The Christmas season is once again upon us - and in theatres the length and breadth of the country, that can mean only one thing: it’s panto time! 

But where did this much-loved British tradition originate? And did you know that London’s first ever panto productions could last for up to five hours? Grab yourself a quickfire education on the subject of all things pantomime by checking out our fabulous festive file of fascinating facts...   

ITALIAN ORIGINS

Nowadays panto is very much a British tradition, but did you know that it originated in Italy back in the 16th century? An early form of professional theatre - Commedia dell’Arte - brought together music, dance acrobatics and mischievous characters. Humorous stories were often performed by a mask-wearing character known as Harlequin, who was joined on stage by companions Scaramouche, Pantaloon, Pierrot and Punch. 

CONQUERING THE CONTINENT

Companies showcasing Commedia dell’Arte toured Europe throughout the 17th century. By the early 18th century, similar characters began to appear on the London stage and pantomime started to establish itself as an art form. Growing in popularity throughout the 19th century, the pantos presented in London’s larger theatres could last for up to five hours. 

CROSS-DRESSING CAPERS

The swapping of roles - girls playing the principal boy and men taking on the part of the pantomime dame - came about in the Victorian era. One of the earliest recorded accounts took place in 1837, when actor Lucy Vestris donned breeches in a production of Puss In Boots at the Olympic Theatre. 

The notion of women revealing their shape in front of an audience was very controversial at the time, but by the end of the century it had become the norm for female stars to be cast as the principal boy.

One of the most popular male performers to assume the role of the pantomime dame was Dan Leno (aka George Wild Galvin), who starred as the wicked aunt in Babes In The Wood at Drury Lane in 1888, ahead of playing the Christmas season at the theatre for the next 15 years.  

ANIMAL MAGIC

Victorian pantomimes often included the use of live animals, with donkeys a favourite mode of transport for the show’s clowns. Actors dressed as animals was another popular addition.   

THE WOW! FACTOR

Technology features heavily in most modern-day pantomimes, but did you know that special effects have always played a part in panto? Trick scenery and trap doors have been creating breathtaking spectacle for centuries, while mechanical contraptions have aided the illusion of flying since the 1800s. 

Coloured silk, gauze and glass were often combined to achieve a fog-like effect, whilst large below-stage tanks of water were used to create fountains and waterfalls. 

In 1896, hydraulic stage machinery was installed at Drury Lane Theatre, allowing the venue’s special effects to become even more spectacular.

A BLOCKBUSTER SHOW

Drury Lane’s festive offerings were seen as the creme de la creme of theatre productions in Victorian times, with the venue regularly spending £10,000 on a show. 

Sleeping Beauty And The Beast is documented as being the theatre’s most lavish presentation. Combining two much-loved fairytales, the production included a number of set changes - designed by Bruce ‘Sensation’ Smith - and culminated in a spectacular finale featuring a grand staircase and numerous fountains.  

PANTO TRIVIA: DID YOU KNOW?

  • The Good Fairy always enters from stage right and the evil baddie from stage left
  • Elton John played alongside Sir John Gielgud in Mother Goose at a benefit pantomime for the Theatre Museum London in 1984
  • Christopher Biggins is regarded as the Grand Dame of All Dames, having appeared in more than 35 pantomimes since making his debut in Dick Whittington in 1965Superstition states that it’s bad luck to speak the last lines of a pantomime finale (often rhyming couplets) ahead of opening night
  • Aladdin’s Widow Twankey was named after Twankey Tea - a cheap Chinese green tea
  • Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth played the principal boy in a wartime production of Aladdin at Windsor Castle. Her sister, Princess Margaret, played the Princess of China
  • The traditional and ever-popular scene in which a pantomime's characters are covered in gunge or soaked in water is known in the theatrical world as the 'slosh scene’
  • Sir Cliff Richard starred as Aladdin alongside Una Stubbs as Princess Balroubadour at the London Palladium in 1964/65 
  • The word slapstick originates from the wooden bat used as a prop by the pantomime character Harlequin
  • The earliest appearance of Snow White dates back to 1812
  • The story of Dick Whittington is based on the life of Sir Richard Whittington (c. 1354-1423), the youngest son of a wealthy Gloucestershire family who, not expecting to inherit any of his father’s fortune, moved to London to become a merchant
  • Sir Ian McKellen played Widow Twankey in the Old Vic adaptation of Aladdin from 2004 to 2006