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white cat

Drury Lane's Christmas panto of 1904, performed just a few months after the deaths of two of its biggest past panto stars - and dames - the diminutive Dan Leno and much larger bulk of Herbert Campbell

Look out behind you

(some 700 years or so)


As the nights grow longer and the trees don their autumnal plumage, the earth drifts into its hoary slumber and the morning air has a crispness to caution of the rime laden days to come –  the time has come when thoughts turn to . . . pantomime . . . Oh yes they do!

Oh, no they don’t!

Oh, yes they do!

(etc for several pages)

And panto is that particularly British gift to the world, whether they want it or not! Its origins are many, starting with the name, which I am reliably informed stems from the Latin pantomimus - Latin being an omission in my schooling. After one lesson it was suggested I took up metalwork instead.

Pantomimus in turn comes from the Greek and roughly means someone who dances all the characters in a story and the someone did that with masks and formalised gestures.

Not a lot of laughs in there methinks, and Rome's contribution was to have much more influence on ballet in the 17th and 18th centuries than it ever did on panto – apart from the name of course.

Next up was probably the mummers' plays of the middle ages based loosely on folk tales, one of the most popular being St George and the Dragon and variations thereof. First recorded around 1296 they were popping up on village greens or pub yards, but were more often going from house to house of the landed gentry. They were popular additions to fairs, feasts and festivals, regulars at the Inns of Court's winter revels as well as being popular with the monarchy, appearing at early command performances.

They were comic affairs with plenty of stage fights, coarse humour and occasionally the odd mythical creature, a dragon or even a giant worm, thrown in. All the modern panto elements were there.

Incidentally, the mumming tradition still continues today with folk societies from Philadelphia to Peterborough still performing, including 300 or so, pre-Covid, in England alone.

Shrewsbury Mummers,

The Shrewsbury Mummers, keeping a mediaeval tradition alive

Then came the classical and perhaps biggest influence in the shape of Italy’s 16th century commedia dell'arte which poked fun at stock characters in society, with a fairly set plot expanded by improv, and, incidentally, its character Pulcinella was to evolve in England into the puppet Punch, of Punch and Judy fame.

Actress Isabella Andreini was a famed exponent along with her husband Francesco in an art form which had its fair share of subterfuge, mistaken identity and cross dressing.

It lost a little in translation as it crossed the Channel, tariff free in those heady days of yore, morphing into the British Harlequinade theatrical genre. Originally it was a mime with stylised dance to finish off an opera or a ballet. The silence was not so much from choice as the fact many of the actors were French Thespians finding work after a ban on the many unlicensed theatres in Paris.

France was not alone, the Licensing Act of 1737 gave draconian powers to the Lord Chamberlain who had to licence every play and every revision before it could be performed and could refuse without reason. It also limited spoken drama to just the licensed patent theatres of which there were two, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London.

It was a bludgeon of an solution to the criticism and mockery of the Government in theatrical productions with the satirical comedies of Henry Fielding poking fun at the powers that be and John Gay's libertarian The Beggar's Opera having been particularly irritating to Sir Robert Walpole's Whig administration.

There was an important caveat though, other theatres were allowed to perform comedy and pantomimes along with melodrama – comedy presumably seen as not serious enough for a Government to worry about, so with most of London and the rest of the country drama free, panto and harlequinade became mainstays with melodrama adding a bit of hammed up variety.

The act was modified by The Theatres Act 1843, giving the power to licence theatres to local authorities, which gave rise to a wave of new theatres, including concert rooms in pubs and the growth of popular music halls. The Lord Chamberlain’s powers over licensing plays was also restricted in that he could only prohibit plays on grounds or morality or public order – a power he held to 1968.

Unaffected by the act the commedia dell'arte’s characters developed into the Italian art form’s more ribald and slapstick, British cousin. Harlequin was no longer the villain but the hero who fell for Columbine, thwarted at every turn by her greedy stupid old father Pantaloon who was aided, or more often hindered by his comic servants a clown and Pierrot, a sort of happy Jack character who could be relied upon to create havoc.


Flemish artist Hieronymus Francken the Elder's 16th century painting of commedia dell'arte troupe I Gelosi where Francesco Andreini was head and his wife Isabella the company's superstar actress.

Don’t knock it, that simple plot with variations was to run for more than 150 years from the 17th to the 19th century – life was a lot simpler then . . . plus there was no telly, no Sky and social media was the town crier.

By the 19th century topical themes, even politics were being included and plots were expanded taking in fairy tales and folk stories. Joseph Grimaldi had made the minor role of clown a lead part and brought himself lasting fame.

His clown became Joey and in turn launched generations of Joeys to follow. He invented the stock clown make up of white face with  huge red grin that could be seen from the back of the auditorium. His clown was always the fun friend of the audience, the life and soul of the story, but Joey always had his moments of sadness and pathos, the blueprint for almost every clown since - including Chaplin's little tramp..

