Questions recently put to me by www.hotcourses.com.
Q: What do you think it is about panto that has charmed audiences for such a long time?
A: Simple good versus evil stories, bright scenery, outrageous costumes, visual comedy, singing and dancing, audience participation, I could go on. Panto is pretty unique in terms of theatre entertainment, because of the way that it involves the whole audience. It draws them into the action and gives children in particular the impression that they can actually influence the outcome, by booing the baddies and warning the goodies of danger by shouting ‘it’s behind you’ amongst other well-known set responses. It is also one of the few forms of theatre that truly spans the audience age gap. Most stage shows will typically appeal to a certain audience age range. Generally speaking, we can assume that not many 5 year-olds will sit through a Shakespeare play, and that not many 85 year-olds will sit through a Take That concert. But a panto audience continues to encompass the whole age range, from 5 to 95. The culture gap between young and old is probably wider than ever and situations where all age ranges mix together in public is getting ever more rare, but panto still stands out as one of the few occasions when all ages can share and enjoy an experience together. But I believe that the main thing that gives panto it’s longevity, is the fact that it has the ability to take onboard and include current fashions and culture to appeal to its ever-changing audience.
Q: What do you think are the ingredients for a perfect panto?
A: Answering ‘what makes the perfect panto’ is a bit like answering ‘how long is a piece of string. One person’s perfect panto might be a production in a large professional theatre, with a star-studded line-up and big production values. Whereas for some people – myself included – the perfect panto might be one performed on a shoestring budget in a small village hall, starring enthusiastic local people and possibly even friends or family members. Seeing people you know making fools of themselves onstage in order to entertain their local community, is one of life’s little pleasures. But in terms of the essential ingredients for a good traditional panto, then I believe the following is a must. Firstly, it must have a simple plot with a beginning a middle and an end. Too many professional productions employing ‘star’ names, bend this rule in order to get in as many references to the ‘stars’ real jobs, be it in TV, film or the world of sport. This almost certainly amuses the adults in the audience more so than the children, and underestimates a child’s potential to follow a storyline. Make no mistake, the children will be following the storyline from start to finish and shoehorning in irrelevant scenes just to promote a star performer’s real job, will only serve to distract them from the story and adds little to their enjoyment of the show. There should almost always be a love interest, corny as it might seem. But this should be brought up to date so that the female character doesn’t come across as a submissive and feeble princess type, but should be confident feisty and modern. A loveable rogue like Aladdin that the audience can take to their hearts, is another staple. As for slapstick, any show omits this particular tradition at their peril. When writing my own panto’s, I try and stick to the rule ‘if it’s not funny or doesn’t help with the plot…cut it’ And last but not least, any panto worth it’s salt it should include plenty of uptempo musical numbers and an audience participation song, sometimes called the ‘community’ song.
Q: Are there any pantos you think are a ‘must-see’ this year?
A: Any local panto is a ‘must-see’ as far as I am concerned. But I would say that Alice In Wonderland is definitely the must-see panto at the moment. It has some truly memorable characters that virtually everyone will know and is absolutely perfect for the crazy world of panto. And following hard on the heels of the recent Johnny Depp film it really is in vogue at the moment.
Q: Which are the most popular panto stories?
A: Pantomime stories are like any other form of entertainment, in that they wax and wane in popularity. For instance, go back a few decades and the most popular panto’s were titles such as The Babes In The Wood, Mother Goose, Goody Two Shoes, Sleeping Beauty, Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe. Nowadays the top titles in no particular order are, Cinderella, Aladdin, Snow White, Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk and Peter Pan and these are the titles that most professional productions tend to stick to at present. Amateur companies on the other hand are happy to look for something that little bit different, such as The Wizard Of Oz, King Arthur, The Little Mermaid, Treasure Island and Alice In Wonderland. But as I have said previously, they wax and wane in popularity and we now see titles like The Babes In The Wood and Robinson Crusoe – albeit with more than a little nod to ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ – making a bit of a comeback.
Q: What advice would you give to performing arts students that might be interested in working in panto in the future?
A: Brush up on your ad-libbing skills and be prepared to set your dignity aside. Panto is no respecter of age, gender or stature and you should always expect the unexpected. If you are lucky enough to have made a name for yourself in some other field before getting involved in panto, don’t fall into the trap of playing that other persona to the exclusion of the pantomime character you are supposed to be playing. Acting in panto is probably the most fun you will ever have with your clothes on and the warm feeling you will get through seeing lots of bright-eyed children laughing and cheering in unbridled joy, is something that will stay with you forever.