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Skidmore's Island: Pant O'Mine

Zestful columnist Ian Skidmore, victor in many a deadline battle, points out that it was a journalist who invented the modern pantomime.

Do visit Ian's superlative Web site http://skidmoresisland.blogspot.com/

Over the centuries the great names in pantomime have included John Rich, David Garrick, Joe Grimaldi, Dan Leno, William Beverley, E.L. Blanchard, Herbert Campbell, Nat Jackley, Florrie Ford, Dorothy Ward, Wyn Calvin, King Charles II, the Emperor Augustus and my Mum who was Second Principal Boy in “Aladdin” at the Theatre Royal, Salford, in 1917.

Augustus played a pantomime - the word is Greek for dumb show performer - in his court entertainments. When the Christians came to power such shows were banned. An act of cultural savagery only paralleled by the Puritans who banned Christmas - and New Labour which made T Bone steaks illegal and tried to do the same with turkey.

Happily pantomime, the most magical theatrical event, survived down the centuries with groups of players putting on “Commedia dell’ Arte”, simple stories about an old man Pantaloon who tries to guard his pretty daughter Columbine from the dashing Harlequin. Harlequin bribes Pantaloon’s servant Polcinella to perform tricks to prevent his master catching them.

That Merrie Monarch Charles II brought “Commedia” to London where it split into separate theatrical traditions: Polcinella fathered Punch and Judy and Harlequin pantomime.

The first musical play was put on by John Weaver, a Shrewsbury dancing master, at Drury Lane in 1702. His boss, actor John Rich called it pantomime and introduced magical tricks. He was a brilliant mime artist but could not speak properly and his company were such lousy actors the performances were done in dumb show. Rich invented Harlequin’s costume of many colours for a very good practical reason. Each colour, the audience was told, represented an emotion. Yellow for jealousy, blue for truth, scarlet for love. When Harlequin wanted to express an emotion he would strike an attitude and point to a colour. He could even make himself invisible by pointing at black. Even Rich's scenery was inventive. He represented rough seas by getting small boys to jump up and down under a canvas sheet.

Rich’s pantomimes were so successful that tragedian David Garrick was forced against his will to put one on. Garrick was a great actor but a poor mime. His Harlequin had a speaking role.

Rich invented many of the pantomime traditions, beautiful scenery and mechanical monsters among them. When by 1789 people tired of the Harlequin tales he adapted Robinson Crusoe, the first of the traditional pantomimes. When a critic suggested it might be a good idea to adapt other tales like Cinderella, Babes in the Wood and Puss in Boots as pantomime, everyone thought he was crazy.

William Beverley invented the transformation scene, while he and E.T. Smith, the lessee of Drury Lane, watched a leg of mutton roasting on a spit. Said Smith: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a stage that revolved like that mutton, changing colour as it is doing under the flame?”

“I will paint you one,” said Beverley. In 1859 a wondering audience gasped at its first transformation scene.

I am delighted it was a journalist E.L. Blanchard who invented the modern panto and brought in the first man to play dame. She was called Widow Twankey after the china tea Twankay which was popular at the time. And it was Blanchard who decided the Principal Boy should be a girl. The first, a Miss Ellington, appeared in his first pantomime in 1852. He wrote every Drury Lane pantomime and many more from then until 1888.

Oh yes he did.............................................


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