Christmas, entertainment, history, theatre, Uncategorized

Discovering British pantomime

I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do love a good pantomime. Oh no you don’t, I hear you cry. But I do. I really do.

 

So it was with great delight that my Beloved and I took ourselves off to Saffron Walden town hall last weekend to view the annual festive season Spectacular in all its camp glory. And this year, it took the form of Beauty and the Beast – an esteemed work that I must confess I wasn’t previously familiar with. Dick Whittington, yes. Aladdin, yes. But Beauty and the Beast, no.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

After swallowing the mild embarrassment of being more or less the only people there without young kids in tow, we quickly got into the swing of things and settled down to enjoy a fine selection of Carry On-style innuendo and the usual “he’s behind you” tomfoolery.

 

My favourite character wasn’t so much the hero and heroine of the piece though but the cocky but ultimately thwarted suitor of Beauty (or Belle) named Jean-Claude (it was all set in a French village, which might have been random or could also have been in honour of the French woman who originally wrote the fairytale down in the 18th century, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – who knows?) who modelled himself on surreal TV comedy the IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm, boss of Reynholm Industries.

 

I was also quite taken with Madame Cruella, who seemed to have made a surprise appearance from 101 Dalmations and did a cracking job of being evil, keen as she was to get her sinister claws into young Prince Ferdinand aka the Beast. All very entertaining.

 

But, despite the consummate daftness, it turns out that pantos are actually a pretty old form of musical comedy theatre – and one that, as it happens, is unique to the UK, although it does make an imported appearance in former British colonies such as Ireland, Jamaica, and even Canada and Australia now and then, apparently.

 

Traditionally performed over the Christmas and New Year time, pantomimes are believed by some to have their roots in the so-called Mummers Plays of the 13th to 16th century. These consisted of a kind of processional dance and mime show, to which dialogue was added over time. They were performed during the festive season by troupes of amateurs known as ‘mummers’, a word thought to be derived from the eponymous old German term meaning ‘disguised person’.

 

Ancient traditions

 

The name was assigned to them as many of the performers wore hats or painted their faces red or black to obscure their features out of fear of being recognised (this custom is also associated with English Morris dancers). As mumming was a means for agricultural labourers to raise extra money for Christmas, they went from big house to big house in the area to do their thing. But they didn’t want to be associated with begging – hence the disguises.

 

Nonetheless it seems to have been a lucrative business – it was said that they could raise as much as a whole month’s wages by performing for as little as three evenings.

 

Mummers play
Mummers play

The performances themselves, meanwhile, were broadly-speaking short comic dramas with themes based on duality and resurrection. Generally involving a battle between a couple of characters who are believed to have represented good and evil, one would inevitably be killed and then brought back to life by a doctor wielding a magic potion – an activity that some believe has pagan symbolism relating to the death and rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.

 

Others hotly dispute the notion, however, attesting that a lack of extant Mummers Play texts prior to the mid-18th century can only mean that they did not exist in drama form before then. They believe that while mummers may have cavorted around in masks, it was actually “guisers” who performed the traditional folk dramas, which were themselves actually influenced by early versions of English pantomime rather than the other way around.

 

Whatever the truth of the matter though, the plays seemed to contain a bunch of elements similar to today’s pantos such as stage fights, coarse humour and gender role reversal (the lead male role generally being performed by a young woman and the dame by an older man).

 

Incidentally, this role reversal, although a later Victorian addition after it went out of fashion for a time, actually reflects a tradition relating to Twelfth Night. It marked the end of a Medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and ended at the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Samhain, which is celebrated today as Halloween took place from sunset on October 31 to sunset on 1 November. It was a period when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was said to be thin and the natural order of things reversed.

 

Pantomime history

 

Interestingly though, mumming and guising were also a key part of this festival too. People went from door-to-door dressed up in costumes or disguises as a way of hiding and protecting themselves against the spirits of the Other World, often reciting verses in exchange for food – all of which suggests to me that the whole symbolism of the thing could be much older than it is generally given credit for.

 

Anyway, it seems that during the 16th century, English folk drama, whatever name or form it took, began to be absorbed into a form of Italian travelling street theatre called the Commedia dell’arte. Productions, which had become really popular by the middle of the 17th century, included music, dancing, acrobatics and general buffoonery and were put on in fairgrounds and marketplaces around the country. They were based on a repertoire of comic, and often satirical, stories that contained moral lessons and also included a series of stock characters.

Harlequinade poster
Harlequinade poster

 

From the 1660s onwards, these stock characters began to appear more and more in English plays, until by the first couple of decades of the 1700s, actor-manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre, John Rich, made one of them in the shape of Harlequin the star of his shows.

 

Rich, who has been dubbed the father of pantomime, was also the inspiration behind the chase scenes that became a key part of an early version of panto called a ‘Harlequinade’. These Harlequinades, which dominated the scene for the next 150 years, saw two eloping lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, being pursued by other adapted Commedia characters including her father Pantaloon and his comic servants, Clown and Pierrot. And the pantomine traditions of slapstick, chases and transformation are still based on Harlequinade antics to this day.

 

By the 1870s though, the Harlequinades began to die a death and were replaced by dramas based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’. These productions became so popular and elaborate, in fact, that they sometimes lasted as long as five hours and boasted up to 600 performers.

