Bonus Ep 51 - Pantomimes: A Must-See for Non-Native Learners?

Charlie reminisces about his family's pantomime tradition, tracing its history from 16th-century Italy to modern Britain. The episode highlights the unique audience interaction in pantomimes and concludes with personal anecdotes, showcasing their timeless charm.
Jan 3 / Charlie Baxter

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What's this episode about?

Charlie reminisces about his family's pantomime tradition, tracing its history from 16th-century Italy to modern Britain. The episode highlights the unique audience interaction in pantomimes and concludes with personal anecdotes, showcasing their timeless charm.

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Transcript of Premium Bonus 051- Transcript

Charlie:
Hello. Welcome to another episode of the British English Podcast. Today I actually want to start by sharing a cherished memory, one that revolves around my grandmother and a special family tradition, which was to go to the pantomime. And now that I'm of an age where I understand the cost of things a bit more, it dawned on me how much of an expense this would have been for her every year, given that I am one of nine cousins on that side of the family. So having purchased, um, 17 tickets, I'd often look over at her at some point in the show to see if she's enjoying the performance, and without fail, she'd be fast asleep. Which is quite impressive considering how noisy the audience can get in a pantomime. And not only would she miss the show when she was there, but if we booked a matinee performance, she would actually leave the performance halfway through at the interval to go and not come back because she needed to go and feed the animals that she was currently looking after. And I think lock away the chickens so that the foxes don't, you know, come and get them. Um, yeah. She was a woman whose empathy had no limits from saying, you know, 'ooh, I felt that' whenever I'd fall over scraping my knee to, um, taking in wild birds of all sizes that seemed to be limping around in her garden. I remember one Christmas, a bit like a parody of a horror film, um, I remember going into the utility room of my grandmother's house, and I couldn't find the, uh, the light switch. So I went over in the dark to the fridge, opened the fridge. You know, the light comes on, obviously. And I could then see a pheasant greeted me by flapping one wing at me in surprise. So, um, yes, my grandmother was a very kind woman, and because of her, I have probably seen over 20 pantomime performances in my life. And this is the real topic that I wanted to discuss with you today. So thanks to the generosity of my grandmother, I feel like I have an opinion to share with you about the topic of pantomimes.

Charlie:
And ideally, I'd like to instil in you an appreciation for this pretty odd cultural experience that many Brits assume to be the norm around the world. But in actuality, this form of entertainment is far from common, and I can see why. It's really, really random. I mean, I'd love to take some of my students, uh, to these shows and just watch their face the whole way through the performance, because... That would be a performance in itself. Um, I would say imagine fairy tales meeting, uh, comedy sketches with a dash of musical theatre. Yes, that is what a pantomime or panto is. Now we're going to cover the history and significance these weird shows have on the nation, along with my own gut feeling and um, dare I say it, hot takes. I don't know if we'll get any hot takes from me, but we'll see.

Charlie:
So, you know, pretend that you're going to a pantomime, grab your overpriced drinks and snacks, sit down and, uh, yeah, let's hope there's no children too close to you that are going to scream and cry all the way through this episode. Um, so. Yeah. Enjoy.

Charlie:
Now, I don't assume that every Brit has frequented a panto as often as I have, but I did read that over 40% of the population have been to one in the last three years, so surely that makes it worth highlighting for you, right? And where? Where should we begin? Well, I guess to be cliche, at the beginning! Let's figure out the historical roots of this thing. So some of you may already know this, but we have the Italians to thank for this peculiar experience, as pantomimes have their roots in commedia dell'arte, an Italian form of theatre. So I guess it would be commedia dell'arte, something like that. So this Italian form of theatre originated in the 16th century, and this style was characterised by its improvised performances, stock characters and use of masks. And it has been stated that Italian troupes of actors known for their commedia dell'arte performances travelled across Europe, including to England, where they introduced this theatrical form. So if we compare this to today's travelling performers, I think we'd assume they are the bunch of actors that aren't quite at the top of the pecking order. And, uh, and so they, you know, they put up with living out of a suitcase for the sake of, uh, being able to do what they love.

Charlie:
So to be cruel, I'm imagining the performers from Italy whose talent doesn't quite match the amount of passion they have for the art, are the ones that reach the shores of the British Isles. And then perhaps the locals were like, um, why are you being so artsy-fartsy? You know, where's the, where's the slapstick comedy and and general silliness? So over time, it was adapted to suit a British audience. Um, take, for example, a well-known character in the olden days called Harlequin. Now, I immediately think of the character from Suicide Squad, played by Margot Robbie. There's a slight connection to that, but, uh, DC comics, the people that made Suicide Squad, um, have made her character much darker and more complex. I think the original Harlequin was a little bit more, um, light hearted, uh, still a trickster, but more slapstick comedy, quite physical comedy. Um, so not really thinking about killing everything in her sight with a baseball bat or anything like that. But the costumes and colours are slightly similar, so it's not, it's not crazy to think of Harlequin from Suicide Squad, but originally it was a comedy character with a shaved head, masked face, uh, variegated tights and a wooden sword. Um, Premium and Academy members check your flashcards. I'll give you some pictures, and public listeners do a quick Google if you can't picture this comedy character.

Charlie:
But anyway, this character Harlequin evolved over time into a mischievous, magical character. And while this character has morphed over the centuries, you can definitely appreciate that this role is present in pretty much every single panto that we have today. And then during the Victorian era, pantos took a shift towards being more family friendly and the stories became less bawdy and more focused on well-known fairy tales and nursery rhymes. And it was also in this period of time that pantomimes became more elaborate and spectacular, with grand sets, costumes and special effects. Then, if we jump ahead to the 20th century, celebrities started getting involved. And to make the experience even more enticing and relevant, they brought contemporary references, pop culture and topical humour into the scripting, which I can personally comment on as I've been to many shows with a bit of a, a B- or C- lister as the lead. Um, they are normally actually previous A-listers who made it to the top and are on their way out. It's a very clear signal to the general public that they are on the way out. It almost made me feel a bit embarrassed for them. I know it's a very, um, skilful thing to be able to do, um, theatre. Pantomime is a bit more amateur. I mean, it's deliberately kind of amateur, the feel of it. So yeah, it's confusing seeing a previous A-lister now at your local panto, but it is very common and the marketing around it is very much focused on them being the main attraction.

