Is panto what it was when you were a child? Oh, no it isn’t!

The ugly sisters have long been a staple. mangakamaidenphotography, CC BY-SA

Now the pantomime season is well and truly underway, many will have heard a familiar complaint. It’s newfangled, it’s not what it was. What happened to the good old days, when panto didn’t involve 3D glasses and reference Ukip?

But this cry is far more tired than panto is. It’s been said time and time again, and has always been true. Leigh Hunt said it in 1831, Andrew Halliday in 1863, W Davenport Adams in 1882 and Max Beerbohm in 1898. Sure, pantomime isn’t what it was in 1800 – but its 1900 counterpart is a recognisable grandparent. This continual evolution is the secret of its survival.

The critics almost all want to turn the clock back to the fondly remembered days of their childhood when a trip to the pantomime was usually their first theatrical experience – as it is today for many children. But don’t kid yourself that the pantomime of your childhood was its “golden age”.

I have recently published a book, The Golden Age of Pantomime, which traces the changing nature and enduring appeal of panto. Through its mutations, three things always remain constant: slapstick, spectacle and subversion, the key elements of the panto’s appeal.

Slapstick

Joseph Grimaldi, c.1820.

Pantomime all begins with the harlequinade in the 18th century. An Anglicised version of the Italian commedia del’arte, it centred on physical action, knockabout and comic songs. This lack of speech was dictated by the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737 which confined the use of dialogue in drama to just two theatres, Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

The 1843 Theatre Regulation Act abolished the patent theatres’ monopoly of dialogue and allowed pantomime to revel in linguistic freedom which allowed it to deploy rhyming couplets, puns, slang and topical allusions. Enterprising producers now grafted onto the harlequinade another dramatic genre, an extravaganza which its creator, JR Planché described as the “whimsical treatment of a poetic subject”. This tended to be an elegant and witty satire on modern life conducted through comedic versions of classical myths and fairy stories.

The original harlequinade soon became just the second half of the classic Victorian pantomime. As the century progressed, it shrank to a couple of token scenes before vanishing altogether. Its original function was usurped by the so-called “music-hall invasion” which from the 1870s onwards saw music-hall stars cast in the pantomime with their distinctive slapstick routines, comic songs and catchphrases.

Spectacle

Spectacle in the mid-Victorian pantomime took the form of lengthy ballet sequences and dance routines often involving children. Some 10,000 children were employed annually in pantomime over the UK. The audiences loved them and frequently called for their dances to be encored. Their participation only diminished in the 1890s when health and safety regulations restricted their appearances.

Getting ready for Christmas in 1890.

There was also spectacle in the scene painting and the special effects. The leading pantomime scene painter of the 19th century, W R Beverley, was seriously compared to Turner, Poussin and Watteau and the century’s greatest art critic, John Ruskin, was a devotee of the pantomime. He visited half a dozen every Christmas and praised them for teaching art appreciation to the mass audience.

The sets and paintings of contemporary pantomime may not be the object of regular commentary by the art critics of today, but spectacle is present in other areas, more in tune with modern artistic technology – digital special effects. This isn’t pantomime changing, rather upgrading.

Subversion

Pantomime has also always been subversive. Some pantomime historians have claimed that the roles of the dame and the principal boy, a man dressed as a woman and a woman dressed as a man, were grand gestures of gender subversion. But they are in fact the sexist products of a patriarchal society reinforcing existing stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.

The dame is a parodied harridan, a grotesque send-up of womankind, while at the same time as impersonating a dashing male adventurer, the principal boy was every inch a woman, curvaceous, big-bosomed and encased in tights, the better to allow the male audience to gawp at her legs.

A transformation scene in a 19th century pantomime. © University of Exeter

Significantly the principal girl, the heroine, was always played by a young woman as the epitome of demure and dainty femininity. So Victorian panto was in no way ahead of its time in terms of gender. The subversion lay in the temporary seasonal role reversal and with the arrival of music-hall stars, which purists saw as the vulgarisation of dialogue and genre.

By the time of World War II, many of the characteristic features of the Victorian pantomime had disappeared: the harlequinade, the rhyming couplets, the transformation scene. And now even the principal boy seems to be on the way out with the role now taken by male pop stars or soap stars, introducing a new kind of subversion. This is necessary, because in a world where sexting is commonplace, the sight of a woman’s legs encased in tights isn’t such a big deal.

But there is still spectacle (in the form of digital special effects) and time-honoured and much-loved comedy and the stories – Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk – are as popular now as they were 200 years ago. Pantomime is certainly not what it was – it never has been.