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19 December 2005

Panto is cool like King Lear is comedy

NS Christmas - Simon Callow and Sir Ian McKellen may be having fun, but Viv Groskop still reckons it

By Viv Groskop

What has happened to the pantomime? Suddenly it has been reinvented as “the new cool”. Kevin Spacey is thrilled and fascinated by Sir Ian McKellen’s second outing as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Old Vic (it was a sell-out last year). Simon Callow recently wrote of the joys of being lured back into Abanazar’s false eyebrows after a 32-year absence: “Like Olivier, I am revisiting a classical role,” he muses. (No doubt Christopher Biggins and Patsy Kensit, Callow’s co-stars in Aladdin at the Richmond Theatre, will particularly appreciate this reference.)

One Foot in the Grave‘s Richard Wil-son – who once told a journalist: “If you see me in pantomime, call a doctor” – is giving panto a whirl for the first time ever, as Baron Hardup in Cinderella at the New Wimbledon Theatre. It gets better (or, worse, depending on whether you are a fan of thigh-slapping principal boys). The Olivier Award-winner Frances Barber, too, is playing Dim Sum in Aladdin at the Old Vic.

There is, of course, business acumen behind this “trend”. The productions featuring Callow and Wilson, both lifelong enemies of panto, are the brainchild of a firm launched this year, First Family Entertainment (FFE): “a pioneering and exciting new company created to provide fresh, high-quality family productions”, so it claims. Funded in part by the Ambassador Theatre Group, which produces Guys and Dolls and Blood Brothers, FFE is responsible for eight new pantomimes. It is in competition with the panto supremo Qdos Entertainment – “the largest producer of Pantomimes in the World [sic]” – which boasts 20 productions this year and an annual turnover of more than £30m.

Qdos, it seems, has cornered the market for long enough with its touring productions (it costs between £150,000 and £500,000 on average to stage a panto, and the easiest way to recoup the cost is to ensure that it tours the following year). While FFE might be attempting to take the thespian high ground by rolling out Callow and Wilson, its other stars are remarkably similar to those of Qdos. FFE is responsible for Toyah Willcox and Hear’Say’s Suzanne Shaw in Snow White (Milton Keynes); Melinda Messenger as the Genie (Woking); Twiggy in Jack and the Beanstalk (Brighton); and Boyzone’s Stephen Gately in Cinderella (Bromley) – which elicited the following: “Stop Press! Extra week of pantomime announced due to unprecedented demand!” This has prompted Qdos’s Nick Thomas to declare FFE’s claims of grandeur “pompous tosh”.

My sympathies lie with neither company of luvvies, as I am a lifelong detractor of this “most pragmatic and eclectic of entertainments” (Callow again). I first saw Danny La Rue in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Bath when I was eight years old and I knew a travesty when I saw it. Even at that age I was appalled that this passed for entertainment and that adults were encouraging us to laugh and enjoy it. I now know families that spend more than £100 a year (the average adult ticket costs £20) on this spectacle, but I have rarely heard any of them say unreservedly that it was any good. They continue to shell out more money year after year because this theatre visit has become their “family tradition” and, once instigated, it is too painful to drop. Also, they argue, what else can you take your children to see at the theatre? As if panto were not enough to put children off theatre for life.

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Reality TV has given the genre an extra boost both through how the audience reacts to being in the presence of “celebrities” (rather than appreciating the performance of actors) and by providing extra cannon fodder.

Darlington’s production of Beauty and the Beast stars “Big Brother‘s Anthony”, who, bless him, doesn’t even get the benefit of a surname on the posters. For a new generation, panto is a real-life, on-stage version of Heat magazine’s “Spotted” pages for the amateur paparazzo, mobile-phone camera at the ready.

Panto survives only because there is nothing modern Britons like better than the reinvention of traditions, especially ones better forgotten. It somehow vindicates the existence of the institution in the first place and, instead of being rightfully ashamed of this old-fashioned gurning and shouting competition, we profess ourselves proud of our glorious theatrical heritage.

But the reality is not McKellen doing a funny turn; it’s Joe Pasquale in Peter Pan (Birmingham), Basil Brush in Dick Whittington (High Wycombe), Linda Lusardi in Snow White (Southend) and the Chuckle Brothers in Jack and the Bean- stalk (Plymouth). If Rod Hull and Emu are part of your family tradition – good luck to you. But let’s not pretend this is some thespian reawakening. Next, someone will be “reworking” the Carry On films (again) as a sophisticated, avant-garde, 21st-century filmic experience. No doubt Sir Anthony Hopkins has already had the call.

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