Charlie:
So yeah, their their face is on the posters scattered around your local town. And I did mention that they, they use contemporary references and pop culture and things like that. So they will, they will go as niche as commenting on something that the, the locals will relate to. Like, I don't know, like hearing this ex A-lister uh, commenting on how parking is a nightmare for this venue and I don't know why now that I've said it, but that generally gets a laugh because it's like, wow, this celebrity feels my everyday pain. That's incredible. Um, and then they might talk about a broader but time sensitive political issue. Um, not really a political issue this, but an example would be if one of the characters, uh, their hair goes crazy, they might say, oh, sort yourself out, you look like Boris Johnson. Or if the house in the plot of the story is not being sold, they would probably mention the housing crisis. So things like that get put into the script to make it more relatable to the now and to the everyday person. And I suppose to complete the whole, you know, centuries kind of journey, the 21st century. The main difference in the last 20 or so years between now and when I was a child is how there are even more diverse themes and castings, but also the castings are more PC, PC being politically correct. Like for example, when I was a child, the fairy tale called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a popular one because the seven dwarfs were indeed played by people of a short stature.

Charlie:
And there was a running joke that Christmas is a very busy time of the year for little people who are actors. But as you may know, the woke movement has encouraged companies like Disney to remake a more politically correct version of Snow White. Now, I know people have very strong opinions one way or the other on this, so I won't comment and I will move on to how the panto became so intertwined with Christmas.

Charlie:
I guess it seems that it was kind of a mix between being a process of elimination, of what can we do when it's cold and dark and miserable in the winter. And it was also the birth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as they went about reinventing Christmas. You see, apparently before the Victorian era, which was the majority of the 1800s, um, so let's say more or less 150 years ago, yeah, 150 years ago. Ish. Uh, Christmas. Apparently Christmas wasn't widely celebrated, or it wasn't universally celebrated with the same fervour and family centric focus that we see today. So Queen Vic and Prince Albert did a number of things to get the country into the festive spirit. One of which was to encourage people to chop down a beautiful and healthy evergreen tree and then bring it inside and watch it slowly die for the next 24 days.

Charlie:
A bit of Christmas general knowledge here. Um, um, a lot of families don't mind exactly when they put up their Christmas tree and take it down, but apparently it's meant to be 12 days before Christmas and 12 days after Christmas. My family. Um, actually, you know what? I think they would kind of respect that. No. So my sister has a birthday on the 15th of December, and she wouldn't really like having the Christmas tree up, because then she'd feel like, you know, the thunder was stolen from her. Oh, Jesus Christ is taking over. It's my birthday today, not Jesus's! So, um, we wouldn't put the Christmas tree up until after her birthday. I think that's what we used to do. So our family didn't stay true to this. And lots of other families don't either. But if we're being technical, I think they say 12 days before and 12 days after, but we would get the decorations down 12 days after because I think people think it's bad luck if you keep them up for longer. So your Christmas lights and everything have to come down. Again, I don't know why I'm going over this so many times, but I've been back to my family's house, and my dad hasn't taken the Christmas lights that are on the outside of the bloody house. He hasn't taken them down for a whole year before because he was like, well, they they look alright. Um, I think this is an example of him going senile, but just giving you anecdotal evidence that Brits don't always stay true to these traditions.

Charlie:
So Christmas trees. Yes, that's what I was talking about. So we bring them in, we watch them die. Um, now this tradition of getting a Christmas tree, if you weren't aware, stems from Germany. Um, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, was actually German. Uh, I don't, again, I don't know your awareness of the whole history within royal families, but they mingled. They really, you know. Oh, I've got a a royal family member in, in, in Germany, in Denmark, Russia or Spain, wherever. They all mingled. They were really. Yeah. I suppose I get it, like, you can't marry your cousin. They did marry their cousins. Um, you can't marry your brother or your sister. And they were probably meant to stay within royalty. Yes, we've all watched The Crown, haven't we? Anyway, um, Prince Albert, he was German, and one winter they took a selfie of the family, all stood around the Christmas tree and whacked it up on Insta to then find it had gone viral within a day and the whole country had liked it. I'm being silly. Of course they didn't have Instagram, they didn't have selfies, they didn't have. I don't think they had photos, maybe those really old school ones. But according to the internet, they had an illustration taken of them around a decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, which was published in the London News.

News introduction:
This is the British Broadcasting Corporation.

News reporter:
Good evening, esteemed listeners. I'm William Johnson, bringing you a quick burst of today's most stirring news.

News introduction:
This is London.

News reporter:
Our top story. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert have sparked a decorating frenzy with a German novelty: the Christmas tree. Yes, a tree bedecked with candles and ornaments right in the living room. Who would have thought?

News reporter:
In other news, the penny post is swamped with Christmas cards. It seems everyone's keen on paper greetings this year. Mr. Hill of the penny post might just need a holiday himself after this.

News reporter:
And now, a quick word on the Empire. All is as splendid as ever. The sun still doesn't set on British brilliance.

News reporter:
Wrapping up a merry Christmas to all, whether it's by a German tree or a warm fire. May your holiday be bright. I'm John Williams. No I'm not, I'm William Johnson, wishing you a good evening.

Charlie:
Easy mistake, right? John Williamson and William Johnson. John Williamson, who? Oh, John Williamson is an Australian singer songwriter. Um. William Johnson is a made up 18th century name that I would assume would have been popular in that era. Um, so yes, that was a little, uh, random bit of, you know, fake news, not fake. It wasn't fake. Maybe it was. Who knows. So Queen Victoria and Prince Albert influenced us on that front, uh, you know, the Christmas tree. And they encouraged people to go to the theatre around Christmas to reconnect with family and friends. But, I mean, it was probably a good decision, economically speaking, wasn't it?

