Love It Or Loathe It, It's Panto Time

18/11/2012 22:32 | Updated 22 May 2015
Christmas pantomimeAlamy

Love it or hate it (and most people seem to fall into one of those camps), the cross-dressing, innuendo-fuelled, custard pie frenzy of pantomime is as much a part of a traditional British Christmas as sprouts and the Queen's speech. Oh yes it is.

So what is it about panto that keeps on drawing the Christmas crowds, and should you don your Christmas hat and embrace the tradition or go all scrooge and banish it alongside the broken decorations and the Chas and Dave Christmas knees up?

I confess I haven't ever actually been to a pantomime. It wasn't part of our family experience when I was a child. Since my own children were born though, a festive theatre trip has become an annual treat. So far we have enjoyed stage versions of favourite children's books – The Gruffalo, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and so on – but the children are getting older, and this year I am wondering if it is time to face the panto music and dance.

The two older children went last year – with grandparents and school – and loved it.


They returned home stuffed with sweets and delighted with a new repertoire of scatological jokes and comedy insults.


"Panto is brilliant because you get to sing silly songs, the actors get everything wrong, and there are sweets at half time," explained Alice, six. Her brother Charlie, eight, meanwhile enjoyed "jokes about bottoms, shouting out, 'oh yes he is' and the fact that it's all for children and less posh than a normal theatre."

Having children has, inevitably, lowered my standards entertainment-wise. I have become rather a fan of some children's TV programmes (and not only the ones with the good looking presenters), and sadly I end up reading more children's books than those designed for my own age group.

I also know that the basis of a successful family outing tends to be happy children. So, if the children are guffawing at some pantomime dame falling over, then I guess I might just see the funny side.

Not so, says one friend, who counsels me against this particular tradition. She takes her children every year, despite loathing it, in some sort of masochistic guilt trip. "I went as a child so I feel they should go. They love it, they find all that men dressed as women stuff funny and the innuendo goes over their heads, but I just find it tedious and cringe-worthy in equal measure."

According to Simon Sladen, pantomime critic and lecturer, and organiser of National Panto Day (December 5) it's important to remember what pantomine is really all about.

"It's the only theatrical tradition we have which three generations can enjoy together. So much of the enjoyment is in seeing your family having fun. There is slapstick for the children, a bit of risqué humour for the mums and dads, love songs and glitter for granny, and often a celebrity too.

"It's like a chocolate box. You might not like some bits but, cheesy as it sounds, it has something for everyone."

Pantomine has a rich history which can be traced back to ancient Greek theatre and later to the 16th century Italian Commedia del arte movement. Initially associated more with Easter and Whitsun than Christmas, it has been a festive treat for British children for over 200 years.

And, according to Sladen, it is as popular as ever. While the arrival of big name celebrities may have made it bigger business (when Pamela Anderson was announced for Wimbledon ticket sales rose 800% on the previous year), for many people the appeal remains simple nostalgia.

"My grandma used to take me when I was little and it is the same in so many families," says Sladen. "It is part of our very own British Christmas tradition everywhere from tiny village halls and 200 seat theatres to huge arenas seating thousands. No other country has one genre take over so completely at one time of year. I think we should celebrate that."

While his own love affair with panto started young, and lasted, Sladen does accept that many adults struggle to see its appeal. "Whenever I mention what I do people seem to either love it or hate it. It's the sort of thing which it's hard to sit on the fence about."

He advises that even reluctant panto parents "try to enter into the spirit of it". In many cases the most cynical end up enjoying themselves the most, he insists. If nothing else though, he says, at least looking as if you are enjoying yourself means you are less likely to be picked on by the cast. "They will spot the grumpy parent a mile off," he warns.

Audience participation is, he says, the very essence of what make panto unique. "We are part of the cast. We help the hero or the heroine and without us the show can't progress. It makes us all part of a community."

I think I'm convinced to take the panto plunge. Sladen has a few tips to getting the best from the experience. "Read the story with your child first, so they know what's happening; prepare them for the loud noises and shouting out; give their name to the theatre staff if they are very confident – and don't forget to order your drinks for the interval."

He also has one last piece of advice. "There is a huge variety in quality. Try to choose a good one. I remember one show where there was a watering can with a bit of yellow paint on as Aladdin's lamp. I think the PTA mums at a school play would have put on a better show."

Click here for our round-up of the best pantos nationwide with booking details.


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