East End Memories

REMEMBERING THE HACKNEY EMPIRE (1948-1956)

Mother Goose at The Empire (2008)
Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire

PART FIVE - THE GREAT CHRISTMAS PRODUCTION - THE PANTOMIME

The great event that took place at the Hackney and which everyone looked forward to when I was a child was the yearly pantomime. I am glad to see that the Hackney Empire, in its new incarnation, still produces such a production each year, which I gather is popular with locals and visitors alike.

The pantomime was very popular during the golden age of Music Hall and was presented at many of the Empires on the circuit in December and part of January. At that time, a number of the West End theatres also produced a pantomime. The most famous of these, although not strictly a true pantomime, was J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which was presented each year at the Scala Theatre and later at other theatres once that lovely old theatre was demolished to make way for a building that the populace of London could easily have lived without.

Children and their parents looked forward to the annual visit to the panto, as it was affectionately known, and would not dream of missing it. Since those heady days, the panto, like all things, has been subject to fashion and fell out of favour for many years. There were no major productions in a West End theatre for many years until recently when Kevin Spacey revived the art at the Old Vic and allowed Ian McKellen to fulfill a life-long dream by taking on the role of one of the principals. However, despite fashion and changing tastes, panto has refused to die and productions continued to be presented in village halls and small theatres throughout the country. And now I note that each Christmas time, there are an increasing number of productions presented in the theatres found throughout the suburbs of London and in the provinces.


Click on the posters to enlarge them

The pantomime, as it was and still is presented in Britain, is a peculiar affair. It is something that is unique to British theatre, and hardly ever is presented anywhere else. I find this amazing since the British colonized many parts of the world, yet Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Canada produce few pantos. None, as such, are presented in the U.S. Panto is a spectacle of song and dance slotted into the flimsiest of stories. The story, such as it is, would be based either on a fairy story – such as Mother Goose, Cinderella, Snow White, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots etc – or a nursery rhymeLittle Bo Beep, Humpty Dumpty etc. The story would be especially written for the production and would play very much to the talents of the principal players. Now this is where confusion comes in and the cause of this confusion comes from the casting of the principal characters.

All pantos would have the same basic principal characters, each with names suited to the particular underlying story. The main characters were a principal boy, a principal girl, a dame, and a villain, and oftentimes, a fairy Godmother. This would seem simple enough, but confusion would come with the casting of the principals.

Prinipal BoyFirstly, the principal boy, who might be Aladdin, Dick Whittington or Prince Charming, would be played by a girl. He would always be dressed in a short upper-body outfit suitable to his role, but no matter what the plot, he would always be in tights so as to allow full view of her shapely legs. Secondly, there would be an outrageously dressed, overly made-up and overweight woman, who would be the mother or stepmother of the principal and was known as the dame. She would be both a source and a figure of fun and would be played by a man. I have noticed that all cultures, regardless of their apparent differences, seem to share one thing in common: the women of the society enjoy seeing their men make fools of themselves by dressing as women. The Japanese love it. The English have a history of it. And the Americans have learned to accept it. Playing the dame in a panto was considered to be a highlight in the career of any comedian of yesteryear and many ordinary erstwhile jokesters have shone in this role. Some, for example, Danny LaRue, even made full-time careers playing such characters. Principal GirlThe principal girl, unless she was the title character, such as Cinderella or Snow White, would generally be a minor role, and would be played by a girl. Imagine that! The story would require an antagonist or villain who would be determined to bring about the end of the hero and would be played by a man. Lastly, there might be a fairy Godmother that would help the hero during his or her time of greatest need and would be played by a woman. Now that is a novelty!