Charlie:
Now, Charles Dickens, he obviously had some tickets to sell to his Christmas Carol that had recently come out back in the day. So that must have played a pivotal role in shaping the Victorian Christmas sort of outlook or sort of moral nature, because A Christmas Carol that was, that was all about it, wasn't it? It emphasised joy, generosity and togetherness. Um, again though, the sceptic in me thinks bravo for disguising your aim to capitalise on the Christmas spirit. It's like a clever little sandwich of love on the outside and then, you know, capitalistic gains on the inside. Oh, generosity. Yeah. Be generous. Remember to go to the shops and keep the economy going. But then again, they were royalty. This could be total, um, bollocks, as could everything I say on all of my episodes. But maybe being a powerful monarchy, they had all the money in the world, and they just felt like the country could do with a bit more culture, especially during the winter. And then naturally, as the middle class rose up, because I think that's, that's when the middle class really grew, they were like, let's mimic old Queenie and get a tree in the house and go to the theatre. And then the husband says, yeah, and I'm going to copy the Queen's Consort and get a Prince Albert. Jonathan! Not in front of the children! But yes. Alright then.

Charlie:
Um, if you have no idea what I'm on about there, um, fair enough. No, there is a rather naughty piercing that goes by the nickname of a Prince Albert. This, um, this piercing. It's, uh, it's one that goes on the end of male genitalia. And legend has it is that during the Victorian era, uh, tight trousers were fashionable and the piercing was used to, um, to, um, um, to secure the penis to one side or the other, thus preventing an unsightly bulge. Now, I doubt this is true, but I also doubt you'll forget that bit of vocabulary in a hurry now. So yes, the piercing on the end of a male's genitalia is known as a Prince Albert. But less about Prince Albert's member and how it was folded away. And back to pantomimes. Yes?

Charlie:
So Queen Victoria reinvented Christmas by giving people the time to spend with their families, hang out round a Christmas tree and go to Charles Dickens' new theatre production and/or a pantomime, maybe. And that's an interesting start. But still in this day and age with Hollywood and Netflix, Instagram and TikTok, how on earth is this dated performance still going and still selling tickets? And every time I go, they're pretty much sold out. Well, beyond it just being a ritual, I think it's really because it's an evening that amuses the whole family, and that in this world of entertainment that can niche down to such particular preferences, I think that's quite hard to find. Such a crowd pleaser. Yes, maybe some animations in the cinema do cater to both the young and old, but hear me out.

Charlie:
So I think it amuses the whole family because the young ones love the costumes, the fairy tales and the singing and dancing, and the brave ones even get to go on stage at the end because they get invited up and the adults, they get to appreciate the the witty dialogue that is often filled with euphemisms that hopefully go over the children's heads and the adults can enjoy them guilt free. Um, and then if the adults have children, because it's a family thing. So, for example, I'm going this winter, I don't have children, but my sister does. And so she will be able to enjoy the panto on another level. Because she'll be able to see her children really enjoying the experience. I think I've often seen parents just staring at their kids enjoying the panto through their eyes because it is sweet. They really love it. And then I suppose I should mention the awkward teenagers. Um, surprising as it might be, I'd say teenagers actually embrace Christmas. I mean, they want the presents, sure. But I remember as a teenager wanting to literally die on the spot if I was ever seen out and about with my family in town or the village or something. But Christmas? Christmas is different. Everyone spends it with their family, and it would almost be a situation of feeling sorry for any friends who don't have a family to spend it with. It's like it was almost cool to spend Christmas with your extended family, like taking a selfie with your grandad. I don't know if I'm barking up the wrong tree here, but there's a feeling I'm trying to describe to you that with anything related to Christmas felt different when I was a teenager, so I think it might not be so embarrassing to be at the panto as a teenager with the family in comparison to say, if it was the summer and they're being dragged to this family tradition, that would be, oh, that would be really cringe. I feel like I would want to shrivel up and die. But again, in comparison, at Christmas I didn't feel so horrendously embarrassed to be with them.

Charlie:
And as I said earlier, the innuendos and subtle sexual references that are in the script that go over the children's head, but the adults enjoy it. Um, I remember as a teen feeling quite mature and clever whenever I'd actually managed to understand them. So it's perhaps a bit of a coming of age moment for teenagers. Either way, everyone gets to load up on sweets and fizzy drinks and then a tub of ice cream in the interval. Yes, that's right, we have ice cream in December in the UK. I mean, crazy, sure, but one perk is that you don't need to worry about the ice cream ever melting. I thought it would be nice to have a little break of my voice blabbering on, and give you some answers my friends and family members gave me to the two questions I sent them. One was what are some pantos that you have seen and which are your favourite ones? And here we have a random bunch of answers. Here we go.

Interviewee 1:
My favourite pantomime is the Ansty Village pantomime that was actually in my local village, so all my family used to be in it. Um, it was always very slapstick and it was always great to see my dad dressed up as a woman.

Interviewee 2:
I have been to see probably ten pantomimes in my short life, uh, because my, my grandparents used to take us every year, and honestly, I can't tell you which one was my favourite because they all sort of merge into one. Um, they, they're quite samey, but they're fun all the same. And what I love about them is that they have so many jokes that go over the children's heads, and they're kind of targeted towards the adults. Um, I remember seeing Dick Whittington, uh, who had a cat and also Cinderella, and her sidekick was Buttons. I remember that, um, but my strongest and fondest memory is of my grandad, who's no longer with us, um, who... He could not hold himself back when he was watching a pantomime. He would be the first one to shout out 'He's behind you!' or 'Oh no!' and we were laughing more at him than at the actual show. But yeah, I love a pantomime. And actually you've inspired me to to book one in for this year. Thank you.

Interviewee 3:
I've seen lots of different pantos. I used to go to, to the panto every year in Bury St Edmunds, um, with my mum, and my favourite panto has got to be Cinderella. Um, there's nothing like a rags-to-riches story with a bit of Christmas thrown in for good measure. Um, but a second close is Peter Pan because, um, you know, you always, more often than not, see a little bit of a dodgy rig, uh, hooked up to a provincial town theatre roof, and there's always this kind of high risk involved. Um, but it always turns out alright. But that definitely brings it to life.

