Oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is etc. Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s actually talk about pantomime.
Over the years I’ve written at this time of year variously about the key players in the region’s pantomimes, I’ve written about the history of this very peculiarly British tradition, I’ve even written about my general lack of enthusiasm for panto (more on that later – suffice to say, I have since seen the error of my ways).
This year I want to really try to understand the appeal of this weird tradition that looks utterly bizarre to the non-Brit (a few years ago I took a Spanish friend to the Harrogate Theatre pantomime, not checking before we went if she had ever seen a pantomime or knew what one was. Don’t do that. The look on someone’s face when they are faced with a panto, entirely unprepared, is not one you want to see).
There are pantomimes across the county, from Leeds – the always popular Rock n’ Roll Panto at City Varieties and the Carriageworks annual offering – to Bradford, Halifax and Wakefield to Harrogate, York and Sheffield. This year, if I’m honest, I find my attitude towards the artform softening. Time was when you would have to drag me kicking and screaming to a show featuring a dame, a ‘village idiot’ and a lead boy, but this year I have done something virtually unthinkable and actually bought tickets for a pantomime (I won’t tell you which one, for fear of being accused of having a favourite, but you might be able to work it out).
I say I have bought a ticket; the truth is I was invited on to the list of a group who queue overnight – literally – to secure the tickets for one of the annual highlights of their calendar. I didn’t queue overnight, I just agreed to buy one of the tickets: I said I’d softened towards the artform, not lost my mind entirely. But that this group, or the chief ticket buyer for the group, queues overnight to secure the seats they want for the panto, has made me wonder about what is a clearly very powerful draw when it comes to this odd artform.
Back in October I was asked to present the official launch of the Bradford Alhambra Pantomime. In the theatre’s studio space, 100 invited guests were treated to my velvet jacket and an up close demonstration of why Bradford’s pantomime is such a revered and loved affair.
Billy Pearce is a consummate professional, appearing in well over a dozen annual Bradford Alhambra pantomimes. At the event I introduced the panto’s director Ed Curtis, along with this year’s turns Coleen and Shane Nolan and then I brought Billy on stage.
We’d pre-arranged for him to be introduced from the wings, but then actually arrive on the stage down the middle of the audience. It meant I gave him the big build up, held my arm to indicate Billy’s supposed entrance from stage left – and he came through the audience down the stairs in the middle. As he came down, his familiar war cry of ‘hiya kids’ was heard booming around the studio theatre. It was fascinating to share the stage with Billy, to see his craft up that close. He has elements of anarchy and danger about his performance – he refuses to stick to the script and strays just the right side of the line of appropriateness for his audience. There is also an unbelievably strong connection between Billy and his audience. It felt like they genuinely knew him, each and every one – not like they were watching a performer on stage, but like they were watching their wackiest, funniest friend who had somehow blagged his way into the spotlight.
That, clearly, is one of the appeals of pantomime. There is the element of those nights in old fashioned (and sadly now virtually extinct) clubs where things get a little out of hand and the audience mingle with the turns, who mingle with the audience. The audience genuinely feel a part of the action and that is one of the magical elements of pantomime: it helps, of course, when you have performers who can give that sense to the audience too.
Whichever panto you’re going to, enjoy – it really is the perfect kind of performance to get you feeling festive and in Yorkshire we are as well catered for as literally anywhere in the country.
Cinderella, Bradford Alhambra, to January 28; Aladdin – Rock n Roll Panto, City Varieties, Leeds, to January 7; Aladdin, Theatre Royal Wakefield, to January 7; Jack and the Beanstalk, Carrieageworks, Leeds, to January 6.