My German grandmother never understood the point of pantomime. She’d lived in England for more than half her life, spoke English like a native (actually, a good deal better) and had a sound appreciation of English humour, from Lewis Carroll to The Good Life. However, she was happy to admit that the panto bug had completely passed her by. She knew that pantomime was the one art form that was indefatigably British, and that no foreigner could ever hope to decipher it. Of course she was absolutely right. No other entertainment sums up our innate Euroscepticism quite like panto. And no British Christmas is complete without a chorus of ‘Oh, no you’re not!’ or ‘He’s behind you!’
That’s not to say, though, that we actually enjoy it. Traditionally, a trip to the pantomime was a lot like brandy butter or cold turkey — a Yuletide ‘treat’ to be endured with stoic grace. But the good news is that in recent years, panto has been enjoying a modest renaissance. The big productions are glamorous again and many of the smaller shows are performed with a wit and verve that seemed sorely absent 20 years ago, when I first trawled the panto circuit as a po-faced tyro critic. Last year’s Dick Whittington at the Lyric Hammersmith was the best pantomime I’d seen in a long time (the Hackney Empire’s annual panto is another reliable banker. Lloyd Evans reviews its Cinderella on page 87) and the list of this year’s big shows reads like a Who’s Who of British showbiz: Bonnie Langford in Jack & the Beanstalk; Christopher Biggins in Robinson Crusoe; Tommy Steele as Scrooge; Bobby Davro as Wishee Washee…It’s a parallel universe where former Page Three girls (Linda Lusardi) get equal billing with former MPs (Ann Widdecombe), where serious actors rub shoulderpads with the Light Ent brigade of sitcom veterans, soap opera stalwarts and so-called reality TV ‘stars’.
One serious actor who’s tried his hand at all these things (well, apart from Page Three and frontline politics) is Nigel Havers, and it’s a pleasure to catch him for a (very) quick chat during a frantic week’s preparation for Peter Pan, in which he plays Captain Hook. ‘It’s probably the best villain in pantomime,’ he says, during a snatched lunch break in a dusty rehearsal room in a church hall off the Tottenham Court Road. ‘The original source is a wonderfully written piece of literature, so it’s got a very strong story.’
He looks incredibly youthful (he turned 60 last month, but with his fresh face and floppy fringe he could easily pass for 40) and he clearly has the stamina of a much younger man — rehearsals all day, half an hour for lunch and off to Chichester tonight to appear in Basket Case, the hit comedy he’s been performing at the Festival Theatre.
For Havers, panto isn’t the poor relation. It’s another aspect of the actor’s craft, and it’s important to get it right. ‘You can’t just busk it. You have to really know what you’re doing.’ However, different principles apply. ‘All the rules are broken. Everything you learn in straight theatre, you might as well forget. You can deliver the whole thing out front. You can stop the show if you want. You can mess about. You can lark around. You can have fun with it, as long as it’s within the parameters of the show.
‘I didn’t really get involved in pantos until about six years ago,’ he recalls. ‘I was just offered it and I thought, “I’ve never done it and I’d like to give it a go,” and I really enjoyed it.’ Since then he’s established a new niche as everyone’s favourite pantomime baddie. Last year he was King Rat in Dick Whittington, alongside Joan Collins and Julian Clary (‘a bloody good actor’) and with an audience that’s actively encouraged to answer back, he found new weapons in his armoury. ‘You never stop learning about timing and how to craft a joke,’ he says. ‘You learn how to deliver the gag in the best possible way.’
Without a fourth wall, the technique almost comes closer to stand-up comedy. ‘There came a time when none of us knew quite what we were saying,’ he says, remembering his appearance in Cinderella alongside the ventriloquist Paul Zerdin. ‘There were three of us onstage and no one speaking. I said, “Well, it’s not my turn.” Paul Zerdin, who was Boots, said, “Well, it’s certainly not mine.” I went off and got the script and came back and said, “Oh, my god, it’s my turn!”’ Naturally, it brought the house down. ‘They love all that. They don’t mind at all. As long as it’s for real, it doesn’t matter.’
But there’s a serious side to panto, too. In an age where children’s entertainment is becoming increasingly solitary and insular (kids plugged into computers, doing god-knows-what in cyberspace) pantomime is a precious chance to introduce them to the pleasures of live, communal entertainment. ‘They may never have been to the theatre before, so I do want to deliver something that encourages them to come back,’ says Havers. Panto is our last surviving link with the lost world of Victorian melodrama and music hall. ‘They all scream and shout and cheer, and they boo me a lot, which is fantastic.’
It’s easy to overstate the case (of course it’s essentially just harmless nonsense) but to my mind there seems to be something profoundly patriotic about pantomime and — much to my surprise, quite unprompted — Havers concurs. ‘It’s unique to this country, which I’m quite pleased about,’ he says, with discreet pride. ‘People have tried to do it in America but they just don’t understand it.’
Of course they don’t, any more than my German grandma understood it. It’s subversive and irreverent. It’s intrinsically democratic. It combines a fine disregard for authority with a healthy respect for tradition. It’s not great art and it’s not meant to be, but it’s great fun if it’s done properly. It’s part of what makes this country special, even if it is often fairly ghastly to sit and watch it. It’s a chapter in our island’s story, and long may it endure.
Peter Pan is at the Hawth Theatre in Crawley (https://tickets.hawth.co.uk; 01293 553 636) until 31 December.