Interviewee 4:
Yeah. I remember seeing Snow White, um, Aladdin and also Peter Pan. And I can remember Peter Pan really vividly because I remember sitting next to my granny and Captain Hook shouting 'who's behind me?' And then the whole audience... It was, it was clearly Tinkerbell. It was a flying fairy... Shouted 'It's Tinkerbell!' Apart from my granny, who shouted so much louder than everyone else. For some reason 'It's Peter Pan!' so everyone, including Captain Hook, we must have been quite in the front, turned around and just stared at my granny and therefore me because I was sat next to her and it was just really embarrassing having hundreds, probably thousands of eyes upon us. And he sort of took the, the mickey out of my granny. Um, and she didn't really understand. Poor lady. Um, but yeah, there's lots of audience participation and it's really funny and it's definitely, um. Oh, not definitely. Anyone can go. But it's largely a family, um, experience and makes children laugh lots and lots.

Charlie:
So there we have a random collection of some of my friends' and family's memories towards the pantomime, and I'm not sure if you noticed, but a number of them touched on the audience participation being a distinct memory. This is quite rare in British culture to be able to be so vocal when being a member of the audience. I actually have proof of this from just the other day, when I went to a business networking event that was held by an American based company, and we were in London, and there were two hosts, one American and one British, and the Brit started things off how we assume in a fairly monologue fashion, um, with self-deprecation along the way and little audience participation. And then the American came in and felt like the energy of the group was really low. So she tried to get us participating by polling us with a variety of questions, and to respond, we had to shout back. And then she asked a few of us to reveal a problem we were facing right now to the whole group of 50 people, which didn't go down like a lead balloon, but it was clear that we were all uncomfortable with this level of participation, and that we were much happier with how the Brit was leading things. And bear in mind, this room is full of British people who want to create. It was a creators event, so even with a group of individuals who like to create, the Brits were feeling a little bit uncomfortable.

Charlie:
So my point is that audience participation is rare for us. However, this moment in the pantomime is an inbuilt tradition that allows us to shout at the top of our voices without feeling discomfort. And there's often an actor that is like the third or fourth main character who often talks directly to the audience as well as acts in their normal way. And this person is the one that gets us screaming and shouting back at them. But there's also often a scene that is about three quarters of the way through the show, where a character on stage is unaware of the villain, or a mischievous character, like a ghost or a monster, or maybe a wolf in the woods, and that character is sneaking up behind them. And then the audience, seeing this, shouts out to warn the character, usually yelling 'He's behind you!' and typically the character on stage does this very slow turn, and the villain quickly hides or moves. So when the character looks, they see nothing unusual and often reply, 'oh no, he isn't!' and then the audience responds loudly, saying, 'oh yes he is!'

Charlie:
Yes. And this, this goes back and forth and repeats probably a few too many times. Um, but it does create a humorous and engaging interaction between the characters on stage and the audience. And as I said, our culture doesn't encourage this. So we kind of relish in this moment. And, uh, excuse my French, but the children really do lose their shit over this interaction. Um, I think those who are roughly around four or under, um, who haven't, uh, developed what psychologists call theory of mind, literally cannot believe that this character on stage cannot see what they can clearly see and that this monster is right there. And so, yes, those children lose their shit and they're like 'well, he's look, he's behind you! Ah!'

Charlie:
So, um, yes, there's that moment. And then the characters also often come down off the stage and run around in the aisles, sometimes even going along the rows of people. And if it's a Peter Pan, they might do a battle scene and, and shoot water pistols at each other, deliberately getting the crowd wet. And then, yes, we all shout and laugh and think it's all so funny to sit there in damp clothes. Um, and then the other moment I wanted to mention is after the story has pretty much concluded, the actor that is engaging with the audience throughout the show, who the internet tells me is often called the comic lead. But, you know, most people wouldn't respond to that. Um this person, the comic lead, asks for four or five children to come on stage and asks them some really basic questions, like, did you like the show? Who was your favourite character? Who are you here with? And then sometimes this might shock you, but they say, do you have a boyfriend or do you have a girlfriend? And bear in mind these children are mostly under ten. I don't know if that's weird for you, but yeah, I just realised that might be quite strange.

Charlie:
Um, and the audience often finds this really funny. Whatever the child says in response. Um, because being children, they have this natural ability to say the wrong thing by being brutally honest. Like saying the show wasn't that good, or, um, the character that they're talking to wasn't their favourite one. Things like that, or forgetting that they're with their family or something like that. And that moment is often the highlight for the few select parents who encouraged their children up on stage. Because, you know, it's rare for us to get the chance to be in the limelight. Um, so yes, that combined with the audience participation is, um, is quite a unique moment to break away from our culture. Um, if you listen to my episode Breaking Down the Norms in Pubs, it was one of my first episodes, and I quoted how a social anthropologist thinks that the bar in a pub is one of the few places that we are allowed to speak to strangers, because typically we keep ourselves to ourselves. I should say perhaps the, the further north you go in the country, the less this is apparent. But I'd say, relatively speaking, to other English speaking cultures, we do not openly share our thoughts and feelings unless there is an agreed upon moment where we believe it to be the right thing to do, and to not participate in a pantomime would be unacceptable.

Charlie:
And I think that concludes what I feel the need to talk about in regards to pantomimes. Um, I really do encourage you to witness one yourself. Um, they are weird but fun, especially if you go to a smaller production and get to witness them making mistakes or breaking character and making each other laugh. So I will now take a slow, proud bow and gradually walk backwards, waving at you, thinking I'm God's greatest gift whilst the curtain closes, separating me from you. But if you wanted to wait for me outside in the cold at the backstage door exit to get a signature, or to simply congratulate me on being so bog standard, then be my guest. But um, please don't be shocked by the copious amount of stage makeup I have on my face when you greet me. I am aware it makes me look suspicious, but what can I say, I'm a semi-professional actor. Um, if you don't know what I'm on about, get yourself to a panto this Christmas.

