It’s that time of year again, when theatres up and down the country are announcing the Z-list celebrities starring in their annual Christmas pantomimes.
The pantomime industry is huge in the UK, with around three million panto tickets being sold every year and income usually surpassing £60 million. In a theatre like our local Gala, the takings from the yearly pantomime is the only reason they can afford to stage other in-house work.
It is a yearly phenomenon unique to the UK, which can seem entirely bizarre to foreign visitors. However, it is also often known as a time for “serious” theatre enthusiasts to stay away from and let the “rabble”, who wouldn’t normally think of entering a theatre, appreciate the lowest form of drama. But why is there a preconceived snobbery around theatre? Is this a trend which is slowly beginning to change, or is pantomime now forever condemned to be seen as worthless?
“Stunt” casting can often cause great distress to performers in the industry – Joe Sugg’s newfound role in the hit Waitress for example – as it takes away opportunities from trained performers who have put time and effort into honing their craft.
However, this does not seem to be an issue that transgresses into the pantomime industry. Perhaps the snobbery already inherent about pantomime not having a high level of artistic value means it is a theatre genre which can allow for “stunt” casting.
It used to be said that actors would rather be on the dole than starring in panto; however, this is changing. Respected actors such as Elaine Page and Celia Imrie have taken on roles in pantomimes both early in their careers or even at the height of their fame. Ian McKellen played Widow Twanky in 2014 at the Old Vic, thus rejecting the misconception that pantomime is not for “serious” actors, and therefore not for “serious” audiences. On the other hand, it has been argued that high-profile actors do not have the natural comic timing needed to perform in pantomime – it is an art form in its own right.
Mark Shenton has gone so far as to suggest that he would like to see a production of Cinderella cast purely from actors who play Hamlet. (He imagines the likes of Maxine Peake playing Cinderella, Andrew Scott as Buttons and Simon Russell Beale joining Mark Rylance as the Ugly Sisters.) It would be unusual to hear the award for Best Musical at the Olivier Awards going to Cinderella, and it appears the genre is entirely locked out from this type of award ceremony. There is instead an annual Great British Pantomime Awards, but it does beg the question – why is it considered as such another entity?
As well as the economic impact pantomime has on the theatre industry, both for theatres’ takings and for the performers who can earn far more doing a pantomime run than a normal touring production, it also has major social implications. As John Barrowman has commented, “I’m really passionate about pantomime because it is often the first introduction for a child to theatre, and if that child has a great experience at a pantomime they will continue to come year after year.”
Indeed, many actors have acknowledged that their experiences with pantomime as a child is what drew them towards theatre. Pantomime has the power to inspire children, whether that is in theatrical aspiration or even moral guidance. With theatre regularly trying to update pantomimes for modern audiences, removing the colonial connections and gendered roles which were so entrenched in the pantomime’s creation, productions can be highly inspirational experiences in one way or another.
Whether you will be watching a pantomime this year, maybe think twice about panto’s place in popular culture.