomime productions in the hope of raising money to support themselves. Pantomime is that peculiarly English theatre presentation that is both a musical comedy and satire and performed at Christmas time. Its origins seem to be in the Mummer.s Play of the Middle Ages and the commedia following its arrival in England during the Restoration. Whatever the origins, panto, as it is called, is great fun! Pantomime requires audience participation and allows the adults present to forget their woes and the state of the world and display childhood behaviours along with their kids. Pantomime always follows a plot, which is based on a fairy story or nursery rhyme. .Cinderella., .Aladdin., .Jack and the Beanstalk. and .Mother Goose. are favourite stories that lend themselves well to pantomime. Each offers a hero or heroine, a villain and an assortment of characters to either aid or hinder the hero/heroine in their quest to go to the ball find their princess/prince and infinite riches in addition. What is peculiar about pantomime is casting: the hero or .principal boy. is played by a woman; there is always a female character, known as a Dame, who is a figure of fun and is generally the mother of the villain and is played by a man; and a villain, who is extremely fierce and intended to frighten the children to some extent. The Dame and the villain interact with the audience and there is much bantering and shouting back and forth between them all. What is also peculiar about pantomime is that although intended for children it can be rude or racy. There are multiple double-entendres, which seem to be believed to amuse the adults, but will go over the heads of the kids. When I was a child, I liked Cinderella better than other pantomimes. Here there were three Dame-like characters, the stepmother and the two ugly sisters, and their interactions were always comic. There is also the humorous character, Buttons, who supports Cinderella against her sisters. Although he loves Cinderella, he has no chance. Traditionally he is played by a man, while Prince Charming is played by a woman, but in modern times, not always. Last December, I went to see Cinderella at the Hackney Empire in the East End. I had not been inside this theatre since 1956. This is a gem of a theatre and has undergone a major renovation recently and returned to its former glory. Although the pantomime was still traditional, it reflected changes in society. Hackney, like most of London and other British cities, has huge populations of both Bangladeshi and West Indian descent. White English people are very much in the minority here. The current demographics were reflected in the casting of the pantomime: Cinderella was of West Indian descent as was one of the ugly sisters, the Prince was of Bangladeshi descent while the stepmother, the other ugly sister and Buttons were white. However everyone sounded as Londoners do today, which is a far cry from the accent heard on PBS. Multiculturalism was also reflected in the tempos of the songs especially written for the production. When I was a child, my parents took me to the Hackney pantomime each Christmas Eve. They were spectacular events and always entertaining. People came from all over London and from surrounding areas to attend them, and the critics always wrote glowing reviews. I was pleased to see that Cinderella 2011 was as good as those older productions. Cinderella was as beautiful; the prince was as handsome; Buttons was as entertaining; and the Dame and the ugly sisters were as grotesque, in an amusing manner, and as funny as ever. The staff were also friendly if no longer dressed in a deep red livery. At one time, the most lavish pantomimes were produced at the London Palladium. Long heralded as the greatest of music halls, pantomime reached its zenith here after the war until the mid-1960s. This was under the guidance of impresario Val Parnell, who staged lavish productions and brought the greatest American acts to the London stage and presented them with the very best of British entertainers. Between the mid-1950s and early 1960s, rock singers appeared in pantomime. They generally played the prince or Buttons, but always came out of character to perform their hits. Even the Beatles did Christmas shows in 1963 and 1964. Although these shows were not strictly pantomimes, apparently they did appear in various seasonal costumes. Other musical groups of the time, however did appear in pantomime, but this did not include the Rolling Stones! One of the most loved of pantomimes is perhaps not a pantomime. For many years following World War II, the J.M. Barrie play, Peter Pan, was presented at London.s Scala Theatre each Christmas. Unlike the traditional pantomime, there was no music and no Dame. The only thing in common with the traditional pantomime was that Peter Pan was always played by a woman, and many well-known actresses coveted the role. The villain, Captain Hook, was likewise played by an actor of some note. The copyright of the play was given to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children by J.M. Barrie, which it held for 70 years, generating a great deal of money. Following 2007, although UK rights to the play entered the public domain, a new organization, Theatres for Theatres, was started and has raised over eight million dollars to build new operating theatres at the hospital, the first of which opened this year. British comedians and singers have performed in pantomime since Edwardian times, and these spectaculars were presented on the great music hall circuits that once existed in Britain. With the advent of radio and television, anyone with a popular show was guaranteed a spot in pantomime since audiences wanted to see their favourite performers in the flesh. Most of the cast of EastEnders have appeared in pantomime at some time or other in their careers. Ross Kemp (Grant Mitchell), believe it or not, is no stranger to pantomime, and neither it would seem is the other Mitchell brother, Steve McFadden (Phil), as last year saw his debut playing Captain Hook. This year, he will be the villain, Abanazar, in Aladdin. Imagine that, Phil as the villain! It is traditional to HISS and BOO at the villain whenever he comes on or off the stage and the louder the HISS, the greater the success. I would not be surprised to hear that the roof of the theatre was blown off on the first night! Almost as surprising as finding the Mitchells in pantomime is the surfacing of John Altman (Nick Cotton) there. This year will see Adam Woodyatt (Ian), Shane Ritchie (Alfie) and other cast members in pantomime. Letitia Dean (Sharon) has played a witch and fairy godmothers since 2007. Barbara Windsor (Peggy) is no stranger to the genre and even appeared with Bruno Toniol of Dancing With the Stars in a 2008 TV pantomime. Wendy Richard (Pauline), Gillian Tayforth (Kathy), Anita Dobson (Angie), Jill Halfpenny (Kate) and Hannah Waterman (Laura), along with Paul Brady (Nigel) and Nicola Duffett (Debbie, Nigel.s wife), have appeared in pantomime. Although Sid Owen (Ricky) starred in pantomime in 2011, I find no evidence that Patsy Palmer (Bianca) has. And neither have Jessie Wallace (Kat), Lucy Speed (Natalie) or Natalie Cassidy (Sonia). By the way, the nearest Nigel Harman (Dennis) got to pantomime was playing Lord Farquaad in Shrek. Recently some Americans have discovered the joys of pantomime: Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky & Hutch) and Henry Winkler (The Fonz) have appeared as Captain Hook; Pamela Anderson (of Baywatch, among others) played the Genie of the Lamp in Aladdin, and David Hasselhoff (also of Baywatch) seems to be turning his Captain Hook into a regular job, as 2012 will mark his third outing. Both Mickey Rooney and Danny Kaye took on pantomime roles, but the big news is that this year marks the pantomime debut of Priscilla Presley as the Wicked Queen in Snow White. One wonders who will be next to succumb to the joys of panto! Not Joan Collins, as she.s already been Queen Rat in a production of Dick Whittington! Not all presentations of pantomime are geared towards children. For example in 1994, Barbara Windsor, Mike Reid (Frank Butcher) and John Altman appeared in an adult version of the classic pantomime Puss in Boots. I am told that this was very .adult.. Pam St. Clements (Pat) appeared in Platoon the Panto, which was a pantomime send-up of the movie. Remember, in pantomime, nothing is sacred. Check out Charles.s websites at: East End Memories, and Tales of London,; and follow him on Facebook at Charles has just published two books, Noirs for Sale, Books One and Two, at the Amazon Kindle Store. Letitia Dean: I.m nervous about EastEnders return because of

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