Announcement:
This episode was sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Head to Gov.uk to find out more.

Charlie:
Please take this announcement with a pinch of salt. That's all from me. My name is Charlie. See you next time on the British English Podcast.

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Transcript of Premium Bonus 051- Transcript

Charlie:
Hello. Welcome to another episode of the British English Podcast. Today I actually want to start by sharing a cherished memory, one that revolves around my grandmother and a special family tradition, which was to go to the pantomime. And now that I'm of an age where I understand the cost of things a bit more, it dawned on me how much of an expense this would have been for her every year, given that I am one of nine cousins on that side of the family. So having purchased, um, 17 tickets, I'd often look over at her at some point in the show to see if she's enjoying the performance, and without fail, she'd be fast asleep. Which is quite impressive considering how noisy the audience can get in a pantomime. And not only would she miss the show when she was there, but if we booked a matinee performance, she would actually leave the performance halfway through at the interval to go and not come back because she needed to go and feed the animals that she was currently looking after. And I think lock away the chickens so that the foxes don't, you know, come and get them. Um, yeah. She was a woman whose empathy had no limits from saying, you know, 'ooh, I felt that' whenever I'd fall over scraping my knee to, um, taking in wild birds of all sizes that seemed to be limping around in her garden. I remember one Christmas, a bit like a parody of a horror film, um, I remember going into the utility room of my grandmother's house, and I couldn't find the, uh, the light switch. So I went over in the dark to the fridge, opened the fridge. You know, the light comes on, obviously. And I could then see a pheasant greeted me by flapping one wing at me in surprise. So, um, yes, my grandmother was a very kind woman, and because of her, I have probably seen over 20 pantomime performances in my life. And this is the real topic that I wanted to discuss with you today. So thanks to the generosity of my grandmother, I feel like I have an opinion to share with you about the topic of pantomimes.

Charlie:
And ideally, I'd like to instil in you an appreciation for this pretty odd cultural experience that many Brits assume to be the norm around the world. But in actuality, this form of entertainment is far from common, and I can see why. It's really, really random. I mean, I'd love to take some of my students, uh, to these shows and just watch their face the whole way through the performance, because... That would be a performance in itself. Um, I would say imagine fairy tales meeting, uh, comedy sketches with a dash of musical theatre. Yes, that is what a pantomime or panto is. Now we're going to cover the history and significance these weird shows have on the nation, along with my own gut feeling and um, dare I say it, hot takes. I don't know if we'll get any hot takes from me, but we'll see.

Charlie:
So, you know, pretend that you're going to a pantomime, grab your overpriced drinks and snacks, sit down and, uh, yeah, let's hope there's no children too close to you that are going to scream and cry all the way through this episode. Um, so. Yeah. Enjoy.

Charlie:
Now, I don't assume that every Brit has frequented a panto as often as I have, but I did read that over 40% of the population have been to one in the last three years, so surely that makes it worth highlighting for you, right? And where? Where should we begin? Well, I guess to be cliche, at the beginning! Let's figure out the historical roots of this thing. So some of you may already know this, but we have the Italians to thank for this peculiar experience, as pantomimes have their roots in commedia dell'arte, an Italian form of theatre. So I guess it would be commedia dell'arte, something like that. So this Italian form of theatre originated in the 16th century, and this style was characterised by its improvised performances, stock characters and use of masks. And it has been stated that Italian troupes of actors known for their commedia dell'arte performances travelled across Europe, including to England, where they introduced this theatrical form. So if we compare this to today's travelling performers, I think we'd assume they are the bunch of actors that aren't quite at the top of the pecking order. And, uh, and so they, you know, they put up with living out of a suitcase for the sake of, uh, being able to do what they love.

Charlie:
So to be cruel, I'm imagining the performers from Italy whose talent doesn't quite match the amount of passion they have for the art, are the ones that reach the shores of the British Isles. And then perhaps the locals were like, um, why are you being so artsy-fartsy? You know, where's the, where's the slapstick comedy and and general silliness? So over time, it was adapted to suit a British audience. Um, take, for example, a well-known character in the olden days called Harlequin. Now, I immediately think of the character from Suicide Squad, played by Margot Robbie. There's a slight connection to that, but, uh, DC comics, the people that made Suicide Squad, um, have made her character much darker and more complex. I think the original Harlequin was a little bit more, um, light hearted, uh, still a trickster, but more slapstick comedy, quite physical comedy. Um, so not really thinking about killing everything in her sight with a baseball bat or anything like that. But the costumes and colours are slightly similar, so it's not, it's not crazy to think of Harlequin from Suicide Squad, but originally it was a comedy character with a shaved head, masked face, uh, variegated tights and a wooden sword. Um, Premium and Academy members check your flashcards. I'll give you some pictures, and public listeners do a quick Google if you can't picture this comedy character.

Charlie:
But anyway, this character Harlequin evolved over time into a mischievous, magical character. And while this character has morphed over the centuries, you can definitely appreciate that this role is present in pretty much every single panto that we have today. And then during the Victorian era, pantos took a shift towards being more family friendly and the stories became less bawdy and more focused on well-known fairy tales and nursery rhymes. And it was also in this period of time that pantomimes became more elaborate and spectacular, with grand sets, costumes and special effects. Then, if we jump ahead to the 20th century, celebrities started getting involved. And to make the experience even more enticing and relevant, they brought contemporary references, pop culture and topical humour into the scripting, which I can personally comment on as I've been to many shows with a bit of a, a B- or C- lister as the lead. Um, they are normally actually previous A-listers who made it to the top and are on their way out. It's a very clear signal to the general public that they are on the way out. It almost made me feel a bit embarrassed for them. I know it's a very, um, skilful thing to be able to do, um, theatre. Pantomime is a bit more amateur. I mean, it's deliberately kind of amateur, the feel of it. So yeah, it's confusing seeing a previous A-lister now at your local panto, but it is very common and the marketing around it is very much focused on them being the main attraction.

