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Is traditional pantomime dead?
IN 1978 the comedian John Inman starred in Hippodrome pantomime Mother Goose until the record late date of April 1. He was still wishing children Happy Christmas after Easter had passed!
  By contrast the forthcoming Cinderella, which has been announced for the 2013-4 festive season, will end as soon as the Christmas decorations come down on January 5, the earliest-ever post-war finish for a Hippodrome pantomime. Its December 6 start, also the earliest (with 2002) since the war, makes it at just four weeks and three days one of the shortest, while Mother Goose ran for a marathon 14 weeks, three days.
  A pantomime was once guaranteed every year; by the 1990s the average was one every other year. But something more fundamental has happened to this traditional show - not just its length and frequency. Veterans say the essential character has changed, from one where variety comics steeped in theatre interacted with child audiences, to glitzy musical-based shows with soap or reality TV stars who have never trodden the boards before.

  Pantomimes began in earnest at the Hippodrome in the 1940s after their celebrated venue the Prince’s Theatre was blitzed. Over the years stars have included George Formby, Morecambe and Wise and Arthur Askey.

  Wyn Calvin, a panto veteran for 60 years including five at the Hippodrome, said he had now given up doing them because of the trend towards involving soap stars who had no pantomime experience.

  “With some of the big pantomimes now there is a movement to make them more like musicals and get rid of some of the older pantomime traditions. When you interfere with the basis of something you begin to destroy it. This is what some of the big managements are attempting to do.

  “In days gone by the variety theatre provided names for panto - comedians, singers and speciality acts. That world has gone. Light entertainment is now soaps - they are known by the character that they play in soaps, but very few people know them by their own name.”
Wyn Calvin appeared in five Hippodrome pantomimes.                                  Inset: Wyn today.
John Inman (right) in the 1977-8 pantomime Mother Goose.

  John Redgrave, a show producer who runs Bristol School of Performing Arts, which has supplied child performers for many Hippodrome pantomimes, said: “The genre is in the process of being killed because of the method used to put on pantomimes. They say: ‘We mustn’t do tradition, we must make it modern’.


  “It’s now put on by major firms who have got the wrong people - it’s all soap stars. Whenever I have booked a soap star I have had to teach them how to walk on stage. It’s a combination of the wrong people involved on stage, lack of knowledge backstage and generally backers who say: ‘How can we make money out of this?’ It could easily come back, but you need people who know how it is done.”

  But Michael Kilgarriff, an actor and author on the British music hall who was Slave of the Lamp in the record-breaking 1980 Hippodrome pantomime Aladdin with Danny La Rue, said: “Nowadays panto has to compete with myriad home attractions which didn’t exist a generation ago - umpteen TV channels, video games, CDs - and are very expensive to mount, so I’m surprised any management is willing to put up the cash.


Longest run: Mother Goose, with John Inman

December 22, 1977-April 1, 1978 (14 weeks, 3 days)

Shortest run (post-war): Cinderella, with Julian Clary

December 17, 2004-January 9, 2005 (3 weeks, 3 days)

Average run:

1940s-1980s: 10 weeks

1990s: 7 weeks

2000s to date: 4.5 weeks


Hippodrome pantomimes

  “Panto as we know it evolved from several sources, one being music hall in the 1870s. Today’s comics don’t have that variety background and are notoriously averse to appearing in a medium which they consider old-fashioned, and in any case actors and musical comedy artistes do it so much better.

  “Michael McIntyre might make a good Buttons or Wishee Washee, but when he can fill a huge auditorium on his own why bother with singers and dancers and scenery and costumes and having to stick to a plot?”

  Kevin Wood, chief executive of First Family Entertainment, the in-house pantomime production company of the Hippodrome’s parent firm Ambassador Theatre Group, said there had been a pantomime at the theatre every year since Ambassador took over in 2009 and its commitment to staging one annually was very strong.


  However, pantomimes closed in early January because Christmas was not as significant a holiday as it used to be, he said.





  “Society has changed and we celebrate many more events and festivals than we used to. We find that as soon as you get past the New Year people move onto the next thing. People are less keen to come in January than they used to be.” It was also more difficult to attract school audiences.


  “Another reason is that shows cost so much more to put on. The point where they stop being viable is now much higher and therefore the weeks in January and February where we used to drop down the number of performances to eight a week wouldn’t work any more.

  “They are more expensive because actors, dancers, musicians and technicians are better paid. Costs have risen significantly for all theatrical entertainment.

  “In the past, most pantomime stars were made famous by television, but when television stopped showing variety it meant the comedians couldn’t get on television and couldn’t get famous. Brian Conley, Bobby Davro, Joe Pasquale and Bradley Walsh were the last comedians to have television exposure. Since then no comedians have had television exposure.




  “It’s not panto’s fault. The problem isn’t soap stars, it is reality stars. At least soap stars can act - it is the reality stars that shouldn’t be there.”


   A wider range of actors, such as Ian McKellen, were now willing to do pantomime, including Americans, almost as one of the things they want to do before they retire, he said.





  He promised a better show next Christmas than the last Hippodrome pantomime, Aladdin, when the main star Justin Lee Collins had to pull out at the last moment because he was involved in a court case. And he will push for the Hippodrome to have an extra week’s pantomime in future.


  “The tradition of pantomime is that it has always embraced change - that is why it has survived longer than other forms of theatre and hasn’t become an anachronism.


  “It is certainly as popular as it ever was. The reason for that is that it has constantly evolved, and that is what is happening now. That’s why the shows put on now are different from the shows five or ten years ago.

  “People think we don’t care about this, but we care massively about all of these things.”