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Why panto has its knockers It's sheer snobbery for the New York Times to dismiss pantomime — it might just save British theatre

Chris Harris as Dame Trott performs in Jack and the Beanstalk (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Chris Harris as Dame Trott performs in Jack and the Beanstalk (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)


July 8, 2020   6 mins

Culture wars are for losers. (Oh yes they are.) And the ones that are actually happening are often fought by people who don’t seem all that interested in culture.

A few weeks ago, for instance, the headlines told us that an episode of Fawlty Towers was being removed from circulation for its use of racist language. It was. But briefly and from only one platform, UKTV, during which time it remained freely available from Britbox, Netflix and iTunes. After a few days, it returned to UKTV, uncut and affixed with a brief warning about the script’s use of racial slurs that would be unquotable on this page. Predictably, the noise around the story prevented the discussion of the much more urgent and subtle question upon which it turned — how should broadcasters manage the consequences of our new and perhaps perverse expectation that the popular culture of five decades ago should be instantly and eternally accessible?

In the 1920s, movies that were more than six years old were customarily dumped in a bath of hydrogen peroxide, melted down with other plastic trash — gap-toothed combs, discarded Xylonite dentures — and recycled as waterproof paint. Now we confer immortality on every moving image, and expect it to be preserved, archived and streaming on our phones. Our grandparents were never made uneasy by the culture of the past: they’d already forgotten it. We, however, have abolished cultural amnesia. Puzzling out that paradox, however, takes more journalistic effort than cutting and pasting one of John Cleese’s angry tweets.

This week, though, British comedy provided the field for a much more interesting and enjoyable battle — one that might even suggest a way of resolving these skirmishes. On Monday, Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary with the Rank Charm School manners, provided a deus ex machina ending for a drama that had been rumbling since the moment, a fortnight previously, when a widely-anticipated rescue package for the arts sector failed to appear. The empty space was filled with energetic campaigning by playwrights, directors and actors, worried by the not-unreasonable suspicion that Boris Johnson was about to do to the theatres what Margaret Thatcher did to the mines.

But on Monday morning, Dowden waved his magic wand and promised the imminent arrival of £1.57 billion — some of it in actual money. Then the examination of the detail began. In his round of media interviews, Dowden was asked if the Christmas pantomime season might yet be saved. His answer was a rueful one. It looked difficult, thanks to the epidemiological challenge posed by a noisy inter-generational entertainment involving shouting, singing, and the violent agitation of soap bubbles and wallpaper paste.

It was a realistic answer and it made me sad. It also made the European arts correspondent of the New York Times sad. But not for the same reason. Matt Anderson was disgusted. He tweeted his disgust in block capitals, which made him seem even angrier than John Cleese. And when others pointed out to him that the financial stability of many British theatres was guaranteed by a successful pantomime season, he went the full Abanazar. “If that’s the most important art form for the health of the sector,” he declared, “there’s something wrong with the system.” He might as well have said it under a green light and then flounced off with a peal of diabolical laughter. Theatrical Twitter raised its handbag to its chest and told him that his snobbery was showing.

I may have hissed a little myself. Pantomime produces no disgust in me. It gives me a delicious form of historical vertigo. When I watch a pair of comics perform the wallpaper routine, or the plate-smashing sketch, or some business in a dark forest with a luminous ghost, I know I am in touch with the deep history of British culture; that I’m watching choreography and gags that were first worked out over a century ago. It also makes me part of an audience that is being sounded out on the length of its cultural memory. At the Manchester Opera House in 1992 I saw the celebrated dame Gordon Peters manoeuvre 2,000 people into hooting out the second line of You Made Me Love You — a song from 1913. (“I didn’t want to do it!” they chorused, as if Pavlov had conditioned them.) I’ve also seen those echoes fail: at the Catford Broadway in 2008, I was the only person in the stalls who knew that “Hi-de-Hi” should always be followed by “Ho-de-ho!”

Pantomime emerged from the Harlequinade, an Anglicised 18th-century version of the Italian commedia dell’arte. Thanks to the 1737 Licensing Act, which permitted only the two Royal Theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, to feature plays with dialogue, the Harlequinade concentrated on song and wordless slapstick — executed most effectively by its Clown character, a figure of misrule who sat on babies, prodded people with red hot pokers, and sometimes abseiled up the set on a rope of sausages.

In 1843, the Theatre Regulation Act changed the rules on stage dialogue, triggering the mutation of the form. The silent clowns of the Harlequinade remained silent, but their show underwent a fusion with another popular theatrical genre — the “extravaganza”, in which myths and fairy tales were used as a frame for satirical, pun-filled comedy. Even if the story was set in Ancient Greece or medieval England, a steam train or an omnibus might move anachronistically over the stage — which explains why Widow Twankey’s laundry in Old Peking is always equipped with coin-operated washing machines. The airlock between these two styles was provided by an event that also remains a feature of modern pantomime — the transformation scene, in which, for instance, the pumpkin becomes a coach, or a magic lamp is spotted in a cave full of jewels.

These developments have produced a theatrical form of impressive sophistication and complexity. Pantomime smashes the fourth wall, bends time, space and gender, combines acrobatics, physical comedy and satire on local and national subjects. In 1993, the film director Lindsay Anderson went to the Bath Theatre Royal to see his old friend Robin Askwith, who had played one of those Maoist schoolboy revolutionaries in If…. (1968). The show was Dick Whittington. Askwith’s co-stars were June Brown from EastEnders, Ian Botham and a pair of magicians called Richard and Lara Jarmain. Anderson’s verdict: “Very Brechtian.”

And if you scoff at the idea of the British intellectual in the panto audience, this too is part of the tradition. In 1874, John Ruskin went five times to see Cinderella at Hengler’s Circus, and then to Drury Lane to catch Jack in a Box; or Harlequin Little Tom Tucker and the Three Men of Gotham who went to Sea in a Bowl. In this production, a princess disguised as Bo Peep led a flock of mechanical sheep across the stage and then caused a forest of magic mushrooms to rise up:

You see at present everywhere among us,
A mushroom, popularly called a fungus.
I do but strike my crutch and with this plunge, I
Reveal the funny figures of the Fungi.

Ruskin went straight from the theatre to write an essay contrasting the child actors who skipped through the fairyland of the Drury Lane stage and their hungry equivalents on the streets of Covent Garden. He imagined England itself subject to a transformation scene, in which its street children occupied their own Drury Lane pastoral, instead of “rolling on the heaps of black and slimy ground, mixed with brickbats and broken plates and bottles”.

The man from New York Times endured this week’s boos and hisses with grace. I hope, however, he paid no heed to the little knot of culture warriors who imagined that a political motive explained his lack of enthusiasm for watching veteran comics and X-Factor runners-up throw custard pies at each other. “People like him don’t want to be deeply connected to our history,” one insisted. “They prefer to rewrite it.”

It’s an odd charge. Rewriting history is what historians do for a living. It’s also why pantomime is still here, using 16th-century Italian performance style and stories from the Brothers Grimm and the Arabian Nights to produce topical entertainment that has always enjoyed the freedom to jettison any elements that fall from favour. (Blackface and yellowface vanished along with gags about Mafeking and ration books; the dame and the ghosts remain.) Its history usually defies those who accuse it of abandoning its traditions. Critics who complained that Julian Clary was too rude for Snow White at the Palladium probably didn’t know about all the cock puns in the Drury Lane panto seen by Ruskin in 1873. Those who grumbled about Frank Bruno’s presence at the top of 1990s panto bills had, I suspect, never heard of Daniel Mendoza, the celebrity bare-knuckle boxer who appeared in Aladdin at Covent Garden in 1778.

But why would they? Unlike sit-coms set in the aspic of UKTV, pantomime is mutable, agile, and always renegotiating its relationship with the present day. At the 2019 panto at the Palladium, Nigel Havers got the biggest laugh of the night by climbing out of a bear suit and declaring: “If Prince Andrew is in tonight … THIS is sweat.” At the 2016 Sleeping Beauty at the Hackney Empire, Gavin Spokes’s Dame Nanny Nora trolled on stage in a frock divided between the EU flag and the Union Jack and declared: “I like a bit of both.” In the 2018 Aladdin at the Catford Broadway, as Theresa May suffered another Brexit deal defeat in Parliament, Wayne Rollins’ Abanazar declared: “I will rub this magic lamp and plunge the country into chaos!” Then he paused. “On second thoughts…”

Everyone got it. And the audience, in that moment, seemed a lot less divided than the country.


Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.

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Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

I teach college students from the ages of 18 and over. In my experience, young white men in particular are becoming increasingly conservative. I asked one of my students about it, and he said men of his demographic are constantly targeted with negative media messaging. And not just the media. Many high school teachers are white women who express dislike of whiteness and masculinity. As a result, these young men are withdrawing into social media safe spaces that defend and support masculinity i.e. Jordan Peterson subreddits etc.

They feel that they are being raised in a society that actively dislikes them. They know that there are no affirmative action policies that will help them get jobs so they will have to work even harder than their peers to gain meaningful employment, all the while being told that their ‘privilege’ got them where they were.

A society that turns against its men will eventually turn against its women. We are seeing the apotheosis of this with the transgender movement which seeks to remove separate spaces for women.

Michael McVeigh
MM
Michael McVeigh
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

Agree – as the west drifts further & further towards feminism and political correctness, their targets become more & more trivial to the point where anyone can see the bigotry against natural maleness. It can’t keep going before boys check out & actually, girls can see it too. The pendulum can only swing so far.

Warren Alexander
WA
Warren Alexander
3 years ago

If the only thing Panto achieves is to bring children into the theatre, its has achieved plenty.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Whatever…the New York Times lost all credibility some years ago. Like the Guardian, it is staffed by hordes of woke, middle-class Marxists who know nothing about anything, but would happily tear down all our structures and traditions.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

I hope that the trend towards the right evidenced in Gen-Z continues into the future with Gen-U (0-18 Generation Up and Coming! my definition). This will be key for the future of a right wing voice in our future politics. The possibility of its absence or chronic political failure doesn’t bear thinking about.
One reason why I think the Gen-Us will have a right wing slant is because they will have suffered the consequences of the moral and spiritual destruction of the last 40 years. They will have suffered from the breakdown in family life, the twisted dogmas of identity politics and the spiritual emptiness of our nation’s turning its back on God revealed in Jesus Christ. As the miners used to say they were going to ensure their sons didn’t go down the pit to endure what they did, so the Gen-Us will say they aren’t going to let their children go through the traumas,heart-break and inner desolation they went through and so will be glad to embrace a better way-and there is a far better way.
The Gen-Us will deserve vehicles by which this better way can be communicated. They will deserve a much revived and reformed Church and there are hopeful signs. They will also deserve a political party which is intellectually and morally equipped to repeal the wrong-headed laws produced by identity politics which are destructive of the individual and common good, and introduce legislation to restore justice and sane, healthy and settled individual and national life.
I don’t think the Conservative Party is capable of such an effort. It cannot be trusted because its liberal wing is prone to support “woke” policies. For instance they,with Labour,have done much harm in undermining Christian Marriage and family life, not least in its gratuitous introduction of gay marriage.
There is,I believe, a great need for an articulate, persuasive, authentically right wing party with respected and charismatic leaders who could form a government. How about a government with Douglas Murray as Prime Minister, Peter Hitchens as Foreign Secretary, Melanie Phillips as Home Secretary and Jordan Peterson as Secretary of State for Education with special responsibility to reduce and reform our universities?

david bewick
DB
david bewick
3 years ago

Gen Z in the USA are thought to have contributed to the election of the current president. The thought that Gen Z are more conservative than millenials has been recognised for some time.

