Oh, no you won’t: A quick history of the British panto

Nothing except the curry is as British as the panto. 

I’ve made that claim about a lot of things, and it’s true of every last one of them. And I didn’t even make up the comparison, so lots of people have made the claim about lots of things.

Nothing is as unoriginal as comparing an British / English whatever to a curry.

But if I’ve destroyed my own opening thoroughly enough, let’s move on and talk about the panto. Having grown up in the US, I thought pantomime meant silent acting. You know: Marcel Marceau. That kind of thing. We call it mime for short.

But for the British–well, they grabbed the opposite end of the word, we hung onto ours and between us we broke the thing. So forget mime. What they do is panto, and it’s full of words.

How British is it? Exactly as British as the curry: In other words, it came from someplace else–in the case of the panto, Italy and from there, France–and embedded itself deeply in British culture.

Irrelevant photo: No fall–or autumn, if I’m pretending to be British–is complete without a photo of gorse and heather. They’re everywhere. They’re behind you, probably.

It started as sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, which was traveling street theater, although the better troupes weren’t above performing in a palace if one wandered past. The shows involved music, dance, dialogue, and a heavy dose of mayhem. 

Italy wasn’t a united country at this point, and it had many very different dialects. So how did they handle dialogue when the troupes traveled? According to one source, they made a virtue of the differences. One character spoke Spanish (no, that’s not Italian or a dialect, but somehow it’s on the list). One spoke Bolognese. One spoke gibberish. And so on. What pulled it all together was the physical communication–clowning, acrobatics, dance, music. One character, Arlecchino (are-lay-KEY-no–he’s the origin of our word harlequin), had two sticks that were tied together so they’d make a loud noise and he whacked everything available with them, including the scenery and the other characters. And that, children, is the origin of our word slapstick

The women’s roles were played by women, and since the European tradition had banned women from the stage, this was radical.

The sets were basic–they had to travel–and many elements were predictable, including the characters, which were fixed types, recognizable from play to play, from troupe to troupe. A lot of them were played in masks. (The lovers–because what’s a play without lovers?–weren’t.) So forget deep characterization. What mattered were the tumbles, the slapstick, the chases, and the jokes, which were also recognizable from play to play. 

All of that, though, was scaffolding for the improvisation. The actors played off each other and the audience, so the play would never be quite the same twice. 

From Italy, the form moved to France, and from France it moved to England, and from the sixteenth century time moved to the seventeenth. In England, Commedia dell’arte collided with masques, which had started in the 14th century as musical, mimed, or spoken dramas put on in grand houses. By the seventeenth century–or so says one source–they were basically an excuse for a theme party. 

Commedia d’etc. may also have had a small collision with a medieval (or Tudor, depending on who you want to believe) Christmas tradition, the Feast of Fools, which was run by the Lord of Misrule, because before too many centuries had passed the panto became as tightly connected to Christmas as brussels sprouts (don’t ask–it won’t get us anywhere). 

In the eighteenth century, the word pantomime took hold and the form began gobbling up existing stories–Aladdin, Robinson Crusoe, Cinderella, you name it. 

By the Victorian era, the principal boy’s role was played by a woman. In the Victorian era, that would’ve been pretty racy stuff, involving ankles and legs and all sorts of body parts no one knew women had. The dame was enthusiastically overplayed by a man. If you were inclined to take anything too seriously, that would knock the idea out of your head.

Then they added some dancers and an audience, which got to yell out some stock phrases: He’s behind you. Oh, no you won’t

It’s an odd thing, but after you repeat those a few dozen times, they begin to be funny. In fact, they’ve cut loose from the panto and become free-floating punchlines in real life.  

In some stories, they got to add a pantomime horse–two people in a horse costume. Hold onto that thought.

These days–or before the pandemic, anyway–pantos were performed in grand theaters with professional or semi-professional actors and in village halls with hangdog ten-year-olds who delivered their lines as if they’d been strong-armed into taking part because they had been.

Many theaters relied on pantos for a heavy portion of their year’s income. The could reliably fill the seats.

By the time a panto ends, good has conquered evil and the lovers have been united. And where I live, until there’s been a raffle. You don’t get to leave a village event until you buy a ticket, and if you win something you want look happy with your prize, no matter how odd it is.