 

The most extravagant were held at the still thriving Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, London, which was responsible for adding many of the panto elements we still know and love today such as principal boys and pantomime dames, the appearance of celebrities and the use of popular tunes – in those days, Music Hall songs, but today pop ditties.

 

All of which appears to imply that what goes around does seem to end up coming around eventually too.

 

 

environment, UK, waste

Waste: What a load of rubbish

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of Christmas already – and it’s only November.

Too many restaurants and pubs are, in my view, pushing glittering Christmas dos with gay abandon. The shops are full of gift-boxed this and sparkly that. And you can barely get your hands on a birthday card these days as so many have been banished and replaced by their Christmas cousins. Bah humbug, yes. But it’s all a bit excessive really.

Christmas shopping
Christmas shopping

Particularly when you consider the sheer amount of rubbish that the rampant materialism behind it all generates. It’s bad enough during the rest of the year – for example, did you know that the UK produced a vast 200 million tonnes of waste during 2012, the last year that figures were available?

Commercial and industrial activities created nearly a quarter of it, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But households were also responsible for a shocking 14%, and only 44% of that was recycled.

Thankfully though, a lot less is going into rubbish dumps than it used to. While the figure was about 90% in 2009, it’s more like 50% today and is forecast to drop to just 10% by 2020 as a result of positive action. Most notable here is the 1996 landfill tax, which led to a push towards recycling and the introduction of incineration as a means of generating electricity.

Anyway, I don’t know whether you’ve watched celebrity chef-turned-environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Waste’ programme on the BBC over the last few weeks, but it threw up some shocking statistics of its own.

The focus more than anything else, understandably given his background, was on food waste – a particular bugbear of mine too, especially after living in South Africa and seeing the rampant and distressing levels of poverty and deprivation there. People would give their eye teeth for any of the tender morsels we throw away without a second thought, and they routinely feed their families at a minute fraction of the cost – even taking cost of living issues into account.

Food waste

So I was horrified to learn from Hugh’s programme that a massive third of all food produced in the UK is never actually eaten. Resource efficiency charity Wrap  indicates, in fact, that the country’s total food waste amounts to a vast 15 million tonnes – even though a disgraceful 13 million people in a rich country such as ours routinely struggle to afford to eat.

But there’s no single culprit here. For instance, each of the UK’s 26.7 million households waste on average 16% of the food they buy each week. That’s about a day’s worth and is valued at roughly £15 (or £840 per year).

Food waste
Food waste

One issue here is that too many people simply don’t use their five senses to check whether food is still OK but throw it out as soon as the ‘use by’ date is passed. Another is that they often don’t plan their meals and so end up buying too many things they don’t need, wasting lots of money in the process. And natural resources, electricity, manpower etc etc.

But as Wrap points out, a huge 11 million households have access to food waste collection services on their doorstep. So there’s no excuse for any of it going into landfill really.

Equally as bad though are the supermarkets. On the one hand, they only accept produce that is grown to exacting cosmetic standards, which means the rest has to either go for animal feed or is simply trashed.

And this despite the fact that, in 2000 and 2008, the UK lost 40% of its potato yield due to inclement weather and made up the shortfall with ugly veg that would previously have been rejected. And guess what? No one, but no one even noticed.

On the other hand though, supermarkets also seem to have a bad habit of changing orders at the last minute, even if a crop has been pulled, which means that it goes to waste and farmers end up being out of pocket – to the extent that nearly half of British farms are now losing money.

But a third issue is actually the most insidious of all – that is, the deliberate and systematic over-ordering of goods so that stores can guard against empty shelves. Because that means, of course, not being able to make that all-important sale to people who are going to waste loads of what they’ve just bought anyway. It definitely explains the emergence of modern-day pursuits such as skip-diving.

Insatiable demand

And the catering industry’s no better. According to Hugh, it chucks out the equivalent of two billion meals every year. Two billion. Enough food to feed the hungry, in this country at least, surely?

Unfortunately, I can go on. In a disposable fashion society such as ours, Wrap says we now throw away an estimated £140 million worth of used clothing – the equivalent of 350,000 tonnes – each year. That’s just under £400,000 worth each day. Which goes directly into landfill. Not to charity shops or onto our family or friends. To landfill.

Disposable fashion
Disposable fashion

The average UK household, meanwhile, owns around £4,000 worth of garments, around 30% of which haven’t been worn for at least a year. Which means, on average, we possess four times more in apparel terms than we did 30 years ago.

But we’re not the only ones affected by our own rampant consumerism. According to Nick Grono, chief executive of the Freedom Fund, the first private donor fund set up to try and end modern day slavery, our insatiable demand for cheap goods, which rely on finite natural resources, is not just wrecking the environment.

It is also creating incentives for unscrupulous organisations to use illegal, forced labour to avoid the scrutiny of the authorities while indulging in activities that damage the environment still further.

Examples here include the enslaving of desperate migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia on fishing boats in Thailand. They, in turn, strip the oceans of fish, thereby as Grono says, “perpetuating the cycle of devastation and exploitation”. Ditto the gangs of young men in Brazil who are trapped by debt into illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

But the problem, as James Lovelock’s Gaia theory states, is that we’re all interlinked – and very closely. So if we hurt Mother Earth, ultimately we just end up hurting ourselves too.