It’s the pantomime season again (oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is! Right, that’s got that out of the way!).
I’m a big fan of pantomime, and usually attend two each year, in Sheffield at the Lyceum, which this time is presenting Mother Goose, and locally at the Theatre Royal in Winchester, which is showing Peter Pan this season.
Pantomime features across the archives, in both amateur and professional guises, and across all formats, paper-based, digital and audio-visual. So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, nans and grandads, please take your seats as I wave my magic wand to conjure the latest blog from our archives, where there are definitely no white mice or King Rats!
A performance of Robinson Crusoe by the Winchester Dramatic Society , 1958.
Pantomimes usually start with the good fairy and baddie sparring in front of the stage curtain.
As a curtain raiser, the earliest mention of pantomime in our catalogue is a satirical poster describing a play called The Busy Bodies and a pantomime, Wigs and Blocks, to be performed by the Alresford Company of Comedians, manager Mr Pimp, dating from 5 January 1809. 15M84/P11/2
I’ve read that pantomime as we know it today seems to have developed from about 1860, although the word has earlier origins. We have an early amateur example in a programme for Queenwood Mutual Improvement Society Social Evening on 28 March 1885, which featured musical entertainments and a shadow pantomime by the 4th class. Unfortunately, there is no further detail on the 4th class or what a shadow pantomime might have been. 99M86/10
Once the curtain has gone up, the opening scene is usually a song and dance number involving the chorus.
We have a chorus of professional theatres across the county represented in the archives, starting with radio reviews AV1/CS1/S1 such as that from Radio Victory’s popular arts programme, Centre Stage, in 1985, in which presenter Matt Hopper covered The Wizard of Oz at the King’s Theatre, Southsea, starring Harry Worth, Trevor Bannister, Margaret Ashcroft and Tessa Wyatt. There are interviews with Tessa Wyatt, who played Dorothy, and Harry Worth. Margaret Ashcroft, the director, also played the Wicked Witch.
Moving on to the Theatre Royal Winchester, we have this photograph, taken on Boxing Day 1991, of the exterior of the theatre, advertising its pantomime Cinderella. The photograph is annotated on the back that this was the first professional pantomime at the theatre for 71 years. The theatre has had a varied history in its 103 years, including a couple of periods when it was dark. 25A09W/H5/72
Photograph by Phil Yates: Theatre Royal Winchester archive: Hampshire Record Office: 25A9W/H5/72
The song and dance number is followed by the introduction of the characters, so here is a picture of some key characters from the cast of Aladdin, and one of my favourite pantomime archive items. As part of the Hampshire Photographic Project, items from an unlisted collection of photographs, taken by James H Smith of Totton between the 1950s and 1970s, were digitised, including this one, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, with Ann Emery (sister of Dick), dressed for Aladdin at the Gaumont in Southampton in 1967 53M86/BOX/19/7508. As well as being Dick’s sister, those of a certain age will remember Ann Emery as Mrs Meaker in Rentaghost, a children’s TV favourite.
Photograph of Gerry and the Pacemakers, with Ann Emery Hampshire Record Office: James H. Smith photographic collection: 53M86/BOX/19/7508
Another household name, actor Arthur English, who was born and brought up in the town, appears in a collection of material from Princes Hall, Aldershot, including a programme for a production of Cinderella at that theatre, in which he starred in December 1986, 30A13/B1. Other familiar names can be seen in this programme, and in posters for the Theatre Royal Winchester’s production of Cinderella mentioned above.
Pantomimes have a standard set of characters, regardless of which story is being presented. They comprise the dame, the comic, hero (sometimes principal boy), heroine, baddie and good fairy; there is often an older male character who is related to one of the principals, such as Cinderella’s father, the emperor in Aladdin, or the king in Jack and the Beanstalk. There are variations on this theme (for example, Cinderella can also include the hero/prince’s sidekick, Dandini), and a number of pantomimes have an animal in the cast: a cow in in Jack and the Beanstalk, Priscilla the goose which lays the golden eggs in Mother Goose, and the cat in Dick Whittington.
Our collections contain letters from parents and children who describe visits to the pantomime, including members of the Bradby family of Hamble. Dorothy Bradby wrote to her father Edward c1875 to describe the pantomime Babes in the Wood 46A06/A8/19/5 although as they ‘were in the seats nearest to the stage’ they ‘could not see half the scenery’. Mabel Bradby wrote to her mother on 10 January 1877 about a nursery pantomime in which she took part. The characters included Prince Charming (who wore a rosette made of cracker paper), Princess Beautiful (who had a paper crown), Frankie Goodboy, Samuel Snowdrop, Minnie Hopskotch and Ada Industrious 46A06/A7/7/9.
And now the curtain falls as it’s time for the interval, a chance to stretch your legs and enjoy an ice cream. The pantomime will continue in our next blog, which looks at amateur productions in communities and schools.
Read part two here Pantomime in the archives: It’s behind you! Part Two
Heather Needham, Archivist