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My Pantomime Years

December 25, 2018
by the gentle author


Longer ago than I care to admit, fortune led me to an old theatre in the Highlands of Scotland. Only now am I able to reveal some of my experiences there and you will appreciate that discretion prevents me publishing any names lest those who are still alive may read my account.

It was a magnificent nineteenth century theatre, adorned with gilt and decorative plasterwork. Since this luxurious auditorium with boxes, red drapes and velvet seating was quite at odds with the austere stone buildings of the town, it held a cherished place in the affections of local theatregoers who crowded the foyers nightly, seeking drama and delight.

Although it is inexplicable to me now, at that time in my life I was stage struck and entirely in thrall to the romance of theatre. Perhaps it was because of my grandfather the conjurer who died before I was born? Or my love of puppets and toy theatres as a child? When I left college at the beginning of my twenties, I refused to return home again and I did not know how to make my way in London. So I was overjoyed when I landed a job at a theatre in the north of Scotland. I packed my possessions in cardboard boxes, took the overnight train and arrived in the frosty dawn to commence my adult life.

As soon as it was discovered I had a literary education, I was assigned the task of organising the script and writing the ‘poetry’ for the annual pantomime, which that year was Dick Whittington. In the theatre safe I found a stash of tattered typescripts dating back over a century, rewritten each time they were performed. These documents were fascinating yet barely intelligible, and filled with gaps where comedians would supply their own patter. I discovered that the immortals, in this case Fairy Bow Bells and Old King Rat, spoke in rhyming couplets. Yet to my heightened critical faculties, weaned on Shakespeare and Chaucer, these examples were lame. So I resolved to write better ones and set to work at once.


Fairy Bow Bells:

In the deepest, bleakest Wintertime,

I welcome you to Pantomime.

Here is Colour! Here is Magic!

Here is Love and naught that’s Tragic.


‘You are here to learn the art of compromise, and how to pour a decent gin and tonic, darling,’ the director informed me at commencement with a significant nod of amusement when I submitted my work. I tried to raise an amenable smile as I served the drinks, but it was a line delivered primarily for the benefit of the principals gathered in the tiny office for a production meeting. These were veterans of musical comedy and summer variety who played pantomime every year, forceful personalities who each brought demands and expectations in proportion to their place in the professional hierarchy, with the ageing comedian playing Dame Fitzwarren as the star. Next came the cabaret singer and dancer playing Dick Whittington and then the television personality playing Tommy the Cat.

It was my responsibility to manage auditions for the chorus of boy and girl dancers, sifting through thousands of curriculum vitae and head-shots to select the most promising candidates. Those granted the opportunity were given ten minutes to impress the musical director and the choreographer with a show tune and a short dance sequence. Shepherding them in and out of the room and handling their raw emotions proved a challenge when they lost their voices, broke into tears or forgot their routines – or all of these.

The cast convened for a read-through in the low-ceilinged rehearsal room in a portacabin in the theatre car park. Once everyone had shaken hands and a cloud of tobacco filled the room, the director wished everyone good luck and, turning to me before leaving the room, declared loudly ‘Don’t worry, darling, they know what to do!’, employing the same significant nod I had seen in the production meeting and catching the eye of each of the principals again.

We all sat down, I handed round the scripts and the cast turned to the first page. The principals gasped in horror, exchanging glances of disbelief and reaching for their cigarettes in alarm. Dame Fitzwarren blushed, tore out a handful of pages and spread them out on the table, muttering, ‘No, no, no,’ to himself in condemnation. I sat in humiliated silence as, in the ensuing half hour, my sequence of pages was entirely rearranged with some volatile horse trading and angry words. Was this the art of compromise the director had referred to? I had organised the scenes in order of the story – no-one had explained to me that in pantomime the sequence of opening scenes are a device to introduce the principals in order of status from the newcomers to the seasoned stars. Yet even if I had understood this, it would have made little difference since the cast were all unknown to me.

On the second day, the floor of the portacabin was marked with coloured tapes which indicated the placing of the scenery and it was my job to take the cast through their moves. Dame Fitzwarren was keen to teach his comedy kitchen sequence to the two young actors playing the broker’s men. Once he had walked them through, I suggested we should give it a go. ‘No,’ he said, ‘That was it, we did it.’ I understood that, in pantomime, comedians only rehearse their sequences once as a matter of honour.

