What is Pantomime or Panto? You Won't Believe It

Behind The Scenes At Hackney Empire: Stephen Matthews playing 'Dame' poses for a portrait during the Puss in Boots pantomime at the Hackney Empire.
••• Panto "Dame" played by a male actor, behind the scenes Puss in Boots at the Hackney Empire. Miles Willis / Getty Images

What is pantomime or panto? In Britain, during the winter holiday season, pantomime is a holiday tradition and it's not at all what you might think.

If you visit Britain between November and mid January, try to see a Panto. It's a mid-winter tradition that is like nothing you've ever seen.

Forget about mime - you know those silent clowns with faces painted white who pretend to walk into glass walls and climb invisible ladders.

 The family entertainment that the British call "Panto" has no relation to any of that fake walking  against the wind or those pretend struggles to lift balloons. 

And there're nothing silent about British Panto either. It's about as far from mime as you can get. In fact, it is probably the noisiest, rowdiest sort of theater you can attend (with the whole family) in the UK.

Peculiarly British

Panto is a peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theater. It starts with familiar fairy tales and children's stories - Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Snow White - and injects a bit of music hall (British Vaudeville) style, contemporary references and audience participation to create a raucous, silly entertainment that's child pleasing yet has enough sly references to entertain all the grownups too. 

Panto has very deep roots, drawing on the 15th and 16th century traditions of Commedia dell Arte for an assortment of stock characters and other conventions.These always include:

  • The Principal Boy is almost always played by a girl. The male juvenile lead - Aladdin or Cinderella's Prince Charming - is usually played by a young woman with great legs (lately, usually a television celebrity) in a short costume with tights. When this character was introduced in Victorian times, audiences would have been shocked to see so much of a young woman's shapely legs on display. But by playing a boy - in what came to be called a breeches role - actresses were allowed to show as much leg as they dared. 
  • The Panto Dame  played by a man in drag, is a comic, and camp, female character. Her costume and make-up are totally outrageous - the more exaggerated the better. She's usually an older woman but in Cinderella, not only the step mother but also the Ugly Sisters are panto dames. In Aladdin (at more than 200 years old, one of Britain's oldest panto stories) it's Aladdin's mother, a poor laundress known as The Widow Twankey. Popular comedians, and occasionally famous leading actors with a sense of fun, often do a winter turn as a panto dame.
  • A side kick or "chorus" figure There is always a secondary character on stage who speaks to the audience, encouraging them to shout and clap or comically commenting on the action. In Cinderella that character is Buttons, her father's (Baron Hardup) servant and her friend. In Aladdin it is Wishee Washee, the hero's brother.
  • A comedy animal Most pantos feature a comic animal played by two actors in one costume. In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack's cow is a Panto cow. If the plot of a story doesn't have a place for an animal, you can be sure that the panto writers will shoehorn one in.
  • Lots of audience participation When you go to a panto in Britain, you can't help but be drawn in to the traditional shouting and carrying on. Villains are hissed, misfortunes are bemoaned and several key lines - "Oh yes it is!" - "Oh no it isn't!" and "He's behind you!" are shouted out by one and all at the appropriate moments.
  • Contemporary references and bawdy jokes Pantos are family shows but there is usually enough innuendo of the nudge-nudge wink-wink variety to keep the grownups happy.
  • A transformation scene Most pantos have a moment when the set designers bring out their most magical special effects - twinkly lights, disappearing characters, clouds of smoke. Every story has its traditional transformation scene - Cinderella's emergence in her ball gown with her coach and footmen, Aladdin's discovery of the genii in the cave of jewels.

Celebrity Guest Stars

It's easy to imagine that having celebrities play key characters in Panto is relatively new - tied to our contemporary celebrity mad culture. But, in fact, the use of celebrity guest stars goes back more than 100 years.

Before film, television and popular sports provided a ready supply, producers used to employ well known variety artistes and music hall stars.

Nowadays, audiences are likely to find their favorite soap stars, well known comedians and pop stars and winners of reality talent shows performing in panto.

Where and When to Find a Panto

Starting a few weeks before Christmas and continuing throughout January and February, all of Britain's cities will have pantos featuring well known national and international celebrities.

The big celebrity pantos usually tour to smaller regional theaters throughout the season and, wherever you go during the three or four weeks after Christmas, you are likely to find a local professional or amateur company staging a panto. The best way to find one is to read local listing magazines or look at notice boards on town halls and in shop windows. In the smallest towns and villages, simply ask a local if there is a panto going on nearby. The smaller the destination, the more likely everyone will know about the panto. 

An even better way to find a Panto is to check my up-to-date list of this season's best Pantos around the UK. But don't wait too long. By the middle of October, some dates are already sold out.