The Steady Rise (Easy, Grandma!) Of The Adult Panto
Wordsmiths love the panto season although I’ve not been since I was about nine years old, but friends are nagging me into attending this year, partly because there seem to be more of them than ever, and many are getting very good reviews. I’m not thrilled about sitting amongst a thousand seat-wetting anklebiters and being pelted with Jelly Babies, but by all accounts the evening performances are largely filled by adult audiences.
Pantos operate on two levels, as we all know, the filth and the fun, but now there are more and more adult pantos being staged in London. Last year we had ‘Alice In Poundland’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pilates of the Caribbean’. This year we have ‘Treasure Island – Curse Of The Pearl Necklace’, ‘Sleeping Booty’, ‘A Lad In Tights’ and ‘Jack And His Big Stalk’. It’s not just an English habit, either. In Copenhagen at the weekend I saw posters for pirate panto ‘One-Eyed Willie and His Quest for the Big Chest’. Suddenly adult panto is big (God, you have to watch everything you say) and bursting out all over the country.
Why have we suddenly gone back to the 1970s, when ‘Carry On’ films could wring endless meanings out of the word ‘it’ and ‘some’? (As in ‘she wants it’ or ‘he’s getting some’)? After decades of liberation from euphemism, why go backwards now?
It’s a strange evolution; back in Edwardian England the biggest Christmas show was ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’ by Clifford Mills. Mills wrote the piece as a Christmas entertainment for the Savoy in 1911, with Jack Hawkins and Noel Coward among the forty kids in the cast. The show was produced by Italia Conti. It was ‘Rainbow’s phenomenal success that led to Conti setting up her famous children’s acting school.
‘Clifford Mills’ was a woman who had taken her husband’s name to write the play, which concerns an ‘ordinary’ group of children led by Rosamund and naval cadet Crispin, who are visited by St George and travel to titular land via a threadbare magic carpet called Faith. The directions for how to reach Where The Rainbow Ends are hidden in a library, and Crispin summons his best friend Blunders to help. Once they reach the far-off land, the children must fight their evil aunt and uncle, and take on the Dragon King. Poor Rosamund is promptly tied to a tree, to be eaten by hyenas. St George fights the Dragon King on a tower and all ends happily.
The play became a best-selling novel that delighted generations of children who failed to notice its jingoistic, not to say racist, tones. Much mention is made of the St George’s flag and the rightness of being an Englishman, while the magic carpet genie appears to be swarthy and Jewish. A magic potion turns out to be labeled ‘EMPIRE MIXTURE: Poison To Traitors’ – it kills the evil uncle and aunt, and they’re eaten by the hyenas. A frontispiece shows four blue-eyed blond children staring adoringly at the red and white flag. There’s also a character called Schnapps, who is ‘German with Jewish blood’. Rosamund asks protection of St George by telling him ‘I am an English maiden in danger and I seek your aid.’
The stage play ended with St George coming to the footlights and crying out ‘Rise, Youth of England, let your voices ring, For God, for Britain, and for Britain’s King,’ at which point everyone jumped up and sang the National Anthem.
For forty years, ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’ was every bit as popular as ‘Peter Pan’ – it had everything; goblins, elves, a magic carpet, a battle between good and evil, songs and a cuddly animal. Unfortunately it had something else in it; the roots of fascism.
Eventually such simple entertainments gave way to the three-act, dual-level shows of the present, which are now subdividing again into the regular pantos and the ‘Carry On’-style ones for grown-ups. The amazing thing is that they show no sign of disappearing, but are growing ever-more popular.