No, this is not about West Londoners’ fear of crime.
It’s that great British Christmas tradition of Pantomime. (And bad rhymes).
There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else. Foreigners are often bemused to discover British theatres, with their reputation for solid drama and famous thespians suddenly turning themselves over, en masse, to this bawdy seasonal tradition. All that reserve and stiff upper lip gives way as adults and children alike shriek, ‘It’s behind you’ or engage in the to-and-fro chorus of, ‘Oh yes it is! – Oh no it isn’t!’ It’s an age-old example of audience participation (alongside that other very British tradition of outrageous (and bad) cross-dressing featuring as family entertainment).
But there’s something very reassuring about Panto too. It really is entertainment for the whole family: slapstick for the children, risqué jokes for Mums and Dads. Something which, despite the media’s worries about the shrinking attention spans of to-day’s children, can hold them in rapt wonder for an hour and a half. And there’s something very refreshing about the willingness of serious thespians to drop their dignity and take on such wonderfully ridiculous roles – I wish I had seen Sir Ian McKellen playing Widow Twanky at the Old Vic!
Of course, some things have to change with the times. Dance sequences and music owe more to Madonna and Girls Aloud than traditional music hall, and high-tech lighting and special effects are de rigueur, alongside impressive sets. But other elements are timeless: the thin plots, these weedy heroes and heroines (let’s face it, Cinderella is such a drip compared with the Ugly Sisters), constant asides to the audience and the inevitably cheesy happy ending.
On a more serious note, the guaranteed box-office over the winter months is a godsend to provincial theatres, to say nothing of the wage packets of many an actor and actress. Without it, many would not survive and the UK’s cultural life would be that much the poorer. And the audience is growing: organised trips are increasingly common, with many workplaces and schools joining in. (Well, offered the choice of Panto against some tedious team-building Awayday, which would you choose?) And there’s a distinctly pink-edged tinge to many of the audiences, these days, too. Fun for all, indeed.
So, get yourself down to the New Wimbledon Theatre (Snow White) or the Lyric Hammersmith (Beauty & the Beast), and start practising now. ‘Oh yes it is!’