Panto News: September 2018

Published: 16 September 2018

In just over a month, pantomimes across the country will begin rehearsals as opening nights ebb ever closer. Auditions for junior ensembles are coming to a close and press launches ramp up for that final push as we enter autumn.

By this stage in the year, most casts are finalised, but nothing is set in stone until opening night, or even until the whole run is over with illness often requiring understudies to step up to the plate and take over when the Christmas cold comes a knocking.

Over the past few months, a series of events has shone a spotlight on pantomime's tricky nature of casting and the role producers play in mediating between public, press and performance.

On 5 August, we sadly said goodbye to one of the nation's favourite pantomime performers, Barry (Elliot) Chuckle. One half of the Chuckle Brothers, Barry and his brother Paul had performed in over 45 pantomimes as well as appearing in 292 episodes of CBBC's ChuckleVision. As Barry's Guardian obituary stated, between them, the Chuckle Brothers had an output bigger than Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Keaton on account of their long career, with the two synonymous for their slapstick antics.

Both were set to appear in Hull New Theatre's Cinderella, but Barry's untimely death means that producers Qdos Entertainment must now seek a new headliner, no easy task given the season has already snapped up pantomime's top talent and that the Chuckle Brothers were experts in their field.

Another production of Cinderella also hit the headlines this month thanks to Celebrity Big Brother. A chance to catapult a performer into the public's consciousness right before panto season, the opportunity to appear on the Channel 5 show is a marketing officer's dream. Names that have long-faded or been out of favour suddenly receive a revival and reach new audiences as TV viewers get to know them (again) via the reality show.

However, the very nature of Big Brother's all-seeing eye means this can backfire dramatically as was the case with Roxanne Pallett. Due to appear in Chesterfield's Cinderella, the show's producers Paul Holman Associates revealed that she had withdrawn from the production and been replaced by Naomi Wilkinson in light of events in the house.

Television regulatory body Ofcom received over 11,000 complaints about an incident in which she claimed house member Ryan Thomas "punched me like a boxer would punch a bag." Pallett subsequently left the show and issued a statement in which she explained her behaviour was "an overreaction to what wasn’t a malicious act." Whilst a full apology was issued, the damage had been done and public sentiment via social media was incredibly strong. Pallett decided to leave the production with a press release from Paul Holman Associates stating that she would "take some time out and reflect on recent events."

But sometimes casting courts controversy even before a role has been cast, as was the case with a call for Bedworth Civic Hall's Aladdin. Characters in pantomime frequently use the set of names first coined in the Victorian era when Orientalism on the British stage was rife. Writers sought to create an aura of mysticism and exoticism in titles such as Aladdin, providing escapism for their audiences not only through the show's aesthetic, but also its script and songs.

For example, Widow Twankey's name stems from a popular tea at the time with Wishee Washee and the Twankey's career a nod to the many Chinese laundries of London. In the Palladium's 1956 production The Magical Lamp starring Norman Wisdom, characters included Mrs Chin Wag and Chi-Lee with place and character names often utilising word play such as Who-Flung-Dung and Mustapha Lie-Down.

The Spotlight casting call for the Bedworth Civic Hall's production advertised roles including "Chow Mein Slave of the Ring" and "PC Pong Ping", both names that have been used in hundreds of productions with variations of the Chinese policeman including PC Ping and PC Pong and, where not a double act, PC Pongo, all referencing table tennis.

Branded "racist" and "offensive" by many via social media, comment streams on industry, local and national newspapers responded to the incident as "much ado about nothing", marking it "ridiculous", "pathetic" and "PC gone mad". The names have since been changed, but this incident does highlight how pantomime still perpetuates an imperialist view of the world when Britain has changed dramatically over the last century.

But it also calls into question how far producers and writers should go in amending these much-used names and the extent of public feeling over their usage. Like Chow Mein, Twankey refers to a food-type, with most productions still actively using PC Pongo. Last year, Lincoln Theatre Royal's Aladdin was set in Marrakesh complete with Dame Donna Kebab and Cous Cous—is that just the same?

Dick Whittington's venture to Morocco and Robinson Crusoe's island voyage pose similar questions. Is it acceptable to depict other cultures in such a way? Where is the line between affection and offense? Do we need to decolonise the pantomime and with it strip away other Victorian values such as sexism and misogyny? If we did, what would be left?

Today, productions of Robinson Crusoe are almost extinct, with many contemporary writers re-addressing issues in the representation of Principal Girls. Will we ever wave goodbye to Peking—itself problematic in contemporary usage?

Many creative teams are actively seeking to solve some of pantomime's problems with innovative scripts dispensing with Morocco and Egypt in favour of the Arctic. Abanazar himself has experienced a makeover as a British banker and many theatres are engaging new generations of creatives who have no ties to the age-old traditions as they seek to capture, reflect and celebrate 21st-century Britain.

Is pantomime's "casual racism"—to borrow actor, theatre-maker and writer Maryam Hamidi's remark—behind us? Not yet, but it looks as though this might just be the focus of the genre's next evolutionary phase...

Simon Sladen