Wednesday 5 December 2007

Oh yes I am!

Tomorrow night I am going to see Dick Wittington at the Greenwich Theatre with a group of friends and I'll be enthusiastically shouting "It's behind you!" with the rest of them.

We make a point of going to the panto every festive season. It doesn't matter whether it is an enthusiastic amateur production at a community centre, a professional extravaganza at Drury Lane or the alternative mix of tradition and satire I am expecting to see in Greenwich.

I love pantomimes, with their familiar fairy tale plots, melodramatic villains, slapstick comedy routines, mistaken identities with girls dressed as boys and boys dressed as girls right through to the happy-every-after ending.

Pantomime as we know it today evolved in Victorian times, but its roots go back to pre-Christian times and the Roman midwinter feast of Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was a day for people to let their hair down and party - indulging in some dressing up and role reversal. Men would dress as women and vice versa, servants were the bosses for the day and everyone had a riotous time and probably got very drunk.

Modern pantomime is a mixture of various traditions, from Saturnalia and medieval mummers through to the Commedia Dell’Arte of the Italian Renaissance and even English music hall.

As a stage production, it arrived in Britain in 1717 when theatre manager John Rich put on our first pantomime. He played Harlequin, who is a character from the Commedia Dell’Arte.

Victorians standardised fairy tales as pantomime plots and introduced many of the familiar characters such as the principal boy - a woman dressed in tights playing the male hero.

Today, pantomimes are as popular as ever and I hope this reminder of an ancient pagan tradition remains as popular for a long time to come.

Some links about the history and origins of pantomime:

Dick Wittington is on at the Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, Greenwich, London SE10 8ES, until January 5. Tickets start at £15.

For more information, call 020 8858 7755 or visit

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