From being a minor role, Grimaldi made the clown the star - but when was the last time you saw a clown in panto? He was to have a much bigger influence and longer lasting influence than that. Oh, yes he was!.

At Easter 1820 he appeared at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in Harlequin and Cinderella; or The Little Glass Slipper. Grimaldi played Baroness Pomposini, the wife of the lead character. A comedy role, it was one of the first examples of a panto dame, a bloke in a frock – but when it was performed by an A-lister, even one whose star was fading, it made a lasting mark.

Grimaldi's career and health were already in decline and the following year he collapsed with his son Joseph Samuel standing in for him, an understudy role he was to regularly play as his father's health worsened in what doctors diagnosed as premature old age.

The dame had arrived though, and when it comes to dames, how about Widow Twankey. She started life as Widow Ching Mustapha, a dramatic role played by serious actresses, including Eva Marie Veigel, the wife of 18th century acting superstar, David Garrick. She was a straight character, Aladdin’s mother, in the Harlequinade of the Arabian Nights

Twankay first turns up in 1861 in Aladdin or the Wonderful Scamp, by Henry James Byron, who was, incidentally, a second cousin of Lord Byron.

The name is said to be derived from a cheap, poor quality, inferior brand of China tea sold at the time, implying Twankay was, like the tea, old, withered and past her best. Twankay became Twankey, mother of hero Aladdin and his dim brother Wishee-Washee, and was a role made famous by Dan Leno back in 1896.

Mancunian impresario Byron is also credited by introducing Buttons along with the ugly sisters the previous year in his 1860 staging of Cinderella.

The traditional Harlequinade was in terminal decline being eclipsed by the continuing rise of pantomime with music hall and its stars adding to its growing popularity, one of the most famous being Leno, who in the 1880s and 90s was one of the highest paid comedians in the world, paid the equivalent of £100,000 for six weeks work in 1896. 

leno and cmpbell

Dan Leno and much larger bulk of Herbert Campbell in the 1897 Christmas pantomime The Babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

The Harlequinade lingered on, sometimes as a short prologue to the main event, sometimes as a comic sketch in the main performance, sometimes merely a mention in the title, but its days were numbered and even its brief appearances became fleeting. It had become little more than a memory, a curiosity, when it was performed for the last time at The Lyceum Theatre, just off The Strand in London in 1939.

Some of the traditions of panto have changed. The principal boy, the young dashing romantic lead, was once a thigh-slapping girl but these days it is usually a boy, for example, but many conventions still remain, “Oh yes they do!” being one of them as you look out because it’s behind you.

There is always a baddy, who convention states must be booed. And there is a fairy godmother or such who appeals to children and without a fright, sparkly bright, makes things right, every night.

They also have a penchant for speaking in rhyming verse, which I suppose could always be worse . . .

Then there is the dame, played by a bloke in drag, usually the mother of the hero along with his, or her, more stupid brother. This is Idle Jack, Silly Billy, Simple Simon and so on or in Cinderella it is the cheeky servant, Buttons; whatever the name it is panto's traditional comic lead who has the audience eating out of his hand from his first moment on stage. He is the audience favorite who falls for but never gets the girl - Grimaldi's sad clown's pathos in action.

But perhaps the oldest tradition is one that goes back to the 14th century mystery plays, the bible stories dramatized for a largely illiterate peasant society. They told stories such as Adam and Eve and The Last Supper, bringing bible stores alive. The York mystery plays are one of just four surviving collections, and contains 48 plays from The Creation to The Judgement day.

And what has a collection of religious plays from the 1300s telling bible stories got to do with the somewhat more secular world of panto?

Well, by tradition the good fairy enters stage right, the audience’s left, while the baddy or his henchmen come on from stage left, the right from the audience view. Why? Well back in the 1300s the good and the angels would always enter from stage right while Lucifer or his like would appear from stage left, a simple device to distinguish good and bad a 1300’s audience could understand - to their left was heaven while to their right Hell

So, when you settle down in your seat to watch the likes of Aladdin rubbing his lamp, Snow White lost in the forest, beauty falling for the beast, Whittington turning again or Jack chopping down his beanstalk, you are watching a performance steeped in seven centuries of history and tradition – oh yes you are!

Roger Clarke 


Joseph Grimaldi

Joseph Grimaldi as Joey, illustrated by George Cruikshank in around 1820

Joseph Grimaldi, revered as the father of modern clowning, became a depressed, penniless alcoholic in his later years and died in 1837 aged 58. The coroner recorded a verdict that he "died by the visitation of God" which simply meant cause unknown.

Each year on the first Sunday in February there is a memorial service held for Grimaldi and all the clowns who have died at The Clowns Church, Holy Trinity, Dalston in Hackney. It is attended by clowns in full costume from Britain and beyond who put on a show for children and the community after the service.

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