Panto moves with the times

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IT’S that time of year again. Oh, yes it is! Up and down the land families are laughing, singing along and shouting out the traditional responses that have reverberated throughout auditoriums for generations.

Yes, panto season is here again, a time when reality stars and TV favourites of yesteryear vie for top-billing and any pretence of reality flies out the window – probably in a winged carriage – in favour of fantastical fairy tales that bring out the child in all of us.

A look at theatre listings reveal all the favourite titles are back. At The King’s it’s the tale of Jack And The Beanstalk, while Musselburgh’s Brunton tackles Aladdin. Around the country, Cinderella, Mother Goose, Dick Whittington, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves are just some of the other ever-green titles keeping audiences entertained.

Of course, today’s panto is very different to those of old. Panto has evolved and so has the way it is presented.

Titles such as Humpty Dumpty, Babes In The Wood, Little Red Riding Hood and The Queen of Hearts have all but dissapeared from our theatres in favour of the titles that sell best – Cinderella is still the fairest of them all.

Snow White too has seen many changes. Less and less are actual dwarves, midgets or little people used, replaced by many producers with “trick” costumes or kids in large “Disney-style” heads.

Nevertheless, one local council recently refused to do the title due to the fact it was considered politically incorrect to use dwarves and that using kids could lead to some of them being bullied at school.

Ironic really, as if there is one thing pantomime is not, it’s politically correct. The gags are groan-worthy and as “old as the hills”, the comic lead, the dame, is played by a man, and the second comic, the “Silly Billy” character, is a bit stupid.

I remember my first panto like it was yesterday. I must have been about nine or ten, it was at The King’s and Johnny Beattie was the dame.

The title was Robin Hood and The Babes In The Wood, pictured. I recall gazing down from the front row of “the gods” on to the stage and being fascinated by the foilage that decorated the proscenium arch. It seemed every bit as real as the wet, windy night outside.

As the madcap mayhem unfolded in an explosion of colour, comedy, shout-outs and sing-a-longs, I fell in love with the genre despite the fact it wasn’t until years later I fully understood it.

And that it the real skill of a proper panto. The kids laugh at the slapstick and silly nonsense, while their parents guffaw at the innuendo and more risqué gags without their little ones ever realising that they are laughing at different things.

The moment they do, and ask for an explanation, the panto has failed.

Sadly, many of the great panto stars who knew this are no longer with us and as they depart, so traditional panto is diluted – or maybe it’s just evolving once again.