Pantomime and national identity

22 12 2010
Lifting the curtain on a very British art form

Lifting the curtain on a very British art form

Each country around the world celebrates Christmas in its own way with traditions unique to that location. For instance, in Britain nothing says Christmas to me more clearly then the bumper double issue of the Radio Times, brussels sprouts for dinner, and the annual showing of The Great Escape on BBC2.

I saw in the paper recently that the USA have just discovered the joys of the uniquely British institution of pantomime, and are attempting to stage one in Los Angeles.

While I applaud their efforts I have doubts about how successful this venture will be. Pantomime is a very British art form and whenever I’ve tried to take American friends to see one they’ve always come away more bemused than entertained.

Here then is a quick run through of some of the main features you’d expect to find in the perfect panto:


Apparently my American friends sat through the entire first half of Dick Whittington without realising that the young lady playing the hero was actually meant to be a man. “But she’s wearing tights and a mini-skirt”, they protested. “If she’s playing a guy surely she should at least be in trousers”. I had to explain that in pantomime the hero is always played by a woman, as is the heroine. The fact that the hero’s mother, the Dame, was also played by a man only added to the confusion. They later commented to me in the pub afterwards that they didn’t realise cross-dressing was such a big part of British culture.

The non-human characters

While most of the characters in pantomime are played by humans the best ones are usually the non-human performers. A few years back I saw Basil Brush playing the chief of police in Aladdin at the Nottingham Theatre Royal. I use the word playing in the loosest sense though. While the other actors made at least some effort to look like they were from an Arabian country, Basil was still dressed like an English country gentleman. Whether it’s Keith Harris and Orville, Basil Brush or Sooty and Sweep, every good pantomime should have a talking puppet (or non-talking in Sooty and Sweep’s case). Of course, the best thing to have from a comedy point of view is a pantomime horse, but they’re depressingly rare these days.

The jokes

A good pantomime is a weird mixture of contemporary satire and ancient music hall routines. Hence there has to be lots of thigh slapping, lashings of innuendo and some truly terrible puns. For example “A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat” or “A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it’s two-tyred”. A lot of modern pantomime jokes are straight out of a Tommy Cooper routine from 1974 and that’s half the charm.

The audience participation

Unlike most forms of theatre where the audience has to just sit back and watch the action on stage, pantomime actively encourages everybody to get involved. This can range from shouting out well known catch phrases; “Oh no it isn’t” and “She’s behind you” to singing a song towards the end. For some reason this is usually “Row, row, row your boat”, and the audience are split into sections to sing the different parts. If they do well they’re usually rewarded by having sweets thrown at them. You don’t get that with Chekhov!

Dr Matthew Ashton is based in the Division of Politics and Sociology in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences




3 responses

22 12 2010
Pantomime and National Identity | Dr Matthew Ashton's Politics Blog

[…] ‘Pantomime and National Identity’ by Matthew Ashton at NTU […]

23 12 2010
Helen Puntha

Very interesting. A Spanish friend was asking me what the deal is with the British Pantomime – now I can direct them to this piece. Thanks.

23 12 2010

Hi Helen, I’m glad you liked the article. I was originally going to write something about Punch and Judy shows at Christmas but thought pantomime was a bit more fmaily orientated (the plot of Punch and Judy is actually incredibly grim when you look at it closely). I hope you have a great Christmas.

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