−−− BY GARETH WHITEHEAD −−−

The season of goodwill is upon us already – OH YES IT IS! Along with Santa squeezing down the chimney to deliver gifts, the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, and turkey with all the trimmings, another tradition that families look forward to at this time of year is the good old pantomime. But where and when did the pantomime first appear?

The origin of the British panto is said to stem from the Italian Commedia dell’ Arte, a ‘comedy of the artists’ popular from the 16th century. These improvised performances took place in Italian streets and marketplaces, often involving distinctive masks which not only allowed actors to make risqué jokes without being recognised, but also enabled the audience to instantly recognise popular characters. The actors travelled to earn their living and they began to take commedia into Europe, including Britain. Over the years, this blended with the English music halls and Pantomime was born.

A man named Augustus Harris is said to be ‘Father of the modern Pantomime’. The manager of Drury Lane Theatre in the 1870’s, he introduced the first stars of the Music Hall into his productions and created the lavish productions that meant the shows became incredibly popular. Theatres across London went into competition to draw the crowds, and then every establishment around the country followed suit, ensuring they had at least one Pantomime running each Christmas season.

The title of ‘King of Pantomimes’ went to Francis Laidler right here in Yorkshire in the 1930’s. He produced shows for the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford which were then put on around the country. Popular pantos in the 30’s and 40’s included Humpty Dumpty and Red Riding Hood.

From the early years of the shows when they were originally performed by street artists, followed by the Music Hall stars, television celebrities now vie to perform in Pantomimes, often drawing big crowds by their name alone. Despite moving with the times, the panto still sticks to many of its original traditions and it is these that are loved by adults and children alike.

They are always a tale of good vs evil, full of slapstick comedy and of course the Pantomime Dame – played by a male actor who is sure to have the audience in uproar.

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