Charlie:
So yeah, their their face is on the posters scattered around your local town. And I did mention that they, they use contemporary references and pop culture and things like that. So they will, they will go as niche as commenting on something that the, the locals will relate to. Like, I don't know, like hearing this ex A-lister uh, commenting on how parking is a nightmare for this venue and I don't know why now that I've said it, but that generally gets a laugh because it's like, wow, this celebrity feels my everyday pain. That's incredible. Um, and then they might talk about a broader but time sensitive political issue. Um, not really a political issue this, but an example would be if one of the characters, uh, their hair goes crazy, they might say, oh, sort yourself out, you look like Boris Johnson. Or if the house in the plot of the story is not being sold, they would probably mention the housing crisis. So things like that get put into the script to make it more relatable to the now and to the everyday person. And I suppose to complete the whole, you know, centuries kind of journey, the 21st century. The main difference in the last 20 or so years between now and when I was a child is how there are even more diverse themes and castings, but also the castings are more PC, PC being politically correct. Like for example, when I was a child, the fairy tale called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a popular one because the seven dwarfs were indeed played by people of a short stature.

Charlie:
And there was a running joke that Christmas is a very busy time of the year for little people who are actors. But as you may know, the woke movement has encouraged companies like Disney to remake a more politically correct version of Snow White. Now, I know people have very strong opinions one way or the other on this, so I won't comment and I will move on to how the panto became so intertwined with Christmas.

Charlie:
I guess it seems that it was kind of a mix between being a process of elimination, of what can we do when it's cold and dark and miserable in the winter. And it was also the birth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as they went about reinventing Christmas. You see, apparently before the Victorian era, which was the majority of the 1800s, um, so let's say more or less 150 years ago, yeah, 150 years ago. Ish. Uh, Christmas. Apparently Christmas wasn't widely celebrated, or it wasn't universally celebrated with the same fervour and family centric focus that we see today. So Queen Vic and Prince Albert did a number of things to get the country into the festive spirit. One of which was to encourage people to chop down a beautiful and healthy evergreen tree and then bring it inside and watch it slowly die for the next 24 days.

Charlie:
A bit of Christmas general knowledge here. Um, um, a lot of families don't mind exactly when they put up their Christmas tree and take it down, but apparently it's meant to be 12 days before Christmas and 12 days after Christmas. My family. Um, actually, you know what? I think they would kind of respect that. No. So my sister has a birthday on the 15th of December, and she wouldn't really like having the Christmas tree up, because then she'd feel like, you know, the thunder was stolen from her. Oh, Jesus Christ is taking over. It's my birthday today, not Jesus's! So, um, we wouldn't put the Christmas tree up until after her birthday. I think that's what we used to do. So our family didn't stay true to this. And lots of other families don't either. But if we're being technical, I think they say 12 days before and 12 days after, but we would get the decorations down 12 days after because I think people think it's bad luck if you keep them up for longer. So your Christmas lights and everything have to come down. Again, I don't know why I'm going over this so many times, but I've been back to my family's house, and my dad hasn't taken the Christmas lights that are on the outside of the bloody house. He hasn't taken them down for a whole year before because he was like, well, they they look alright. Um, I think this is an example of him going senile, but just giving you anecdotal evidence that Brits don't always stay true to these traditions.

Charlie:
So Christmas trees. Yes, that's what I was talking about. So we bring them in, we watch them die. Um, now this tradition of getting a Christmas tree, if you weren't aware, stems from Germany. Um, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, was actually German. Uh, I don't, again, I don't know your awareness of the whole history within royal families, but they mingled. They really, you know. Oh, I've got a a royal family member in, in, in Germany, in Denmark, Russia or Spain, wherever. They all mingled. They were really. Yeah. I suppose I get it, like, you can't marry your cousin. They did marry their cousins. Um, you can't marry your brother or your sister. And they were probably meant to stay within royalty. Yes, we've all watched The Crown, haven't we? Anyway, um, Prince Albert, he was German, and one winter they took a selfie of the family, all stood around the Christmas tree and whacked it up on Insta to then find it had gone viral within a day and the whole country had liked it. I'm being silly. Of course they didn't have Instagram, they didn't have selfies, they didn't have. I don't think they had photos, maybe those really old school ones. But according to the internet, they had an illustration taken of them around a decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, which was published in the London News.

News introduction:
This is the British Broadcasting Corporation.

News reporter:
Good evening, esteemed listeners. I'm William Johnson, bringing you a quick burst of today's most stirring news.

News introduction:
This is London.

News reporter:
Our top story. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert have sparked a decorating frenzy with a German novelty: the Christmas tree. Yes, a tree bedecked with candles and ornaments right in the living room. Who would have thought?

News reporter:
In other news, the penny post is swamped with Christmas cards. It seems everyone's keen on paper greetings this year. Mr. Hill of the penny post might just need a holiday himself after this.

News reporter:
And now, a quick word on the Empire. All is as splendid as ever. The sun still doesn't set on British brilliance.

News reporter:
Wrapping up a merry Christmas to all, whether it's by a German tree or a warm fire. May your holiday be bright. I'm John Williams. No I'm not, I'm William Johnson, wishing you a good evening.

Charlie:
Easy mistake, right? John Williamson and William Johnson. John Williamson, who? Oh, John Williamson is an Australian singer songwriter. Um. William Johnson is a made up 18th century name that I would assume would have been popular in that era. Um, so yes, that was a little, uh, random bit of, you know, fake news, not fake. It wasn't fake. Maybe it was. Who knows. So Queen Victoria and Prince Albert influenced us on that front, uh, you know, the Christmas tree. And they encouraged people to go to the theatre around Christmas to reconnect with family and friends. But, I mean, it was probably a good decision, economically speaking, wasn't it?