The story of most pantos varied little from a basic plan: the title character would find himself either wanting something that was out of reach – such as a desperate desire to attend a ball, or else be yearning for riches to feed a hungry family – and would find his or herself at the mercy of some loathsome creature – such as a wicked stepmother, which was most popular, or by a character of myth and fantasy such as the King of the Rats, or a wicked enchanter etc. You get the picture! Villains were important to panto since they generated crowd response and, in spite of their character, were immensely popular characters and vital to the success of any production. Their main job would be to incite the audience to participate in the goings-on on stage. For example, they would threaten the hero with some foul torment and then turn to the audience and reinforce their plan by adding Oh yes I am! Such a threat and declaration would cause the audience to retaliate by yelling Oh no you’re not! These remarks would pass back and forth for a while and the children in the audience would get very involved in the rhetoric. My father would enjoy such interactions and would take part in it with the gusto equal to that of any child present much to my mother’s chagrin.

Pantomime HorseA panto would not be complete without a simple but good-natured companion for the principal character. The companion would be either a servant or an animal of sorts, which would be played by one or two actors depending on the need. The animal would most often be a horse named Dobbin or a cat imaginatively called Puss. George M. Cohan, the great American vaudevillian and author of many great songs, remarked that when it came to casting actors to play a horse, one always had difficulty casting the front half! This character, who would be loved by the children in the audience, had the role of consoling the principal at times when he or she would be feeling especially low and convinced that he/she would never overcome the obstacles placed before him/her. Often the animal or the servant – or perhaps a fairy Godmother – would be responsible for pointing out something to the principal who, quick as a flash, would seize upon it and come up with a plan of escape from either a prison, a cave or some other cold, dark and damp place where he/she had been locked up to whither away while the villain or villains made off to dance at the ball or else claim some treasure and the princess.

Fortunately, if the principal character were a girl, she would go to the ball thanks to the timely intervention of her fairy Godmother and meet Prince Charming and perhaps lose a slipper before eventually being claimed by the prince as his one true love. In the case of the principal being a boy, he and his companion would rush off and arrive in the nick of time to save the princess from a fate worse than death, which would generally involve a sword fight between the hero and villain, which would cause great excitement in the children and my father while watching safely from their seats. During such a battle, there would be much leaping over props and near misses where all would look lost for the hero. Such grandiose demonstrations of such daring and skill would bring loud and excited ooos & aahs, as well as well as appropriate shouts of look out or behind you from the appreciative audience. But eventually, and to the delight of all present, good would always prevail and the villain would be forced to yield to the principal boy and beg forgiveness. After promising to change his ways, the villain would be allowed to go free. Once forgiveness was given to the needy, the principal boy would claim the treasure and the hand of the princess would be thrown in for good measure.

The panto was a great event and my mother would be sure to purchase our seats almost immediately tickets went on sale. My mother was especially particular where we sat for the panto and always wanted tried to book Box J for the second house on Christmas Eve. Most times, she was successful, however there were occasions when she was forced to accept another box, generally just off-centre or, God forbid, fort-tell seats!!!

Aladdin Junior ChorusThe show would open in much the same way as the regular shows with a line of chorus girls. They would, of course, be dressed according to the story. My favourite panto, I remember, was Aladdin. Here the chorus girls were dressed with coolie hats on their heads and in very short smocks. Suitable make-up to their eyes gave the impression that they were oriental. The costume for the chorus girls was always short and revealed their legs for all to admire. Sadly, feathers and sequins and other items of glitter were not part of the general chorus costume in a panto - after all, it was a production where parents brought their children!

Following the dance, the dame would make her grand entrance. In Aladdin, she was called the widow Twang-Key and was the mother of the principal boy. Naturally the children would laugh at her exaggerated dress and at the two large balloons that were stuffed into her costume to simulate breasts and the one behind to accentuate her rear. Much would be made during the production to burst these props. The dame’s make-up would also be outrageous. She would have overly rouged cheeks together with long and very black eyelashes that could be seen in the balcony. The dame would wear a wig of an unusual colour and style. In spite of the attire and make-up, there was never any mistake in thinking that the character was not a man in disguise since little was done to change the voice. The dame would generally appear Pantomime Dameon stage along with another comic character that would play the stooge to the dame’s jokes and tricks. The dame would generally be played by a well-known comedian and so would be known to the children in the audience.

Once the dame made her entrance, she would begin to yell and complain about her son, the principal boy. The principal boy would be seen as not fulfilling his destiny or else would be accused of laziness and lacking in ambition. Following this, the dame would call out in a loud shrill voice for her good-for-nothing son to come to her. The principal boy’s entrance would also invite much clapping and cheering since the children would know that here was the hero and that in spite of what the dame might say about him, she loved him and that she and the audience knew that he would not disappoint them in the end. Nothing that took place in a panto was ever truly a surprise to any member of the audience unless they were very young and this was their first visit or if they came from another world, which generally meant from anywhere outside Britain.

The story of the panto would move along in fits and starts as there would still be many of the usual Music Hall acts that would now be required to perform before a backdrop that doubled for The Court of Emperor of China or the palace where Prince Charming lived. There would be tumblers and jugglers, again suitably dressed according to the story. Most importantly, there would be a magician since children loved such performers. It was the custom to invite several Mother Goosemembers of the audience to join the magician on stage and help with the act. The chosen children always came from the fauteuils, much to the annoyance of those that sat in the circle and balcony, and the chosen ones would often be heartily booed as they made their way to the stage. Those not chosen were convinced that only rich kids sat in the fauteuils and so received preferential treatment and got to go on stage. Despite this momentary loss of good manners, the jovial and festive mood of the audience would quickly return and everyone would continue to have fun and enjoy themselves.

Of all the characters presented in a panto, with the possible exception of Dobbin, I liked the villain best of all. I always enjoyed it when the he was on stage. A favourite name for a villain was Ebenezer, obviously lifted from Charles Dickens’ Scrooge. The best villain, as far as I was King Ratconcerned, was The King of the Rats. The chorus girls would double as his subjects and everyone would look most provocative in elongated ears, pointed noses, long whiskers and an exaggerated tail that swayed to and fro as they scampered across the stage complete with their permanent smile. The villain generally dressed in a long billowing cloak and would roar and bluster about the stage while making his threats, which were meant to frighten the children in the audience. There would always be some very young children present who would have to be carried out of the auditorium when the villain became especially outrageous in his threats. Eventually the villain would capture the hero and would commit him to being locked in a cave or else tied up in the hull of a ship or left to rake out the cinders. Meanwhile the hero’s torment would be added to by the waving of thin sheets to create the effect of thunder together with the dimming and flashing of the stage lights to simulate lightning.

Once the principal boy was safely locked up or tied up or given monstrous duties to perform, the villain would take off to either amuse himself by dancing at the ball or by collecting the treasure. Now, with the hero incarcerated and seemingly without hope, the curtain would be rung down to announce that it was time for the interval. And so the audience would be left to wonder if he would be able to escape a fate worse than death.

The interval would be spent by most women and their children forming lines before the inadequate number of toilets in the theatre while the men would crowd into the bars. Meanwhile, ice cream and sweets would be purchased in huge quantities from the various salesladies positioned about the auditorium.

The second half of the panto would begin with a return of the chorus followed by a number of specialty acts. During this half of the show, the audience might be treated to a star attraction who would perhaps have a role in the panto. Generally the star would be a singer and would be given time to perform their act in regular costume. I never quite understood this break in the story, but I expect that such performers helped ensure the sale of tickets and see that all seats were filled at every performance. The star would sing some of the songs that had made them famous, as well as a number of seasonal songs – after all, it was Christmas. Meanwhile, the story would lumber on until the final scene when all would be well following the speaking of several lines by the principals and thanks to the intervention of the fairy Godmother. The show would end with everyone coming on stage in the reverse order of their importance. Generally, the principal would present himself for a final bow before the dame. As a child, I could never quite understand this misrepresentation and I would argue this point with my parents throughout the journey home. After all I would reason, the panto was named for the principal and not the dame, so why shouldn’t he come out for the finale last of all? My parents, I am sure tried hard to give me a suitable explanation for this insult to the principal, but I was never convinced and eventually they left me to ramble on merrily about this travesty.




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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins