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.

 

 

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Britishness, leisure, tourism

What does “Britishness” really mean?

Eight months or so after returning to the UK following my two-year-long South African adventure, I decided to give myself a birthday treat and go back to blogging.

I’ve missed it. There’s something about putting your thoughts down on paper that makes you look at the world through slightly different, more observational, and perhaps rather more emblematic eyes. And, as I’m now back to being a freelance journalist full-time, I do find it eminently satisfying to write about the things that fascinate and amuse me rather than the things that pay the bills.

So what better topic to light upon than that of life in the UK in all its mundanity, its drollery and its singularity? Having been born and brought up in these Hallowed Isles, I am, of course, far from being the dispassionate observer of society, culture and everyday experiences that I was in South Africa. How could I be when I’m imbued with it all to the core?

But there are many ways to skin a cat, as the rather gruesome proverb goes. So my aim is to portray life here, for good or bad, through the prism of my own experiences for anyone who may be interested.

And what better place to start such a venture than with the vexed idea of “Britishness” and what it actually means. It’s an issue that people appear to have been wrestling with since the identity crisis brought on by the collapse of that doubled-edge sword, “the Great British Empire”, and the upheaval provoked by the Second World War – and with no satisfactory outcome to date.

Sure, lots of tired, old clichés still abound regarding our collective stiff-upper lip, our notions of fair play and our propensity to drink lots of tea. But that would scarcely seem enough to sum up a nation.

So it struck me as interesting when a friend of mine who’s into astrology informed me there’s a certain branch of the discipline that relates to countries. While astrology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, bear with me as the insights afforded are quite interesting – whether you hold any store by the influence of heavenly bodies or not.

Astrological_signs_by_J._D._Mylius

Apparently how it works is that, when drawing up a star chart, you plump for an historic date that could be seen as the birth of the nation. A common one for us Brits apparently is the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey in London at noon on 25 December, 1066, following the Norman invasion.

Collective nature

This would mean that the UK has a Capricorn sun sign, with an Aries ascendant, the sun sign being the essence of who you are and the ascendant being how you present to other people.

Aries, so it’s said, is ruled by Mars, the planet of action, which means that people – or countries, for that matter – influenced by this sign tend to have a rather pioneering nature. They are also natural leaders, but can, on the downside, be aggressive, competitive and warlike. And they strive to be first in everything, sometimes to the point of ignoring the rights and feelings of others.

Sound familiar? Certainly notions of Empire would fit very nicely into many of the categories above, I’d have said, as would various ground-breaking events such as our creation of the first Parliament as well as sparking off the Industrial Revolution.

Capricorn-bonatti

The Capricorn side, meanwhile, is characterised by hard-working, practical, ambitious people (or countries) who are dedicated to achieving their goals and let nothing stand in their way. Responsible and methodical, they are often skilled administrators, hang onto established traditions and prefer slow, piecemeal reform to outright revolution.

So that’s where things like our cool British reserve and detachment would appear to come from as would the general focus on duty, and our apparently interminable love of Monarchy.

But my friend also believes that, given the liberal, eccentric and creative elements of our collective nature, the UK must likewise have a healthy dose of Aquarius thrown in there too – which I must confess is the bit that I’ve always tuned into most.

Along with just how feminine the energy of our country feels. I’d never noticed it before, but after going to Japan about 20 years ago for a dear friend’s wedding who is sadly no longer with us, it struck me just how immensely masculine that country was by way of contrast.

It wasn’t just the overt male domination going on all around or the seemingly diminuitive nature of the women, giggling behind their hands. It was just that the country felt so utterly and palpably male – I’d never experienced anything quite like it, and despite having an amazing time there, was really quite relieved to get back to our gentler, reassuringly female shores.

British birthdays

So anyway, just to tarry on the theme of Britishness a while longer, I had, due to the tender ministrations of my Beloved, a most appropriately British of birthdays.

Saffron_Walden_market_square

After indulging in that childhood classic of fishfinger sandwich, complete with very adult tartare sauce, at the Old English Gentleman pub in the charming, old market town of Saffron Walden in north Essex where we live, the next step was to take ourselves off to the historic city of Cambridge for a lovely roam around.

After working up a suitable appetite with our wanderings, we then treated ourselves to the traditional British fare on offer at The Cambridge Chop House opposite King’s College in the heart of town.

For those who aren’t familiar with chop houses, they, like coffee houses, alehouses and boarding houses, are essentially great British institutions of hundreds of years standing.

Originally, male-only establishments, they actually date back to the start of modern commercial trading in the country during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Businessmen would gather there to hatch deals over hearty plates of traditionally cooked meat such as the chops after which they’re named, all washed down with a fine selection of local ales.

Even in the face of the new-fangled European cuisine sweeping across from the continent at the apex of their popularity in the 19th century, the chop houses, it seems, still managed to cling to their resolutely British mores.

So in keeping with the spirit of the occasion and despite not being a huge red-meat fan, I opted for herb-encrusted lamb chops while my Beloved went for a 10oz Tail on Rib Eye steak – whatever that means. And excellent they were too – traditional British food at its best.

Our final and ultimate indulgence then was an evening watching Shakespeare’s Macbeth in pergola-bedecked gardens near King’s. So all in all, a more British birthday couldn’t have been had if we’d tried.

So good day UK – it’s great to be back.