The little theatre owed its existence to the wealth of the whisky distilleries which comprised the main industry in the town and many of the directors of these distilleries were members of the theatre board. In particular, I remember a diminutive fellow who made up for his lack of height with an abrasive nature. He confronted me on the opening night, asking ‘Is this going to be good, laddie?’ My timid reply was, ‘It’s not for me say, is it?’ ‘It had better be good because your career depends upon it,’ was his harsh response, poking me in the gut with his finger.

In fact, Dick Whittington – in common with all the pantomimes at that theatre – was a tremendous success, playing to packed houses from mid-December until the end of January. The frantic energy of the cast was winning and the production suited the mechanics of the building beautifully, with brightly coloured flying scenery, drop-cloths and gauzes. The audience gasped in wonder when Fairy Bow Bells waved her wand to conjure the transformation scene and booed in delight when Old King Rat popped up through a trap door in a puff of smoke. They loved the familiar faces of the comedians and laughed at their routines, even if they were not actually funny.

Given the punishing routine of three shows a day, the collective boredom of the run and the fact that they were away from home, the pantomime cast occupied themselves with a rollercoaster of affairs and liaisons which only drew to an end at the final curtain. Once Dick Whittington unexpectedly stuck her tongue down my throat in the backstage corridor on New Year’s Eve and Dame Fitzwarren locked the door of the star dressing room from the inside, subjecting me to his wandering hands when I came to discuss potential cuts in the light of the stage manager’s timings. I found myself entering and leaving the building through the warren of staircases and exit doors in order to avoid unwanted attention of this nature. The gender reversals and skimpy costumes contributed to an uncomfortably sexualised environment which found its expression on stage in the relentless innuendo and lewd references, all within an entertainment supposedly directed at children. ‘Thirty miles to London and no sign of Dick yet!’

I shall never forget the musical director rehearsing the little girls in tutus from a local stage school who supplied us with choruses of sylphs on a rota to accompany Fairy Bow Bells. ‘Come along, girls,’ he instructed the children, thrusting his chest forward and baring his dentures in a frozen smile of enthusiasm,’ Tits and teeth, tits and teeth,’ using the same exhortation he gave to the adult dancers.

Our version of Dick Whittington contained an underwater sequence, when Dick’s ship was wrecked, permitting the characters to ‘swim’ through a deep sea world which was given greater reality by the use of ultra-violet light and projecting an aquarium film onto a gauze. This was also the moment in the show when we undertook a chase through the audience, weaving along the rows. Drawing on the familiar tradition of pantomime cows and horses – and perhaps inspired by the predatory nature of the environment – I devised the notion of a pantomime shark in a foam rubber costume that could chase the characters through the front stalls and around the circle to the accompaniment of the theme from Jaws. I had no idea of the pandemonium that this would unleash but, each night, I made a point of popping in to stand at the back to enjoy the mass-hysteria engendered by my shark.

The actor playing Old King Rat had previously been cast as Adolphus Cousins in Major Barbara, so I decided to exploit his classical technique by writing a death speech for him. It was something that had never been done before and this is the speech I wrote.


Old King Rat:

This is the death of Old King Rat,

Foiled at last by Tommy the Cat.

No more nibbles, no more creeping,

No more fun now all is sleeping.

This is the instant at which I die,

Off to that rathole in the sky…


Naturally this was accompanied by extended death-throes, with King Rat expiring and getting up again several times. Later, I learnt my speech had been pirated by other productions of Dick Whittington, which is the greatest accolade in pantomime. Maybe it is even now being performed somewhere this season?

In subsequent years, I was involved in productions of Cinderella and Aladdin, but strangely I recall little of these. I did not realise I was participating in the final years of a continuous theatrical tradition which had survived over a century in that theatrical backwater. I did not keep copies of the scripts and the fragments above are all I can remember now. I do not know if I learnt the art of compromise but I certainly learnt how to pour a stiff gin and tonic. And I learnt that in any theatre there is always more drama offstage than onstage.



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18 Responses leave one →
  1. Laura Williamson permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Fascinating, and I would pay quite a lot to see that foam rubber shark in action!

    Wishing you GA and fellow readers a wonderful Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year.


  2. Julia harrison permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Thank you for this wonderfully evocative account and all good wishes dear Gentle Author for a warm and peaceful Christmastime.

  3. December 25, 2018

    A fascinating and riveting account. You ca almost smell the grease paint and marvel at the disasters narrowly averted every evening. It would appear H&S regulations not soo strict back in the day. wonderful piece of theatrical writing, just right for Christmas Morning! Thank you.

  4. Peter permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Thank you.
    Perfect start to Christmas Day.

    My first partner left school at 14 and went down the pit, a “masculine” world to which he was ill-suited.
    The summer he was 16 found him working at a miner’s holiday camp in Lincolnshire, a Greencoat by day, an entertainer by night. When the camp closed at the end of the season he worked at anything available until panto season started and he could get back on stage. He was ASM, sweeping the stage and understudy to the Dame, eventually graduating to playing the Dame himself. He learned the words to every play and could spout them at random some forty years later.
    Not particularly helpful when sitting in the front row stalls at the Palladium production and muttering the lines a beat before the actors on the stage.
    Your glorious tale brought him back with such force.
    Have a peaceful Christmas.

  5. Mark permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Good morning!
    That was a nice Christmass read,
    I was wondering what you might wright today.

    Thank you, and have a lovley day, eat hearty and drink a plenty.

    Mark B

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Thank you GA, this has been a most enjoyable start to Christmas morning as it all reminds of my brief insight into the ‘goings on’ in our local repertory theatre when my friend was the girl friend of the very handsome leading man. All a bit of an eye opener then.
    Happy Christmas.

  7. December 25, 2018

    A wonderful Christmas morning read. I could visualise it all. You must make – or collaborate on making – this into a TV script and pitch it before someone steals it. A gem.

    What a varied career you’ve had.

  8. aubrey permalink
    December 25, 2018

    “in any theatre there is always more drama offstage than onstage.” Nicely summed up. Sad and funny. Oxymoronic?

  9. December 25, 2018

    Lovely, funny, thank you.

  10. EJ Wilkinson permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Another terrific piece by the GA. We love the annual panto at our local Hackney Empire — an East End tradition. A shark cavorting to music from “Jaws” certainly was an inventive twist and I can just imagine the chaos of the chase through the audience. Wishing the Gentle Author and all your followers a very Happy Christmas.

  11. December 25, 2018

    Thank you. For the fifth year my daughter and I attended a local Christmas Pantomime Music Hall show here in a small theater in Alexandria, Northern Virginia; they are down to 5 now; last year they still had 8. They used to play some 5 years before 5 years ago in a larger theater in DC for some years when they would have “notables” like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband join in doing the Katmando routine with aplomb of course. Decades ago when I lived in Leeds with my husband (now deceased) we would attend these in the Leeds City theater.

    Be well and a kind year to all in Spitalfields,

    Ellen Moody

  12. Russell permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Hard to top that! Thank you and a very Happy Christmas!

  13. December 25, 2018

    What a delightful read for a Christmas morn in Texas! I start all my days with Spitalfields. As an inveterate Anglophile, it is an easy addiction. Long may the Gentle Author share his musings.

  14. Paul Loften permalink
    December 25, 2018

    There is something deeply symbolic about your early connection with Dick Whittingtons tounge. You could never have sold Mr Pussy to make your fortune nor turned back at the sound of Bow Bells but you have arrived anyway and are indeed our own Lord Mayor elect by the passion and devotion you have shown to your cause

  15. Jo Ross permalink
    December 25, 2018

    That was a wonderful read for Christmas Day. Wishing you and all your readers a happy and peaceful Christmas.

  16. Ros permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Loved it, loved it – thank you. A real big swish of the curtain. For me it has been a Christmas evening read and has given great service in putting the world to rights, at least for a brief few moments. And so to bed….

  17. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    December 25, 2018

    Oh, my dear.

    I too, entered the theatre at a young age (younger than you, I think) and I fear the years I spent there may have left me with a tendency to be coarse and jaded, at times. Thankfully it did not do the same to you!

    Merry Christmas, dear G.A., and all best wishes for the new year!

  18. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 26, 2018

    Dear Gentle Author – what words sublime

    Tell of your trials in pantomime!

    But here’s a challenge for next Christmas time:

    To write all of your festive blog in rhyme…

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