Why am I writing about this in September? In part because the British government’s running like a badly written panto:

“We will get control of the corona virus.” 

“Oh, no you won’t.”

“Oh, yes we will.”

“Oh, not unless you get your act together you won’t.”

But also because a bit of the panto has broken loose, abandoned the Christmas season, and become the panto horse race: pairs of people in horse costumes in a race. Ask Lord Google about it and he’ll tell you they take place (at the very least) in Colchester and in Catterick. Here’s one that was won by a cow. 

The London panto horse race seems to be the same as the Greenwich one, and it goes from pub to pub, stopping at each one. By the end, the horses are looking a little the worse for wear. Or possibly for beer. The front end of one horse was having a drinking problem that had to do with the length of a horse’s muzzle and the size of a pint glass of beer.

For the best of the videos, I couldn’t find anything outside of Twitter or Facebook, but if you enjoy pictures of people falling over, horses coming apart, and scenery being destroyed, it’s very funny. 

Go on, click the links. You know you want to.

Oh, yes you do.

34 thoughts on “Oh, no you won’t: A quick history of the British panto

  1. I recently read some plays by Goldoni, who was the first person to write plays for the commedia dell’arte. Up to that point, the early eighteenth century, they’d all been improvised. The plays had the stock characters and similar stories and weren’t terribly funny. The slapstick must have been everything.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You missed the bit about every panto having a sleb or pop star as part of the cast – either principle boy or dame. Perhaps it doesn’t happen now like it did in my day. Cilla Black as Aladin, Cliff Richard as Buttons. Ah, those were the days!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s because my experience is limited to village pantos, where no self-respecting pop star would be caught dead. I see this morning that the National Theatre’s planning to put one on this seasons–if the whole thing doesn’t get shut down. To help keep the form alive, they say. And no doubt in the hope of bringing in a much-needed wave of cash.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It had not occurred to my until I read this, that mime came from the word pantomime as well as panto.
    Of course now I think about it of course it does. Especially as we still use the word pantomime to mean mime when someone is trying to get meaning accross with gestures etc…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I had to go see which one I’d put in. That was taken on a beautiful day, only a friend got stung by a wasp just about where I took the picture, which she wasn’t happy about (oddly enough).

      Yes, I’m sure it is possible that the entire world right now is a panto, full of pantomime villains shouting, “Oh, yes I will!” It fits entirely too well. All pantos have a happy ending, so cross your fingers that that’s what’s happening.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You beat me to the punchline….the latest lockdown in the Rhondda was sparked by a trip to the races, Doncaster races, in fact. Only they didn’t get go to the races because the organisers decided it was too risky to allow in a crowd, so they went to the pub instead….and came home with CV19.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d seen some articles about them but didn’t realize they never got to the race. I was left with the impression that they went from pub to pub and after that I was as hazy as I’m sure they were.


  5. In fact, there was an attempt to introduce the Panto Horse concept to American Culture, via Craig Ferguson. He had “Secreteriat” the pantomime horse on his now defunct late night talk show. You could tell there was a lot of nervous, worried laughter from the crowds at the show.

    Liked by 2 people

      • The extent of audience participation is a key element that can’t be over-stressed – competitive community singing, the Dame chucking sweets at the audience, all of that.

        Refined lady that you are, you missed another key element of the modern panto, which is the inclusion of a certain amount of double entendre and other jokes that one hopes go over the heads of the children.

        As for the inclusion of celebrities, it’s not compulsory, but there was much excitement the year Sir Ian McKellen appeared in the “dame” role in a production of Aladdin. Audiences were so delighted with his Twanky that, by popular demand, he did it again the next year.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The village pantos I’ve been to missed throwing sweets to the kids as well. I suspect I know who in the village is to blame for that. As for the double entendres, I’ve been called many things in the course of a rather odd life, but I don’t think refined was one of them. That’s okay: It is now, however inappropriate it may be.

          I don’t know how you’d get anything like a panto to catch on in a country where the audience participation part isn’t understood from the start, because without that I can’t imagine it working. Maybe you’d have to seed the audience with some willing–what are we going to call them? Stooges? Provacateurs?


  6. Pingback: Oh, no you won’t: A quick history of the British panto — Notes from the U.K. (Reblog) – The Midlode Mercury

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