Pantotime – Part 1

– Comfy?

– Govan!

It’s that time again.  Vote for Buttons! `

Did the coincidence of pantomime and general election occur to Boris? 

In Grimsby, apparently, it meant a clash between Aladdin and the votes being counted, in the same venue.  Aladdin won.   

Oh, yes, he did!

Well, folks – or should I say Hiya Pals? – we’re off!

I’ve always loved panto.  I loved it when I helped make it happen.  I still love it now, when all I do is watch, laugh, shout and sing along. 

Pantomime (all-round imitation) is a strange, mixed-up story, from a time long ago.

You could trace some strings of panto spaghetti to the Commedia dell’Arte, with its stock characters Harlequin, Columbine, Scaramouche, and Punch.  Some of these you’d probably recognise in a 2019 Christmas show in Scotland.

But the form has constantly changed, so that its origins seem almost immaterial.  Like your spell as PM, BoJo… it’s behind you!

Unlike Edmond in King Lear, panto is a bastard completely at ease with its motley parentage.  It’s adaptable, flexible and resilient, a hybrid of traditions, trends and tropes.

My own experience of working on panto comes mainly from the Citizens’, Glasgow.  The show ran for nearly 2 months, playing up to 12 performances a week.  It had to do well for 3 reasons. 

First, it was the best way of getting people to come to theatre who otherwise wouldn’t.  A major aim of a venue funded by, and for, the citizens of Glasgow. 

Second, it was the main source of earned income, helping to support the running of the theatre throughout the year.  Box office target – attendance and financial – was over 80% and we usually made it.

Third, it was fun!

It wasn’t just the figures that were taken seriously. 

The heart of the whole enterprise was the story.  If a character goes into the forest, there must be a reason and a follow-through.  Ends can’t be left loose.  Narrative thrust is all – what happens next, why and who finishes up how and with whom?

You can tell when a writer has treated the story meticulously.  The audience stays engaged. 

Same for the director and actors.  For all its sense of fun, this is not a flip, makeshift affair. 

Though rehearsal time was short (as little as 2 weeks), the shared aim was to make the production values – sets, costumes and performances – first-class. 

I’m amazed when pantos go on for nearly three hours.  Don’t they know about young (and old) bladders?  We honed the length to 2 hours, including interval.  Helped the swift turnarounds, too. 

Another maxim: always finish with the song sheet. 

Ah, what a great Scottish tradition, the audience yelling:  Bring Doon the Cloot!  I love the Oran Mor’s Panto Pie and a Pint version, for a pocket stage: Unwind the Blind!

You can’t beat – or follow – the audience singing along, at the top of their voices.  The walk-down, curtain-call and home.  Or the next performance.

Once the panto’s open, the logistics of keeping the venue going for several weeks call for military precision.  A welter of rotas, lists and schedules circulated from late October. 

Everything focussed on how to get hundreds of people into the correct seats, on time, out and back at the interval, ice-cream, drinks, and away quickly enough at the end to clean up and start all over again.  With a smile on your coupon.

The best in the business, ever, is universally acknowledged to be the late Mary Sweeney.  Queen of front-of-house at the Citz for 40 years, she worked every performance and kept everything, and everyone, as sharp as a pin.

Like invading Russia, a panto campaign might defeat the greatest strategist.  Not Mary.  If Napoleon had her in the ranks, she’d have marched, triumphant, into Moscow, glasses hooked into her brooch, handing out free programmes to bewildered Russian soldiers!

Back to bladders. 

Memory is prompted by smell.  For Proust, a Madeleine cake evoked his childhood.  For me, it’s the waft of urine.  Always recalls the 10am performance.

As Mary and her team seated cohorts of schoolkids, I used to think how apt the class groupings they called out: P1!  P2!  P3!

Mind you, we didn’t always help.  As well as peddling bottles of drink at half-time, some shows included diuretic frights. 

The most extreme was the wolf in Red Riding Hood.  His mask, exquisitely crafted by the design team – scarier than Michael Jackson’s in Thriller – with lit, red eyes piercing into the faces of petrified tinies. 

Soon, the foyer was full of children, shaking with fear, wet with tears – or worse.

Not a dry seat in the house!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, November 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail:

Next, in Pantotime – Part 2… what’s the difference between a Christmas show and a pantomime?

One thought on “Pantotime – Part 1

  1. Oh what memories you bring back Paul!!
    Forget the London Palladium et al, north of the border pantos were and I hope still are the best.
    Johnny Beattie at Ayr Gaiety ” Bring doon the cloot!!” – he really was and still is a wee stoater … and glamorous in his Carmen Miranda platform heels!
    Biggest thrill of my life was Stanley Baxter’s last Cinderella at the Glasgow King’s. So funny I really did need to run and P
    Awra best, China!
    P 😄👍❤

    Liked by 1 person

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