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A Beginner’s Guide to British Pantomime Traditions

by | Nov 14, 2020

To an outsider, pantomime traditions may seem bizarre, even misjudged. However, to those who grew up with panto, there are many governing rules, fun quirks and bizarre twists that work together to make the panto magic we all know and love.

Why are pantomime traditions important?

Tradition can be seen as a sign of resisting change, but in pantomime there’s a fine balance to be made between keeping traditions and innovating for the next generation of families to enjoy.

  • Passing on entertainment traditions from generations past
  • An understanding of where British culture has come from, and where it’s heading
  • To keep alive the magic of pantomime for the future
  • Some things don’t need to change – they’re still funny and entertaining
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – tried and tested routines always make people laugh
  • You have to learn from the past in order to improve the future

What are the different panto traditions?

Booing and Hissing

Perhaps the most famous of all panto traditions are the fundamental pillars of audience participation ‘booing’ and ‘hissing’. These are laid out from the very beginning of the show and aimed at the villain or ‘panto baddie’ when they are acting in a mean or nasty way. The audience can ‘boo’ or ‘hiss’ at any point during the production, and often not when the actors expect it!

Cheering

A little less common than ‘booing’ and ‘hissing’ but cheers are also present in many pantomimes. They bring the audience together in collective celebration of the accomplishments of the hero/heroine of the piece. They are instigated by a cast member but also happen unexpectedly.

Oh No It Isn’t/Oh Yes It Is

If you tell someone that you’re a fan of pantomime, or that you work on panto productions, the most quick-witted of acquaintances invariably reply “Oh no you don’t”. There are lots of variations on the basic principal, and these phrases can be used in a variety of formats depending on the plot point (that’s right, pantomime does have plot points occasionally). Variations can include:

  • “Oh yes it is” followed by “Oh no it isn’t”
  • “Oh yes we do” followed by “Oh no we don’t”
  • “Oh yes I did” followed by “Oh no you didn’t”
  • “I did, I did, I did” followed by “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t”
  • “Did, did, did” followed by “Didn’t, didn’t, didn’t”
  • etc.

It’s Behind You

Another phrase, chanted most enthusiastically by younger audience members, is the old chestnut “it’s behind you”. ‘It’s’ can be replaced with personal pronouns like ‘he’ or ‘she’. One of the most well known of pantomime traditions is a must-have for scenes where characters go missing. It is also used where characters are encouraging the audience to assist them in finding a particular object on stage.

This phrase is also the primary component of the famous ‘Ghost Gag’ scene which appears in most pantomimes. The characters are plagued by ghosts, ghouls, goblins and nasties.

The Ghost Gag

Taking it’s lead from the ‘It’s behind you phrase’ the ghost gag has developed over time. Nowadays the sketch is often accompanied by a song (Ghost Busters, the Monster Mash, etc.). The most punchline is the Pantomime Dame turning and scaring the creature into retreat.

Gender Bending Casting

Pantomime is surpassed only by Shakespeare in terms of the gender bending casting in it’s long history. Most famously the panto dame (traditionally played by a bloke in a frock, but more recently with elements of the performance art of drag). The dame is usually the principal boy/girl’s mother or guardian.

There is the principal boy, or the male lead, which can be played by a female actor in heeled boots, tights and an overlong tunic. Traditional boys are rare nowadays but they do crop up occasionally. Outside of that, there are plenty of exceptions to the generally agreed casting rules. Gender bent fairies and baddies are commonplace (I have a particular love of gender bending the fairy in Dick Whittington). It’s also frequent to see gender bent comics and a mish-mash of other roles. The roots of gender-blind casting are traced way back in history.

Pantomime Animals or The Skin Role

Pantomime horses, cows, cats (and indeed a variety of alternative animals) form a core role in the show. They often have strong personal traits and play a key part in the plot (yes, that’s twice now I’ve talked about plot in a panto blog!). For example, the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk (in my version named ‘Pat’, just for the pun of it) is traditionally stolen by the giant to feed him. Dick Whittington‘s cat comes in handy when he discovers that London’s rats.

