(Callow's article appeared in the Guardian, 12/13.)
As you get your kids and your parents and maybe your grandparents ready for your visit to the panto this year – and panto is still in rude health, for many people the only time in the year they go to a theatre – you might perhaps wonder how such a gloriously odd phenomenon came about. There are interesting reasons for this unique combination of the broadest of broad comedy, a sentimental love story, a hero in fishnets, a brick shithouse of a comedian in tights, a ton of spangly scenery and audience participation on a nearly terminal scale, but what’s most surprising is how passionately people have felt about pantomime throughout its history: it has been perceived as important, this mad farrago, this theatrical mongrel that is barely deserves the name of genre.
In 1867, the Era newspaper was pronouncing ex cathedra on the subject: “Time in his course has built up pantomime into an institution as venerable as Magna Carta, as sacred as the bill of rights, as dearly cherished as habeas corpus. The Pantomime is considered as worthy of the boards of Old Drury [Lane] as the works of Shakespeare himself.” But just five years later, there was a furious attack on the form pantomime was taking: what had happened to the charming clowns of yesteryear, the beauty, the innocence? What was this unrelenting emphasis on “that terrible managerial Frankenstein, the Transformation Scene”? No less personage than Ruskin wrote of the long-lost Arcadias of Pantomime. But the truth is that, like Christmas,, like Christmas, pantomime has never been what it was but was forever being refreshed and reinvigorated.