Only The Brits: Not Christmas Without Pantomime

If you think of the British as reserved and proper, think again. This is the season when the Brits loosen their stiff upper lips and, even in these austere times, devote themselves to merry-making. They grab their kids and head for the theater for a raucous and peculiarly British form of entertainment: the traditional Christmas pantomime.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you think of the British as reserved and proper, think again. This is the season when the Brits loosen their stiff upper lips and even in these austere times devote themselves to merry-making. They grab their kids and head for the theater for a raucous and singularly British form of entertainment, the traditional Christmas Pantomime.

NPR's Philip Reeves joined the crowds.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A lot of people think pantomime is about silent mime. But there's nothing silent about a British pantomime. Just listen to this crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: The show hasn't even started, yet this audience is cooking. You're supposed to holler. Everyone knows their lines, especially the children.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh yes, I will.

AUDIENCE: Oh no, you won't.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh yes, I will.

AUDIENCE: Oh no you won't.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh yes, I will. And nobody's going to stop me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: We're deep in rural Britain, on its southwestern tip in a small city called Truro, at a venue called the Hall for Cornwall.

Most pantomimes are based loosely on fairy tales, old favorites like "Cinderella," "Aladdin" and "Jack and the Beanstalk." This show's called "Robinson Crusoe and the Cornish Pirates," after the Daniel Defoe novel. The production company's called Hiss and Boo, which is apt as panto audiences spend a lot of time hissing and booing - when the stock villain shows up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROBINSON CRUSOE AND THE CORNISH PIRATES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN. ACTOR: (as pirate) Ah, you bunch of barnacle-brained bilge swilling brats.

ALAN DIGWEED: It is ridiculous. The thing of panto is ridiculous, and that's what's so fun about it.

REEVES: That's Tweedy, aka professional actor Alan Digweed. He's tonight's clown.

DIGWEED: It think people see it as just a part of Christmas. That's what you do. It's like, you buy your turkey and have your turkey on Christmas Day, you go to the theater as see panto. It's just in this country it's just one of the things that you do at Christmas.

RICHARD ALAN: You'll have acrobats. You'll have comics. You'll have singers and dancers, so there's really, you know, there isn't an art form that isn't covered. Even puppetry.

REEVES: Richard Alan, another "Robinson Crusoe" star.

ALAN: You're in big costumes. Everything's really colorful. My dresses will have shoulders like an American football star.

REEVES: Yes, he did say dresses.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROBINSON CRUSOE")

ALAN: (as character) Oh, how my life (unintelligible) without the most true pig.

REEVES: Alan plays the dame. That's another thing - all pantos have a dame. Dames are played by men, usually big, hairy men. Pantos are all about cross-dressing. The Brits never cease to find this amusing. This all goes back to the ancient Greeks. They started the genre. It weaved a slow path through history, via Italian Commedia dell'arte, until, in the early eighteenth century, the panto landed on British shores and stayed. Now, it's a multi-million dollar business that's thriving. The British have tried to take their pantos abroad but that hasn't worked. The rest of the world is baffled by this phenomenon. The Brits can't get enough of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DIGWEED: (as Tweedy) (Singing) Oh, when can I have a banana again? Tell me, mother, do...

REEVES: They seem to love the old musical numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAP DANCING)

REEVES: Tap dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DIGWEED: (as Tweedy) (Singing) All by myself...

REEVES: Cheesy pop songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DIGWEED: (as Tweedy) (Singing) Don't wanna be all by myself anymore, oh yeah.

REEVES: Tweedy the Clown thinks the British pantomime works because it's a rare example of everyone in the family having fun at the same time.

DIGWEED: It's a bit like the Muppets. With the Muppets, the adults laugh at certain jokes and the kids laugh at certain jokes, and the whole family laugh at some jokes, and that's very much what it is.

REEVES: There are rules. Those jokes must be, well, terrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Do you like my earrings?

AUDIENCE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This one cost a dollar and this one cost a dollar. Not bad for a buck-an-ear, eh?

REEVES: No panto is complete without a dose of smutty innuendo for the adults and some contemporary political jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I had no idea you were such a good liar, Polly. Your middle name should have been Tician.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE SINGING)

REEVES: Tonight's show in Truro closes with a sing-along. Now, the audience really is fired up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

REEVES: For an hour or two, these kids have set aside their MP3 players and Xboxes, lured out of the solitary world of cyberspace into a communal world, where old gags never die. Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: