26 March 2016

Remember British and Australian pantomimes?

The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England was written by Jeffrey Richards (Tauris publishers, 2014). For British history, I have relied on Simon Callow (Guardian 13th Dec 2014) and on Rhys Griffiths (History Today Apr 2015). For the Australian half, I am relying on my own vivid memories.

Of all the theatrical genres most prized by the Victorians, pantomime was the only one to have survived and evolved well into the C21st. It was important because a visit to the pantomime constituted the first theatrical experience of most British children.

Richards examined the potent combination of slapstick, spectacle and sub­version that ensured the enduring popularity of the form. Panto­mime acted as an accurate cultural barometer of its times, directly reflecting current attitudes and preoccupations, and it kept up the instantly recognisable topical allusions to politics, fashions, technologies, wars and scandals.

The panto grew out of a partial merger of three quite separate forms: a] harlequinade, a comic interlude based on the classic commedia dell’ arte; b] extravaganza, a witty satire based on Greek and Roman myth; and c] burlesque, which irreverently sent up everything the Victorians customarily took seriously. If pantomime was to remain popular, it had to be in a form that could reflect the mood of the rapidly changing times. And it did!

Adventures of Robin Hood
King's Lynn
Photo credit: Eastern Daily Press

Jack and the Beanstalk
Photo credit: Birmingham Mail

The early genres of burlesque and extravaganza offered fantasies that transported the audience. They were not uncritical of the world around them; after all, satire of a genteel order was generally acceptable. But they had to be tasteful. Victorians were intensely visually aware, fascinated by the vast array of new stimuli available to them – and by the power of optical illusion. So skilled scene-painters and costumiers arrived to meet this fascination.

In 1879 Augustus Harris Jr took over Drury Lane and made panto triumph­ant once again. Harris directed rehearsals; dealt with writers, designers, costumiers and provincial managers; snatched a nap and changed into evening dress (until he died aged 46 in 1896). Harris aimed to give the people what they wanted and the audiences loved what they got! It was often blatant jingoism! Imper­ial themes increasingly began to feature in the shows, resulting in a carnival of political incorrectness eg minstrels in blackened faces comically enacting the Indian Mutiny.

During the long twilight of empire, panto still did well in Britain. Despite rationing of fabrics and building materials, it con­tinued to triumph after WW2. But the arrival of television by 1950 threatened the existence of theatres. Pantos became both costly and empty-headed, and disappeared from West End theatres. Only in the 1970s did something positive happened. Altern­ative panto began to flourish on the fringe. Even legitimate actors became interested.

Pantomime was/is about the relationship between the actors and the audience. It is theatrical, magical and can be hilarious; it can be awe-inspiring and it can be seriously subversive. As long as it is in touch with its roots.


Pantomime was a stage performance imported from England and hugely popular in Australia from the late C19th on. The product­ions were full of contemporary comment, lavish costumes, large corps de ballets and even larger choruses. As the C20th got going, the fairytale plots also began to incorporate athletic skills and novelty-turns.

Pantomime in Australia was centred in the capital cities. During the long summer holidays (pre-Christmas to mid February) it was traditional for the biggest company, J.C Williamson, to put on its biggest pantomime in Melbourne, my home town. They featured well known stage performers, Williamson’s most experienced choreographers and the company’s best musical composers. Given that pantomime was a particularly English tradition, many English stars were recruited to come to Australia in the UK’s off-season.

And not just pantomimes. The famous international star Sarah Bernhardt toured Australia in 1891 and was warmly welcomed in each capital and regional city she visited. Touring ensembles from the USA brought vaudeville-style theatre to Australia and played before excited audiences. Lavish productions were the norm.

Dame Edna Everage as the dame who saved London
in Dick Whittington
Photo credit: The Daily Mail, 2011

Melbourne audiences understood that the British stars ensured the high quality of Australian pantomime and brought traditional British values to the local product eg Australian pantomime also maintained the custom of having a cute, slim actress play the principal boy and an bulky actor playing the jokey dame. Natur­ally these cross dressers came on stage with elaborate costuming.

Another of the traditional British pantomime elements transferred to Australia was audience participation, particularly verbal interaction with the villain. He was greeted with a torrent of booing from the entire audience.

Pantomime in Australia, as in the UK, included songs and sketches that referred to contemporary events and personalities. During the Great War, pantomime was even more popular; it was an expression of patriotism toward king and country, and of disdain for the enemy. [However I am not sure why pantomime was seen as an appropriate method for expressing loyalty to the crown, morale building on the home front and recruitment of young soldiers].

