Friday, 26 November 2010


Over the centuries the great names in pantomime have included John Rich, David Garrick, Joe Grimaldi, Dan Leno, William Beverley, E.L. Blanchard, Herbert Campbell, Nat Jackley, Florrie Ford, Dorothy Ward, Wyn Calvin, King Charles II, the Emperor Augustus and my Mum who was Second Principal Boy in “Aladdin” at the Theatre Royal, Salford, in 1917.

Augustus played a pantomime - the word is Greek for dumb show performer - in his court entertainments. When the Christians came to power such shows were banned. An act of cultural savagery only paralleled by the Puritans who banned Christmas - and New Labour which made T Bone steaks illegal and tried to do the same with turkey.

Happily pantomime, the most magical theatrical event, survived down the centuries with groups of players putting on “Commedia dell’ Arte”, simple stories about an old man Pantaloon who tries to guard his pretty daughter Columbine from the dashing Harlequin. Harlequin bribes Pantaloon’s servant Polcinella to perform tricks to prevent his master catching them.

That Merrie Monarch Charles II brought “Commedia” to London where it split into separate theatrical traditions: Polcinella fathered Punch and Judy and Harlequin pantomime.

The first musical play was put on by John Weaver, a Shrewsbury dancing master, at Drury Lane in 1702. His boss, actor John Rich called it pantomime and introduced magical tricks. He was a brilliant mime artist but could not speak properly and his company were such lousy actors the performances were done in dumb show. Rich invented Harlequin’s costume of many colours for a very good practical reason. Each colour, the audience was told, represented an emotion. Yellow for jealousy, blue for truth, scarlet for love. When Harlequin wanted to express an emotion he would strike an attitude and point to a colour. He could even make himself invisible by pointing at black. Even Rich's scenery was inventive. He represented rough seas by getting small boys to jump up and down under a canvas sheet.

Rich’s pantomimes were so successful that tragedian David Garrick was forced against his will to put one on. Garrick was a great actor but a poor mime. His Harlequin had a speaking role.

Rich invented many of the pantomime traditions, beautiful scenery and mechanical monsters among them. When by 1789 people tired of the Harlequin tales he adapted Robinson Crusoe, the first of the traditional pantomimes. When a critic suggested it might be a good idea to adapt other tales like Cinderella, Babes in the Wood and Puss in Boots as pantomime, everyone thought he was crazy.

William Beverley invented the transformation scene, while he and E.T. Smith, the lessee of Drury Lane, watched a leg of mutton roasting on a spit. Said Smith: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a stage that revolved like that mutton, changing colour as it is doing under the flame?”

“I will paint you one,” said Beverley. In 1859 a wondering audience gasped at its first transformation scene.

I am delighted it was a journalist E.L. Blanchard who invented the modern panto and brought in the first man to play dame. She was called Widow Twankey after the china tea Twankay which was popular at the time. And it was Blanchard who decided the Principal Boy should be a girl. The first, a Miss Ellington, appeared in his first pantomime in 1852. He wrote every Drury Lane pantomime and many more from then until 1888.

Oh yes he did.............................................


Sam Johnson wisely said that no-one but a blockhead writes except for money. Nevertheless, when The Times used an interview with cousin Isabel,- now 7th in Amazon's Pre Order charts and winner of the Yorkshire Young Acheiver in the Arts - to complain at the exploitation of children by record companies it was necessary to send out letters of fire and sword:

I am at a loss to see any evidence of the exploitation of children in your story “Isabel the Choirgirl” on the Arts page (24/11). Following the writer's argument is like pursuing a ferret down a dark hole. She seems to suggest that boy trebles were exploited because a record company dropped them when their voices broke. The alternative was to cut a record of a group of boys who could not sing. Tempting as it is to suggest that a similar disadvantage has not harmed the success of our pop stars, it is not quite the same when there are pretensions of harmony. I cannot think such a record would sell many copies.

Speaking as a grandfather, I can assure you that in the present day exploitation of the British young is an oxymoron. Those boys for whom your writer seeks sympathy were the envy of every other teenager in Britain. They had their Warhol moment and will carry the memory with them into old age. It was their own fault that they did not turn that moment into a career like Ernest Lush, or more recently Aled Jones.

When Aled Jones was 16 his voice broke. At the suggestion of his father, I included him in my radio series “Radio Brynsiencyn” on BBC Wales. In very short order he became a proficient interviewer and presenter and went on to music college where he formed a band and experimented with other kinds of singing. After music college he joined a theatre company in Bristol where he learned to act. Those skills assembled, he went on to forge a new and highly successful career on stage, screen and radio. .As Hotspur suggested, nettles are for grasping.

In passing I was sad to see that your reporter should, like Adrian Chiles on Daybreak, make a bitter jibe about Isabel's surname “Suckling”. Half a century ago when I wrote for The Times I would have been expected to know that Suckling is the family name of her ancestor, Lord Nelson's wife.

May I illustrate this with an example of that happier time? Putting over my copy about an exhibition of Icons at the Chester Festival, the copy-taker insisted I had given one of them an over valuation. “Expert, are you?” I sneered. “Perhaps not expert,” he said, “but I have written a book on the subject which has been well received.”

Next time may I suggest you send a copy-taker.

Yours faithfully,

Ian Skidmore

12-year-old Cousin Isabel put the feature writer in her place in fewer words when, gathering her text books, she told her:

“I don't know if this sounds bad, but I'm not expecting anything out of this. Some people expect that because I have a record contract it's going to escalate to something, but it might not. I just take it as it comes along.“

How Isabel's voice matures is unpredictable but she will certainly outgrow the
Choirgirl image. “When I'm 18 I wouldn't like to be photographed at 1am falling out of a bar in the cassock,” she told the interviewer with good humour.

Out of the mouths of Babes and Sucklings................................


Joyce, the lady in the chip shop, has given me a woolly hat emblazoned with “BAH HUMBUG”, the motto of the Scrooge Appreciation Society of which I have the honour to be the founder. Reactions of the outside world have not done much for the reputation of our standards of national literacy. Said a small boy: “Are you a toffee?”