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Backwords: Oh What A Pantomime!

“Why does a brown cow give white milk when it only eats green grass?’’ Mike Shaw writes of the traditional pantomimes which were as much a part of his boyhood Christmases as presents from Santa.

Why does a brown cow give white milk when it only eats green grass?

A laughable question, you may say. And you’d be right.

It’s all part of the good clean fun that comes with the panto season.

Nita Valerie, the grand old lady of professional theatre in Huddersfield, used to sing the little ditty every year.

Sadly, Nita is no longer with us. But it’s a tribute to her powers to conjure up audience participation that a lot of kids - and parents, of course - still remember her panto song.

Long before Nita and her husband took over Huddersfield’s Theatre Royal, one of our Sunday School treats was a trip to the panto.

Traditional pantomime then was as much a part of my boyhood Christmases as presents from Santa, holly and mistletoe, and a big fat turkey.

Sometimes we went to the Palace or the Theatre Royal. But the ones I remember best were those at the Bradford Alhambra.

At the Alhambra, Norman Evans, arguably the best panto dame of all time, was the star of the show. And what a star.

Norman’s over the garden wall chat with a next-door neighbour always brought the house down. No matter whether the show was Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington or Jack and the Beanstalk.

Huddersfield’s pantos could never run to a star of Norman’s calibre.

But I remember one notable principal boy at the Palace who became a top TV performer.

Betty Driver long-since abandoned the thigh-slapping glamour roles. But she did very nicely as the Rover’s Return barmaid in Coronation Street.

A bit later in life there was a post-war boom in amateur pantos, put on by all-male casts.

Men’s pantomimes were never my favourite entertainment. But I have to say that they went down a bomb in church halls up and down the Colne Valley and beyond.

Butchers and bakers, plumbers and plasterers cast aside their inhibitions and transformed themselves into fairies, demure damsels and can-can dancers.

As hairy legs flashed in well-rehearsed unison, the chorus line had their audiences rolling in the aisles.

Once the men’s panto bandwagon really began to roll, the performers played to packed houses and a new game grew up among the audiences.

Was that really Willie the weft-man under a huge blonde wig, with flickering false eyelashed, rouged cheeks and loads of lipstick?

And could that possibly be Percy the plumber with the big boobs, miniskirt, black stockings and suspenders?

Spot the bloke was all the rage as row after row of laughing onlookers strained their eyes and their imaginations to try and guess the identity of those on stage.

Wasn’t it all rather risqué, you may ask. By some strange irony, it would probably be regarded as such today.

But at the time it sent normally strait-laced spinsters into hysterics, and village parsons certainly didn’t seem to see any harm in it.

Not only that, the Vicar of Marsden in those days actually joined the prancing fellas on stage in the Parochial Hall… in the star role, of course.


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