December 19, 2008 / 12:37 AM / 9 years ago

Some Britons greet slowdown with a custard pie

7 Min Read

LONDON (Reuters) - Nick Thomas says this will be his third recession, and seems almost to be looking forward to it.

The founder and chairman of an entertainment business might appear to be in a vulnerable sector. But his company is the world's largest producer of pantomime, a tradition as eccentrically British as a knobbly knees contest.

If QDos Entertainment Plc is any guide, the pantomime business is booming. The privately held firm expects group sales to jump 65 percent this year to 51 million pounds ($79 million), about one-third of that coming from pantomime sales, for which advance bookings are up six percent year-on-year.

"It's a bit like selling turkey," said Thomas, who set up QDos' predecessor in 1986. Academics agree escapist entertainment takes on greater significance for people who are worried about the future.

Irreverently based on children's fairy tales like Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk and Sleeping Beauty, pantomime is theater rooted in the 16th-century traveling street entertainment from Italy, Commedia dell' Arte.

Perhaps because of its gaudy, bawdy mix of slapstick, cross-dressing and very bad jokes it has not made much of an impression overseas. But theatres from Aberdeen to Bognor, and Llandudno to Woking depend on it for a sizeable chunk of income.

"You could say that panto is keeping some theatres afloat really," said Dennis Willis, an amateur enthusiast, whose wife Jackie runs an online business selling scripts. He also said demand is holding up well.

Pantomime has not drawn great audiences in the United States, although Willis has sold scripts there as well as Canada, Kuala Lumpur, Qatar, Hawaii, China and France.

But in Britain it has played a leading role at Christmas since Victorian times -- for the majority of theatres the annual "panto" is often the highest earner, and subsidizes more adventurous pieces.

"We come if we're in England ... but I also go to a lot of pantomimes at my own theater in Spain," said audience member Marie Legg, who lives in Spain, at "Dick Whittington and the Pi-rats of the Caribbean" at the Mercury Theater, Colchester.

QDos's Thomas, whose company is staging 21 pantomimes throughout the British provinces, believes its escapist characteristics and its appeal across generations and classes make it resilient.

"It's multi-generational," he said. "But you've got to be careful with your pricing. It's relatively cheap."

A ticket to the pantomime typically costs between 10 and 15 pounds, which given sterling's recent slump could seem a steal to any visitor from the euro zone.

Shouting Back

However, even a visitor fluent in English may not be able to make head or tail of pantomime proceedings.

"The plot is very simple," explains Willis on Web site Limelight Scripts.co.uk: "The girl dressed as a boy, who is the son of a man dressed as a woman, will win the other girl (surprisingly dressed as a girl), with the assistance of a person(s) dressed in an animal skin."

Pantomime embraces self-mockery and satire like other British comedies such as "Monty Python" or "Mr Bean," but unlike them it demands an audience who like shouting at the cast.

The audience is encouraged to boo the villain, argue with authority (shouting "Oh, no it isn't!"), and warn characters of danger, calling "He's behind you!"

Actor Allan Stewart, who plays Widow Twankey in "Aladdin" at the King's Theater in Edinburgh, said for actors the thrill was the connection with the audience.

"You have this rapport... You can speak to them. You can bring them into the show," said Stewart, who has been playing similar roles for around 10 years.

The rules of pantomime are clear.

"Good enters from stage right and Evil from stage left," says Limelight. That tradition apparently goes back to medieval times when the entrances to heaven and hell were on these sides. "Tradition also dictates that the villain should be the first to enter, followed by his adversary the good fairy."

Another pantomime fixture is the Dame -- usually played by a solidly built, gruff-voiced male comedian. "A million miles away from the drag act, the Dame is a study in female eccentricity," Limelight adds.

Then there's the Principal Boy: the romantic male lead, to be played by a young woman with shapely legs displayed to their best by fishnet tights. There's a simple reason for this, according experts at Web site its-behind-you.com.

"The Victorian male, living in a society where even the legs of the parlor piano were covered for modesty's sake, craved the vision of a well-turned calf, or shapely ankle."

Better Than Shakespeare?

Academics agree the genre can weather economic downturn.

"People want escapist entertainment when things are a bit rough," said Millie Taylor of the University of Winchester, and author of "British Pantomime Performance." "For British people, pantomime is part of the ritual of Christmas."

Whereas mime in other cultures tends to be aimed at children, pantomime draws in the whole family and straddles the class divide -- undermining the received wisdom in Britain that theater is the preserve of the middle classes.

Many performances are the result of community effort by amateurs rather than a professional show.

The mix entertains children with the throwing of custard pies and squirting of water, mocking the delusions of adult society, and having grown-ups dressed as animals -- usually one at each end of a cow.

The comedian Charlie Chaplin was once the front end of the horse at the Hippodrome Theater, Stockport, according to Willis.

For adults, the fun extends to include innuendo and topical allusions. At least one show this season -- at the King's Head pub theater in north London -- will feature as its villain King Rat, a banker and property developer.

But in the same way as good always triumphs over evil in pantomime, the satire generally stops short of the revolutionary.

"It points the finger at things going on in society, but doesn't seek to change them," said Taylor.

For many people, pantomime is the first experience of theater, said Jim Davis of the University of Warwick. Provided it's good, they can be won over for life.

"It's definitely better to see a good pantomime than be put off theater by a bad Shakespeare," he said.

Additional reporting by Simon Newman; Editing by Sara Ledwith

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