Tivoli Theatre in Bourke St, which originally opened in 1866 as the New Opera House, became one of the major variety, revue and performing arts venues in Melbourne. Holding 2120 audience members, this theatre helped to make Melbourne one of the most cultured cities in the southern hemisphere! The Tivoli Circuit later expanded to include Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

Melbourne's New Opera House, later the Tivoli Theatre  
Photo credit: State Library of Victoria

Pantomime as an art form maintained its popularity in Australia for many years, including during the Great Depression and even in the years after WW2 ended. My fondest memories of the 1950-1960 era are going to the Tivoli every summer holidays with one or other grandmother. It only ended for my family when my parents bought their first tv in 1960. In any case, the Tivoli closed in 1966.

In June 2014 Londoner Bonnie Lythgoe believed interest in pant­omime could be re-ignited in Australia. The producer hoped Sydney children would love a trendy and modern version of Snow White Winter Family Musical. If successful Lythgoe planned to bring Aladdin or Peter Pan on tour, to rotate four or five pantos around the country. I must ask my super-cool grandchildren what they think.


Andrew said...

I loved panto. I can remember two, Robin Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, both starring Patty Perkins. One was at the Tivoli and the other in the auditorium at the brand new Chadstone Shopping Centre. Patty played Robin and Jack and I seem to remember Jack's mother being an Auntie Jack like figure. My eight year old niece has seen a couple of pantos and enjoyed them.

Hels said...


History of Pantomime said pantomime's most popular subjects were, in order: 1. Cinderella, 2. Aladdin, 3. Dick Whittington and 4. Snow White. Other popular titles were: Jack & the Beanstalk, Babes in the Wood, Robin Hood and Sleeping Beauty. Rising in popularity was Peter Pan, first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London in 1904.

Apart from Babes in the Wood (a nasty story), I remember the others with great excitement :)


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, While there are/were lots of reviews with skits, I don't think that pantomime itself ever caught on in America. I don't recall attending something like this even once, so it is difficult to compare to other entertainments. Maybe we were missing something good, or perhaps one has to first develop that British sense of humor or other sensibility. I did attend a children's theater, but they presented regular plays like the Wizard of Oz.

Ex-pat said...

Every Christmas holiday, my mother and grandmother used to take us children to a pantomime in South Africa. Then we went to a fancy coffee shop for afternoon tea. Great years.

Hels said...


every time I try to find why pantomime was enormously popular across the British Empire-Commonwealth but not in the USA, I keep finding a useless answer eg In the UK, Christmas pantomime is the most popular of all theatre genres excluding musicals, and a two or three-month run of the Christmas pantomime is often what keeps a small theatre solvent throughout the year. Christmas pantomimes are popular elsewhere, especially in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Bermuda, but they are rare in the United States.

Why would that be so? The pantomime's broad humour, villians in black, music and cross dressing are not a million ks from American Vaudeville.

Hels said...


I suppose South African, Australian and New Zealand children had a great advantage during the Christmas season. Far from the snow and miserable weather of a northern pantomime season, we had long summer holidays, beach weather and parents at leisure for 3 or 4 weeks.

By the way, I remember the devonshire teas as well - scones, jam and cream, on a tiered cake stand :)

Andrew said...

I can remember screaming out with others, "He's behind you".

Hels said...

Andrew :)

now we would die of humiliation, yelling out to actors on a stage. But at a pantomime, that all seemed part of the fun.
"Oh, yes it is!"
"Oh, no it isn't!"
"Oh, yes it is!"
"Oh, no it isn't!"

Lord Cowell said...

I hope you have had a nice break this holiday weekend, whatever your holidays may be Hels.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

you too! A peaceful holiday!

Did you grow up in New Zealand? Were pantomimes part of your childhood experience?

Joe said...

Seeing Dame Edna Everage in Dick Whittington suddenly made Gregory Holyoake's article on the true Dick Whittington relevant.

Dick Whittington was born in the mid 1300s near Gloucester. He was a poor but enterprising youth who migrated to the City, determined to explore his future as a mercer. He set up his luxury cloths business which caught the eye of King Richard II who made the young man his Court Mercer. Dick served under Kings Henry IV and Henry V, and was put in charge of the restoration of Westminster Abbey. As a reward, Dick was made a member of Parliament and Mayor of London. He founded public libraries, hospitals, hostels and almshouses, dying in 1423.

Certainly a great achiever, but the article did not say why medieval Dick Whittington was suitable as a hero for modern pantomimes.