Charlie:
Now, Charles Dickens, he obviously had some tickets to sell to his Christmas Carol that had recently come out back in the day. So that must have played a pivotal role in shaping the Victorian Christmas sort of outlook or sort of moral nature, because A Christmas Carol that was, that was all about it, wasn't it? It emphasised joy, generosity and togetherness. Um, again though, the sceptic in me thinks bravo for disguising your aim to capitalise on the Christmas spirit. It's like a clever little sandwich of love on the outside and then, you know, capitalistic gains on the inside. Oh, generosity. Yeah. Be generous. Remember to go to the shops and keep the economy going. But then again, they were royalty. This could be total, um, bollocks, as could everything I say on all of my episodes. But maybe being a powerful monarchy, they had all the money in the world, and they just felt like the country could do with a bit more culture, especially during the winter. And then naturally, as the middle class rose up, because I think that's, that's when the middle class really grew, they were like, let's mimic old Queenie and get a tree in the house and go to the theatre. And then the husband says, yeah, and I'm going to copy the Queen's Consort and get a Prince Albert. Jonathan! Not in front of the children! But yes. Alright then.

Charlie:
Um, if you have no idea what I'm on about there, um, fair enough. No, there is a rather naughty piercing that goes by the nickname of a Prince Albert. This, um, this piercing. It's, uh, it's one that goes on the end of male genitalia. And legend has it is that during the Victorian era, uh, tight trousers were fashionable and the piercing was used to, um, to, um, um, to secure the penis to one side or the other, thus preventing an unsightly bulge. Now, I doubt this is true, but I also doubt you'll forget that bit of vocabulary in a hurry now. So yes, the piercing on the end of a male's genitalia is known as a Prince Albert. But less about Prince Albert's member and how it was folded away. And back to pantomimes. Yes?

Charlie:
So Queen Victoria reinvented Christmas by giving people the time to spend with their families, hang out round a Christmas tree and go to Charles Dickens' new theatre production and/or a pantomime, maybe. And that's an interesting start. But still in this day and age with Hollywood and Netflix, Instagram and TikTok, how on earth is this dated performance still going and still selling tickets? And every time I go, they're pretty much sold out. Well, beyond it just being a ritual, I think it's really because it's an evening that amuses the whole family, and that in this world of entertainment that can niche down to such particular preferences, I think that's quite hard to find. Such a crowd pleaser. Yes, maybe some animations in the cinema do cater to both the young and old, but hear me out.

Charlie:
So I think it amuses the whole family because the young ones love the costumes, the fairy tales and the singing and dancing, and the brave ones even get to go on stage at the end because they get invited up and the adults, they get to appreciate the the witty dialogue that is often filled with euphemisms that hopefully go over the children's heads and the adults can enjoy them guilt free. Um, and then if the adults have children, because it's a family thing. So, for example, I'm going this winter, I don't have children, but my sister does. And so she will be able to enjoy the panto on another level. Because she'll be able to see her children really enjoying the experience. I think I've often seen parents just staring at their kids enjoying the panto through their eyes because it is sweet. They really love it. And then I suppose I should mention the awkward teenagers. Um, surprising as it might be, I'd say teenagers actually embrace Christmas. I mean, they want the presents, sure. But I remember as a teenager wanting to literally die on the spot if I was ever seen out and about with my family in town or the village or something. But Christmas? Christmas is different. Everyone spends it with their family, and it would almost be a situation of feeling sorry for any friends who don't have a family to spend it with. It's like it was almost cool to spend Christmas with your extended family, like taking a selfie with your grandad. I don't know if I'm barking up the wrong tree here, but there's a feeling I'm trying to describe to you that with anything related to Christmas felt different when I was a teenager, so I think it might not be so embarrassing to be at the panto as a teenager with the family in comparison to say, if it was the summer and they're being dragged to this family tradition, that would be, oh, that would be really cringe. I feel like I would want to shrivel up and die. But again, in comparison, at Christmas I didn't feel so horrendously embarrassed to be with them.

Charlie:
And as I said earlier, the innuendos and subtle sexual references that are in the script that go over the children's head, but the adults enjoy it. Um, I remember as a teen feeling quite mature and clever whenever I'd actually managed to understand them. So it's perhaps a bit of a coming of age moment for teenagers. Either way, everyone gets to load up on sweets and fizzy drinks and then a tub of ice cream in the interval. Yes, that's right, we have ice cream in December in the UK. I mean, crazy, sure, but one perk is that you don't need to worry about the ice cream ever melting. I thought it would be nice to have a little break of my voice blabbering on, and give you some answers my friends and family members gave me to the two questions I sent them. One was what are some pantos that you have seen and which are your favourite ones? And here we have a random bunch of answers. Here we go.

Interviewee 1:
My favourite pantomime is the Ansty Village pantomime that was actually in my local village, so all my family used to be in it. Um, it was always very slapstick and it was always great to see my dad dressed up as a woman.

Interviewee 2:
I have been to see probably ten pantomimes in my short life, uh, because my, my grandparents used to take us every year, and honestly, I can't tell you which one was my favourite because they all sort of merge into one. Um, they, they're quite samey, but they're fun all the same. And what I love about them is that they have so many jokes that go over the children's heads, and they're kind of targeted towards the adults. Um, I remember seeing Dick Whittington, uh, who had a cat and also Cinderella, and her sidekick was Buttons. I remember that, um, but my strongest and fondest memory is of my grandad, who's no longer with us, um, who... He could not hold himself back when he was watching a pantomime. He would be the first one to shout out 'He's behind you!' or 'Oh no!' and we were laughing more at him than at the actual show. But yeah, I love a pantomime. And actually you've inspired me to to book one in for this year. Thank you.

Interviewee 3:
I've seen lots of different pantos. I used to go to, to the panto every year in Bury St Edmunds, um, with my mum, and my favourite panto has got to be Cinderella. Um, there's nothing like a rags-to-riches story with a bit of Christmas thrown in for good measure. Um, but a second close is Peter Pan because, um, you know, you always, more often than not, see a little bit of a dodgy rig, uh, hooked up to a provincial town theatre roof, and there's always this kind of high risk involved. Um, but it always turns out alright. But that definitely brings it to life.

