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In Britain, A Christmas Tradition Of Slapstick And Silliness
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In Britain, A Christmas Tradition Of Slapstick And Silliness

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In Britain, A Christmas Tradition Of Slapstick And Silliness

In Britain, A Christmas Tradition Of Slapstick And Silliness
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For centuries, British families have celebrated the Christmas season by attending "pantomimes," silly musical comedies of stories such as Aladdin and Cinderella. The tradition is alive and well today.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For a lot of people in Britain, it's not Christmas time unless the whole family goes to the theater to see a pantomime. Pantos, as they're called, are silly comedy musicals that pop up all over the UK this time of year. As Ari Shapiro reports from London, this has been going on for centuries.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Strangely enough, the highest-paid pantomime performer in the world is American. We took the train to the English town of Southend-on-Sea to meet him in his dressing room before a matinee.

DAVID HASSELHOFF: I'm David Hasselhoff, alias Michael Knight or The Guy from "Baywatch," or The Hoff.

SHAPIRO: Yes, David Hasselhoff, star of 1980s and '90s American television. I asked him what it takes to become the most successful pantomime performer in the world.

HASSELHOFF: Sell out, baby, sellout.

SHAPIRO: He means sell tickets, I think.

(AUDIENCE CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: Most pantomimes tell familiar story to audiences full of children - "Aladdin," "Cinderella" and "Jack And The Beanstalk" are all popular. Here in Southend-on-Sea, Hasselhoff is playing Captain Hook in a panto of "Peter Pan." He introduces himself to the audience as Hoff The Hook.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTOMIME, "PETER PAN")

HASSELHOFF: (As Captain Hook).

SHAPIRO: As he takes the stage singing this classic 1960s pop song.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTOMIME, "PETER PAN")

HASSELHOFF: (As Captain Hook) (Singing) I'm hooked on a feeling.

SHAPIRO: Captain Hook, hooked on a feeling. At this point, I'm sitting in the audience laughing so hard that tears are streaming down my face. At other points, I felt like I was watching contestants about to get kicked off a reality TV show. And there you have pantomime.

CHRISTOPHER BIGGINS: If you take yourself seriously, you're done for.

SHAPIRO: Christopher Biggins costars in this production. He has been doing panto for 40 years, always playing the Dame. Every panto has a female character played by a male actor in drag.

BIGGINS: This year I got 10 costume changes.

SHAPIRO: Literally ten. In one scene, he takes the stage dressed as Pamela Anderson, Hasselhoff's "Baywatch" costar.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTOMIME, "PETER PAN")

BIGGINS: (As Pamela Anderson) You hate my outfit?

HASSELHOFF: (As Captain Hook) Yes.

BIGGINS: (As Pamela Anderson) I - got it for a ridiculous figure.

SHAPIRO: A decade ago, Sir Ian McKellen played a Dame role in a pantomime at London's Old Vic Theatre, and that points to the genre's long, proud history.

CATHY HAILL: Simon?

SHAPIRO: Back in London, two archivists are taking us deep into the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. They pull out costumes and marionettes from pantomimes that go back centuries. Cathy Haill and her colleague Simon Sladen explain that every panto has lines the audience knows by heart. It's a call-and-response that gets the children to join in.

So you have spent years studying pantomime exclusively?

SIMON SLADEN: Oh yes, I have is the way you have to answer that question, absolutely yes.

SHAPIRO: Is oh yes, I have a line from pantomime?

SLADEN: Absolutely.

HAILL: Yes.

SLADEN: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: I had no idea.

SLADEN: Now, let's put that behind us, which is another one.

HAILL: That's another one.

SHAPIRO: This is another line from pantomime?

SLADEN: This is another line.

HAILL: Kids grow up knowing this, so if Simon comes on as the character and says oh, I wonder where the demon could be and I'm like this, the audience, without being asked, would go...

HAILL AND SLADEN: (In unison) He's behind you.

SHAPIRO: Sladen says it's almost like church, where everyone knows exactly what to say without remembering exactly how they learned it. The world's largest producer of pantomime shows is called QDOS Entertainment. The company mounts about 200 productions a year in the UK, all at Christmas time. Nick Thomas owns QDOS.

NICK THOMAS: It has grown in the past five years. Year on year attendance have gone up for the past three years by about 5 percent. And that is the only genre in the regional theater year book that that can be said of.

SHAPIRO: So for all its silliness, pantomime is keeping some theaters alive. At the matinee of "Peter Pan" the audience was full of excited shouting kids. 10-year-old Oscar Graver came to see the show with his mother and his grandmother.

OSCAR GRAVER: I've been here three times now. I think it's really good because, like, everyone, any age, can come here.

SHAPIRO: Oscar's grandmother says she attended pantomimes with her parents as a child. She raised her daughter on the shows. And now, one more generation is joining in the tradition. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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