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Putting on Panto to pay for the Pinter

Chris Abbott, with a foreword by Stephanie Cole
Hobnob Press
Released

In her foreword to Chris Abbott’s Putting on Panto to pay for the Pinter, Stephanie Cole writes, “This is a book for anyone who loves panto” and it would be difficult to disagree. Spanning six chapters, a prologue, an epilogue, as well as three appendices, Abbott provides a fascinating glimpse into the Henry Marshall pantomimes at the Salisbury Playhouse between 1955 and 1985.

Regional theatres seldom receive the honour of a dedicated book, let alone one about a particular art form presented at the venue, but Putting on Panto to pay for the Pinter rightly argues for the importance of the form to the Salisbury Playhouse, not only in terms of providing financial security, even if exact details are somewhat glossed over, but also for the opportunities and experience it afforded young actors starting out in their theatrical career.

Abbott has undertaken a large number of interviews for his book, which is peppered throughout with memories of the Playhouse’s rich pantomime history from those involved. Not only does this make the book a pleasant trip down memory lane, but more importantly it reveals the significance of the venue and its pantomimes in the career of many of today’s leading actors. Leonard Rossiter, for example, played Len, a not very bad Robber, in Babes in the Wood of 1956, whilst Timothy West appeared as the Geni of the Lamp in 1957. In 1966 Christopher Biggins was cast in his first pantomime role as PC Boggins in Jack and the Beanstalk alongside Chris Harris’s Principal Boy and both have since gone on to become two of Britain’s most experienced pantomime Dames.

Abbott carefully plots the history of pantomime at the theatre and enlightens his reader to the key figures of Salisbury’s pantomime past, above all Henry Marshall, who, in his thirty year reign of pantomime at the theatre, strongly believed in quest narratives and favoured titles such as Dick Whittington, Babes in the Wood, Robinson Crusoe, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk. Cinderella was also a staple of the Marshall cycle, seen four times between 1955 and 1985, but titles such as Mother Goose and Puss in Boots were only seen once.

Production and behind-the-scenes photographs accompany the text to provide a flavour of the Playhouse pantos, but one of the real joys of the book is that Henry Marshall’s gagbook has been transcribed and is reproduced by permission of his daughter Emma Battcock. With pantomimes thriving on topicality, the gags and notes for set pieces, scenelets and general ‘biz’ act as a unique insight into the Salisbury audience’s tastes and Marshall’s creative mind.

Of interest to theatre enthusiasts, Salisbury Playhouse patrons past, present and future, and, of course, pantomime scriptwriters, Putting on Panto to pay for the Pinter is an important record of one regional theatre’s efforts to entertain its community. In a time of budget cuts, it is easy to forget pantomime’s importance and contribution to the theatre industry and many a practitioner’s career. As its title suggests, they might not like to admit it, but even the likes of Pinter have a lot to thank panto for.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen