The Sunday Telegraph
Is it all over for the traditional British pantomime?
Accusations of cultural insensitivity mean it could be curtains for the traditional Christmas treat, says Peter Stanford
The panto is our tried and trusted Christmas holiday pick-me-up, traditionally a merry, mindless, harmless romp of cross-dressing dames, dwarf-slapping, bumpinching, upskirting and enough double entendres to banish thoughts of leftover turkey and leftover Brexit.
For generations, the over-the-top antics of Cinderella, the Ugly Sisters, Baron Hardup, the Fairy Godmother, the Wicked Witch, Man Friday,
Pc Ping Pong and a cast of characters more familiar than the residents of Coronation Street have given everyone in the family a welcome break from minding their Ps and Qs around Grandma.
Being politically incorrect is traditional. Smut is never optional, as Julian Clary has been demonstrating in the glittering Snow White that opened last week at the London Palladium, with Dawn French making her panto debut. For what this paper’s critic described as “[an] orgy of gay innuendo and selfadmiration …[and] gutter-level cheap quips”, you’d better hurry to book your seats at up to £170 a head.
But how much longer can the panto remain the one safe place immune to the growing pressures on avoiding offence? Recent remarks by Kristen Bell, the Hollywood actress, about the prince’s kiss when he wakes Snow White being a sexual assault (because she has no opportunity to give her consent) suggests not for long. Already, in some productions of
Robinson Crusoe, Man Friday has been replaced by Manfred Day and the cannibals rebranded as vegans, if allowed on stage at all. And figures from the National Database of Pantomime Performance show that in our gender-fluid times, female principal boys are an endangered species, now appearing in only 16 per cent of productions.
How long before panto producers and performers are required to sign a “behavioural agreement”, as stand-up Konstantin Kisin revealed he had to been required to do. Talking last he week, he revealed how he was asked not to include material on race, gender, sexuality or religion in a charity gig at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. The Russianborn, London-based comedian – who refused to sign the document – believes that political correctness is eroding the freedom to make people laugh and that could extend all the way from student gigs to panto.
“I already see this attitude feeding through. In 10 years, those same offended students will be offended parents. And in 15 years, they will be taking their children to a pantomime at this time of year, and taking offence – because the dwarves are heightist, women are played by men, and the dames are insensitive to trans people. That is the road we are going down.”
Indeed, some of the major producers of Christmas pantomimes have already been busy behind the scenes reworking their material to avoid just such a scenario. Michael Harrison, managing director of Qdos, Britain’s biggest pantomime provider which will this Christmas stage 32 in venues around the country, has revealed that a traditional routine included in many of his shows, based on an old Morecambe and Wise sketch, where a male character looks up a female performer’s skirt, has been dropped.
“It just feels wrong,” he explained. “Everybody is a little bit more mindful of that kind of thing.” “Upskirting” is soon to become a criminal offence (it already is in Scotland), so you can see where he is coming from, but Harrison – the man behind the London Palladium’s Snow White – also pledged not to censor the achingly familiar panto jokes to conform in an age of “behavioural agreement” declarations.
“I don’t believe there is a link between sexual harassment and pantomime,” he said. “Of course the show is full of innuendo. Why would you have Julian [Clary] in a show and say, ‘We can’t do this or can’t do that’? Do you believe you are going to see
Dick Whittington and not have a joke about dick? That would be a sad day.”
Panto regulars are right behind him in resisting the rising chorus of PC demands for a toned-down makeover. “I think we are at risk of losing all sense of proportion,” says Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory minister and reality TV star, who is appearing this year as the Wicked Queen in Snow White at Redhill. She has no time for Kristen Bell’s accusations that Snow White is a victim of sexual abuse. “It’s ludicrous,” bemoans Widdecombe. “What woman would choose to sleep on, rather than be woken with a kiss by the man she wants to marry?”
That said, she confesses that she does have her own red lines over what scripts she will accept. “As a personal choice, I won’t take part in any show that is filthy,” she says, “but I wouldn’t want to constrain anyone else. It is parents who have to decide what television they want their children to watch, and parents who must decide what sort of pantomime they take their children to.”
Another panto regular, the broadcaster Gyles Brandreth, feels that there is a line to be walked if pantomime isn’t to have its fairy wings clipped. “Panto works best at its most traditional,” he insists. “Corny not crude, corny not edgy. That is what we want. Oh yes we do!”
That isn’t to say, though, that he believes it should be set in stone. Adapting to the concerns of particular times is part of the genius of pantomime, Brandreth points out. During the First World War, producers would have Cinderella sitting by the hearth with Buttons in a military uniform singing Keep the Home Fires to boost public morale. And that same positive spirit is around now, too, according to Simon Sladen, a senior curator in the theatre and performance department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and an expert on pantomime. Among examples in this year’s crop of seasonal shows which he has seen, he points to the production of in Wimbledon, starring Paul Merton, where it is the princess who defeats the villainous Abanazar rather than any of the men, and to Mammy running at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, which includes, without any old-fashioned nudge-nudge, wink-wink, an everyday same-sex romance.
That is surely the right way forward, agrees Daniel York, chair of Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members committee, writing in Arts
Professional. He is sceptical, he says, of claims that traditional panto “is meant to be offensive” and therefore should be exempt from concerns about the impact of its content, and quotes Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Rapunzel, “which managed to be fast, fun, bold and rude in an exhilarating and riotously joyous fashion, without ever crossing the line into cultural insensitivity”.
Quite how hard the way ahead with be though is illustrated by a recent casting call at Bedworth Civic Hall, near Coventry, for an amateur production of Aladdin. It was seeking local people to fill roles including Chow Mein, Slave of the Ring. That caused one local artist and writer to protest on Twitter that it was “racist”, but many others echoed the sentiment of resident Sandra Gillespie: “Oh my God. PC gone mad. Utter snowflakes!”
If Konstantin Kisin finds himself short of bookings next Christmas, there’ll be a pair of pantaloons and tights waiting with his name on them.
‘Using dwarves is heightist, and panto dames are insensitive to trans people’