Andrew Baldwin
AB
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

A sample of one is not representative of anything, but my 16-year-old stepson shows no signs of embracing the right, quite the opposite. He attends a public high school in Ottawa, Ontario, specializing in the arts (he is a drama major). His teachers are all quite charming, but they appear to be inculcating him with centre-left or left tout court sentiments. In a sense it may not matter as he takes little interest in politics, although he was upset about the death of George Floyd. He has a good heart. It is, or at least it was, deflating when I went on one of my right wing rants that he would never pay attention, or worry about my mental or physical health. Now I don’t even try_well_almost never. He is aware of Jordan Peterson, but takes no interest in watching any of his videos. Again, I think his teachers have put him off of it. He is very religious, but he isn’t at all interested in watching any of Peterson’s highly regarded videos interpreting the Bible, which I would have thought would interest him intensely. (I haven’t seen them either.) According to Eric, things are better in the UK. I hope that’s true. Maybe Jordan Peterson will be a hero to UK youth, if not to Canadian youth. One thing you learn in the Bible is that no prophet is without honour except in his own country.

Red Reynard
Red Reynard
3 years ago

Ah, the joy of Panto. In what other environment could a young LAC, with the help of a marigold glove and a Jiff lemon, wizz over the Station Commander and other ‘scrambled eggs’ whilst playing the rear-end of a camel (‘Aladdin’ RAF St. Athan 1980). That epitomises the riotous possibilities that Panto offers. It is a blend of professional rigour and improvised anarchy…. Mind you, the Zobs backstage visit afterwards was a little tense.

Michael McVeigh
Michael McVeigh
3 years ago

It’s hard to disagree with much of what Hayes says in this article, which would indicate that those on the Right will have no meaningful voice on the major social networks. That situation cannot and should not prevail.
The answer, has to lie with the Judiciary whom we entrust, as the independent and third leg of our rulers, to settle matters of conflict. Eventually, whether by government law or another way around, a social network will find itself answering for its censoriousness and a return to the left/right balance which has elevated the west will ensue.
Anything else risks the Right without a voice & that will eventually be very, very ugly.

Dan Poynton
DP
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Well said. I just wonder though – can the judiciary effectively police biased censorship on social media? And if we legislate to take away social media’s privilege of freedom from publishers’ responsibility for defamation and “hate speech”, will it not kill any discourse? A tricky one.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

Interesting. I have for awhile now been exploring the categories of free speech (which seeks to enlighten), unfree speech (which seeks to disenlighten) and hate speech (which seeks to denigrate free speech).

But as you point out, the category of unfree speech, that is, “legal but harmful speech”, can be manipulated to curb free speech. Clearly this would not happen in a country like Britain unless Woke Eugenists got into power, but I appreciate that your endeavour is an international one.

My feeling as I read on was that ‘intent’ could be isolated as the determining factor to establish guilt or innocence but again that could be twisted to align with an authoritarian agenda.

So, the right to information? But how does that reduce harmful speech beyond the obvious harms of disinformation. This was a conundrum I tried to resolve with the Electoral Commission during the run up to the EU referendum whereby I complained about disengenious information and the disinformation being propogated by remain campaign groups.

They effectively told me, ‘buyers beware’ and essentially it is up to the citizen to do their own research. Thus, spin, manipulation, logical fallacies and sophistry are all fair game within our own domestic politics but these same things on an international stage are not.

Therefore, whilst the Right to Information and the ability to access the source of that information is certainly a relevant approach regarding cyber warfare, how are we to deal with harmful speech that also seeks to disinform and abuse internet users.

The pursuit of Truth pops into my mind and the cultivation of a moral environment that puts integrity, accountability, transparency and honesty back into the public moral realm.

It seems to me that the Rights framework only takes us so far but without rights being dependent on responsibility, then rights easily take on a binary characteristic which is why they can be so easily manipulated.

So for example, if an Internet duty of care is based on the responsibility of pursuing the Truth which is achieved by the underlying responsibilities of integrity, accountability, transparency and honesty, then these four Virtues alone circumscribe exactly what needs to be done.

In thinking/feeling this, I am now more convinced that as we reach a peak rights environment in which rights have now become hacked, twisted and corrupted, we now need to shift to the terrain of responsibilities.

Perhaps this is the way forward for Global Britain. A global proponent of Responsibility. For example, We have a responsibility to create a sustainable, sufficient and resilient environment in which we pursue the Truth with integrity, accountability, transparency and honesty. That should see the Authoritarians off 😊

Deirdre Boyd
DB
Deirdre Boyd
3 years ago

The old saying: “Children rebel against their parents so much that they end up like their grandparents”.

Geoff Cooper
GC
Geoff Cooper
3 years ago
Reply to  Deirdre Boyd

Indeed, I’m no biologist but I remember reading something (and being convinced by it at the time) about how kids really are more like their grand parents than their parents, at a biological level.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
3 years ago

👏 Applause

Rob In Germany
RI
Rob In Germany
3 years ago

The issue facing many of those alt right figures is they failed to build up a deep support base, usually via a mailing list. Lesson for next alt right wanna be is that FB gives and FB takes away.

David Waring
David Waring
3 years ago

Interesting so few comment here? Now why I wonder is that?

johntshea2
JS
johntshea2
3 years ago

Mr. Haynes refers twice in succeeding paragraphs to “The foreseeable future”. Both times he refers to a future of Left-Wing censorship HE foresees. Luckily, others foresee different futures, not least other Unherd writers, some of whose article links are interspersed in this article.

Meanwhile, can anyone actually get Parler’s crazy password system to work? I suspect it was designed by a Communist infiltrator…

Penelope Newsome
Penelope Newsome
3 years ago

A rather deprecating position to take . Parler should be encouraged and it need not be just a vehicle for the Right.

My problem with it is that it’s so difficult to sign up to that I haven;t succeeded yet. They should get their technology sorted out or they’ll lose people like me who really do want to be on to hear Katie, Tommy and the rest.

Jeffrey Shaw
JS
Jeffrey Shaw
3 years ago

Is “Gavin Haynes” a pen-name used by Meghan Markle?

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
3 years ago

Frankly, the New York Times (a former newspaper) has had something of a hate-b***r for the UK for some while now. It publishes, with fair regularity, articles knocking and mocking this country in the most bizarre ways. I seem to remember a claim that we all eat boiled mutton every day and similar suggestions that we’re hopelessly backwards and primitive.

I doubt they actually have a real opinion on panto, I expect most of them don’t even know what it is, it’s just the latest excuse to have a dig. They’ve never forgiven us for voting for Brexit and think we’re somehow culpable for America electing Donald Trump, or as the NYT thinks of it, The Apocalypse.

Robin Lambert
RL
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Although I have stood as Independent in Last Two Local Elections(2018,2019) and last three General Elections 2015,2017,2019 .Rising taxes (With Covid SARS2 costs to Come in years ..) likelihood is Youth Lose certain Inaccurate concerns like ”Climate change” hysteria ..Some I agree with Stop HS2, Destruction of ”Green belt” Animal welfare etc..The MAIN concern is the way 24/7 Media stifles debate(illegal immigration,Overpopulation)) and gives traction to certain hysterias ;rather What is relevant to 18-30s lives ..Good luck to next Generations you will need it .

johntshea2
johntshea2
3 years ago

“The latter counsels patience: history is on the Left’s side, and, with generational turnover, demography will carry it to victory. On this score, Biden’s strong poll numbers might be a harbinger of Left-liberal resurgence.”

But hasn’t history ALWAYS been on the Left’s side? Or so we’ve been told for a century or more. And Joe Biden’s poll numbers are indeed strong, but no stronger than Hilary Clinton’s at this point in 2016.

As for the graphs, Figure 1 shows 59% of under-25s voted Labour in 2019, down 6% from 2017 and 2% from 1966. In 1970 only 32% of under-25s voted Labour, almost halving their vote in four years! Yet the UK voting age had been lowered from 21 to 18 in 1969. Did the new teen voters ALL vote Conservative in 1970? Unlikely.