Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Panto Favourites Who Acted out of Their Skins

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Panto Favourites Who Acted out of Their Skins

Article excerpt

Byline: By David Whetstone

Don't feel sorry for the back of the panto cow. It's part of a noble tradition, as Peter Lathan explains in a new book, reviewed by David Whetstone.

It's the biggest banker in theatreland, the panto. Oh yes it is! Only the biggest and the boldest ( among which we must include the Sunderland Empire, reopening panto-less this season after refurbishment ( can afford to give it the cold shoulder.

Producers talk in awe-struck tones about "the million-pound panto", the monster box office phenomenon which helps to subsidise the rest of the year. But even village halls pack out for a festive bout of cross-dressing and slapstick.

Where did it all come from? One who has all the answers is Peter Lathan, from Roker, Sunderland, a theatre addict since the age of 12 and the author of a fascinating new book ( It's Behind You! ( about this curiously British phenomenon.

It's so often "behind you" at panto time. But the truth is that behind panto itself lie centuries of history, much of it giving the lie to the idea of the pantomime as being as British as a nice cuppa tea (which, of course, came from China or India).

Peter, in this fabulously illustrated volume, traces pantomime back to the Ancient Greeks and the Romans who used the word to refer to what we understand as mime of the Marcel Marceau variety.

In more recent times ( well, the 16th Century ( the Italians added their more potent ingredient to the pot in the form of the Commedia dell'Arte.

As Peter explains, this was "a fusion of lots of different influences: clowning, acrobatics, dance, music, slapstick, satire, farce, love stories a"

There were stock characters, too, such as Il Capitano (a soldier) and Il Dottore (a doctor). Then there were lovers and servants, the latter providing a raucous sub-plot.

But ( and this might stick in British throats like a misplaced 5p piece in a Christmas pud ( we apparently owe it to the French for introducing us to the ancestor of British panto.

They brought their version of the Commedia to England in the 17th Century, billing it Italian Night Scenes. This form of entertainment became established theatre fare through the 18th Century and also became increasingly Anglicised.

But the story isn't that simple. Peter also traces the evolution of the masque, a popular form of entertainment in royal and aristocratic circles across Europe. Henry VIII, as you might expect, loved a good masque, as did Elizabeth I.

In 1697 a book was published that had a major effect on the course of this kind of show. Mother Goose's Fairy Tales, by Charles Perrault, contained the stories of Puss In Boots, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood. It provided the basic plots of panto from which there is little deviation even today. …

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