Historically larger animals are played in a huge mascot-style costume with two people inside it. Modern pantos (partially due to casting constraints) are beginning to feature one-man/woman animal skin roles which often have spoken lines. At the Customs House in South Shields they pioneered using a sheep who translated the show into British Sign Language. This made the show more accessible to audience members attending.

Slapstick Comedy

It wouldn’t be Christmas in theatres without someone being hit over the head with an inanimate object. No – not backstage! On stage of course. From policeman wielding foam truncheons, to dames doing damage with a frying pan, there is no end to the fun that can be had. Slapstick comedy can take place at any time during a pantomime, but tends to happen during the messy or ‘slosh’ scene.

The Messy or ‘Slosh’ Scene

An extended scene of comedy slapstick usually involving some kind of liquid or sticky substance is a well-loved pantomime tradition. Loathed by stage mangers up and down the country, these scenes range from mildly messy to dangerously dirty. The ‘slosh’ (usually a custard pie, or cake mixture) is usually thrown over the comic. In extreme cases the actors can be cleaning things out of their hair three times a day due to the gruelling performance schedule!

One of the most extensive messy scenes I’ve seen is a broken ship’s bathroom which spews water everywhere (and I mean everywhere). There is also a song sequence with nearly a hundred custard pies. Both are created by Evolutions Pantomimes (you can catch glimpses of them in their show reel).

The Song Sheet

The song sheet usually appears between the final ‘plot’ scene and the finale of the show. Functionally, it allows a chance for the whole cast to get changed. But for many children it is their favourite part of the production. They are invited to join in with singing a song with a couple of the characters. Selected children are invited on stage and involved in comedy improv from the dame or comic. (“How old are you?”, “Four years old”, “Really? I was four when I was your age!” etc.) and then a competition ensues between the two halves of the audience to see who can sing the loudest.

The cleverest song sheets are well-known songs from the year, tongue twisters or songs which take inspiration from their panto title (French songs for Beauty and the Beast etc.) The lyrics for the song are flown in from the fly floor in large print for everyone to see.

Double Entendre

Often a favourite pantomime tradition for adults in the audience, the ancient art of double entendre is an established element of the panto form. It walks a fine line: too blue and the adults will feel embarrassed, not blue enough and the children might understand it! Here’s one of my favourites from the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella:

Ugly 1: We went shopping in *local town* today but we weren’t very successful.

Ugly 2: Yes, we visited Apple but they didn’t sell apples.

Ugly 1: We visited Boots but they didn’t sell boots.

Ugly 2: Well, you can imagine how disappointed we were when we visited Virgin.

Rewritten Lyrics & Original Music

Scattering pop songs throughout your panto is not an easy task when you have such a strong narrative structure to adhere to (I know, I know). So re-lyricing songs can be an excellent option to include this year’s top hits alongside some panto classics. You can also reword some famous numbers to contribute to the comedy of the moment.

One of my favourite sketches is where the fairy tries to teach the comic how to sing a romantic song or delivery a romantic rhyme but whenever the comic tries, he always ends up creating a rhyme with a rude word! You can see recommendations on my blog for opening numbers, finale songs, dame’s songs and baddie’s numbers.

Entrances and Exits

An old tradition, but still an important one for budding directors (see my guide to first-time directing) is the different sides of the stage and which entrance is appropriate for the fairy and villain. Traditionally fairies enter from stage right, and villains from stage left. This convention is commonly broken nowadays but serves as an excellent foundation upon which to build your blocking.

The Transformation Scene

Stemming from the Harlequin’s transformation in Victorian pantomimes, the transformation scene nowadays takes place at the end of Act I and gives the audience a taste of what they can expect from the second act. Be it Cinderella‘s quick change into a ballgown, Jack climbing the famous Beanstalk or Aladdin discovering the riches that lie in the cave of wonders, the transformation scene is often the most lavish of any pantomime traditions (except for the finales of course!).

Summary of Pantomime Traditions

So when you’re planning your next panto, use this checklist and make sure you’ve included everything that you want to. If you have more traditions I haven’t mentioned here, perhaps some that are specific to your production company, I’d love to hear about them!

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