Interviewee 4:
Yeah. I remember seeing Snow White, um, Aladdin and also Peter Pan. And I can remember Peter Pan really vividly because I remember sitting next to my granny and Captain Hook shouting 'who's behind me?' And then the whole audience... It was, it was clearly Tinkerbell. It was a flying fairy... Shouted 'It's Tinkerbell!' Apart from my granny, who shouted so much louder than everyone else. For some reason 'It's Peter Pan!' so everyone, including Captain Hook, we must have been quite in the front, turned around and just stared at my granny and therefore me because I was sat next to her and it was just really embarrassing having hundreds, probably thousands of eyes upon us. And he sort of took the, the mickey out of my granny. Um, and she didn't really understand. Poor lady. Um, but yeah, there's lots of audience participation and it's really funny and it's definitely, um. Oh, not definitely. Anyone can go. But it's largely a family, um, experience and makes children laugh lots and lots.

Charlie:
So there we have a random collection of some of my friends' and family's memories towards the pantomime, and I'm not sure if you noticed, but a number of them touched on the audience participation being a distinct memory. This is quite rare in British culture to be able to be so vocal when being a member of the audience. I actually have proof of this from just the other day, when I went to a business networking event that was held by an American based company, and we were in London, and there were two hosts, one American and one British, and the Brit started things off how we assume in a fairly monologue fashion, um, with self-deprecation along the way and little audience participation. And then the American came in and felt like the energy of the group was really low. So she tried to get us participating by polling us with a variety of questions, and to respond, we had to shout back. And then she asked a few of us to reveal a problem we were facing right now to the whole group of 50 people, which didn't go down like a lead balloon, but it was clear that we were all uncomfortable with this level of participation, and that we were much happier with how the Brit was leading things. And bear in mind, this room is full of British people who want to create. It was a creators event, so even with a group of individuals who like to create, the Brits were feeling a little bit uncomfortable.

Charlie:
So my point is that audience participation is rare for us. However, this moment in the pantomime is an inbuilt tradition that allows us to shout at the top of our voices without feeling discomfort. And there's often an actor that is like the third or fourth main character who often talks directly to the audience as well as acts in their normal way. And this person is the one that gets us screaming and shouting back at them. But there's also often a scene that is about three quarters of the way through the show, where a character on stage is unaware of the villain, or a mischievous character, like a ghost or a monster, or maybe a wolf in the woods, and that character is sneaking up behind them. And then the audience, seeing this, shouts out to warn the character, usually yelling 'He's behind you!' and typically the character on stage does this very slow turn, and the villain quickly hides or moves. So when the character looks, they see nothing unusual and often reply, 'oh no, he isn't!' and then the audience responds loudly, saying, 'oh yes he is!'

Charlie:
Yes. And this, this goes back and forth and repeats probably a few too many times. Um, but it does create a humorous and engaging interaction between the characters on stage and the audience. And as I said, our culture doesn't encourage this. So we kind of relish in this moment. And, uh, excuse my French, but the children really do lose their shit over this interaction. Um, I think those who are roughly around four or under, um, who haven't, uh, developed what psychologists call theory of mind, literally cannot believe that this character on stage cannot see what they can clearly see and that this monster is right there. And so, yes, those children lose their shit and they're like 'well, he's look, he's behind you! Ah!'

Charlie:
So, um, yes, there's that moment. And then the characters also often come down off the stage and run around in the aisles, sometimes even going along the rows of people. And if it's a Peter Pan, they might do a battle scene and, and shoot water pistols at each other, deliberately getting the crowd wet. And then, yes, we all shout and laugh and think it's all so funny to sit there in damp clothes. Um, and then the other moment I wanted to mention is after the story has pretty much concluded, the actor that is engaging with the audience throughout the show, who the internet tells me is often called the comic lead. But, you know, most people wouldn't respond to that. Um this person, the comic lead, asks for four or five children to come on stage and asks them some really basic questions, like, did you like the show? Who was your favourite character? Who are you here with? And then sometimes this might shock you, but they say, do you have a boyfriend or do you have a girlfriend? And bear in mind these children are mostly under ten. I don't know if that's weird for you, but yeah, I just realised that might be quite strange.

Charlie:
Um, and the audience often finds this really funny. Whatever the child says in response. Um, because being children, they have this natural ability to say the wrong thing by being brutally honest. Like saying the show wasn't that good, or, um, the character that they're talking to wasn't their favourite one. Things like that, or forgetting that they're with their family or something like that. And that moment is often the highlight for the few select parents who encouraged their children up on stage. Because, you know, it's rare for us to get the chance to be in the limelight. Um, so yes, that combined with the audience participation is, um, is quite a unique moment to break away from our culture. Um, if you listen to my episode Breaking Down the Norms in Pubs, it was one of my first episodes, and I quoted how a social anthropologist thinks that the bar in a pub is one of the few places that we are allowed to speak to strangers, because typically we keep ourselves to ourselves. I should say perhaps the, the further north you go in the country, the less this is apparent. But I'd say, relatively speaking, to other English speaking cultures, we do not openly share our thoughts and feelings unless there is an agreed upon moment where we believe it to be the right thing to do, and to not participate in a pantomime would be unacceptable.

Charlie:
And I think that concludes what I feel the need to talk about in regards to pantomimes. Um, I really do encourage you to witness one yourself. Um, they are weird but fun, especially if you go to a smaller production and get to witness them making mistakes or breaking character and making each other laugh. So I will now take a slow, proud bow and gradually walk backwards, waving at you, thinking I'm God's greatest gift whilst the curtain closes, separating me from you. But if you wanted to wait for me outside in the cold at the backstage door exit to get a signature, or to simply congratulate me on being so bog standard, then be my guest. But um, please don't be shocked by the copious amount of stage makeup I have on my face when you greet me. I am aware it makes me look suspicious, but what can I say, I'm a semi-professional actor. Um, if you don't know what I'm on about, get yourself to a panto this Christmas.

Announcement:
This episode was sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Head to Gov.uk to find out more.

Charlie:
Please take this announcement with a pinch of salt. That's all from me. My name is Charlie. See you next time on the British English Podcast.

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