Christmas pantomimes are crucial to theatre earnings, which is why the news of their closure comes as such a sad blow.
This year’s Christmas pantomimes are being cancelled – and sadly, this isn’t a case of “oh no they aren’t”.
The BBC reports that Norwich Theatre Royal was one of the first theatres to call off its festive pantomime this week, along with venues in Buxton, Welwyn Garden City and Leicester.
It feeds into the wider worry about the future of performing arts: theatres have been shut since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the government hasn’t given a date for the return of live performances. This means that a lot of money is being lost.
Just last week, Dame Judi Dench said she doesn’t think theatres will open again in her lifetime. Her harrowing words, which could very well prove true, were a devastating wake up call.
What makes the news about pantomimes particularly concerning is the fact that pantomimes are crucial to theatre earnings, and cancelling could make or break the future of venues.
But this isn’t just a financial blow; it’s an emotional one for anyone who’s ever sat in a pantomime audience.
Accessible, family-friendly and funny – the pantomime has often been labelled as “hammy” or “low brow”. But considering that a recent industry report described the sector as being “quite socially closed” and “dominated by middle-class white people”, it really is time to leave this snobbery at the theatre door. Because, for many people, the pantomime is a first entry into performing arts.
My first, and probably only, outings to the theatre as a child were to see the annual festive pantomime with my dad. My relationship with him was strained, but I remember being so excited to dress up in my new Christmas clothes, put on a sparkly lip gloss, take my seat in a grownup theatre, watch the show, then go for a Pizza Hut afterwards.
I loved waiting for the lights to go down while listening to the mumbling audience. I felt the thrill of the jokes I didn’t always understand, the sparkling costumes, the shouts of the audience. I saw the actor who plays Neighbours’ Karl Kennedy as Captain Hook one year, for goodness sake!
It was one of the very few times I felt like a real family with my dad, and I still get a nostalgic twinge of innocent joy when I see a live performance today. In fact, I went to the Hackney Empire panto a few years ago with my friend and we had the best night ever, while munching mince pies.
After speaking with my colleagues, this sense of family is exactly what ties us to our pantomime memories – and it’s what keeps bringing us back…
“We crammed into the local community centre to watch Dick Whittington”
Jazmin Kopotsha, deputy digital editor, says:
“One of my earliest memories is being at a pantomime with my grandparents at our local community centre. I think it was Dick Whittington but I can’t be sure, I just remember being surrounded by friends of friends and neighbours, crammed into this tiny hall, so overwhelmed by the pure joy and silliness and hearing the grown ups laugh at things I didn’t quite understand.”
“I’ve started to go again with my sister and her children”
Tom Gormer, photography and specials director, says:
“When I was little, going to the pantomime was A BIG DEAL. Every year, on the day after Boxing Day, me, my mum and my sister would go with our family friends to the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage. This was also the one day of the year we had McDonald’s.
“Pantomimes aren’t cool and don’t try to be cool. ALL the greats came to Stevenage, but having Barbara Windsor was HUGE. This was before EastEnders, but she was proper, proper famous. We also had Vera Duckworth’s son from Corrie one year!
“Now I’m older and my sister has children, we have started to go again. The jokes are still the same, but last year felt different… there was no live band and the cast seemed smaller and although the cast were brilliant, there was no ex soap star in a highly flammable outfit.
“But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Oh no I wouldn’t… “
“I’m tearing up thinking about the time I went with my Nanna”
Lucy Robson, SEO editor, says:
“I always went to pantomimes with my grandparents when I was younger, but there is one in particular that stands out, when I went to see Snow White with my beloved Nanna and my five-year-old cousin.It was absolutely hilarious and some of the jokes were so risque. We had such a laugh that day, and it was one of the most magical experiences because it was just the three of us.
“Now, my Nanna is no longer with us, but I will remember that day forever. She was just so funny and always such good company. I am tearing up just thinking about how special it was.”
“My sister and I wore plastic tiaras and scoffed bags of sweets”
Kayleigh Dray, digital editor at large, says:
“My sister and I always used to go to the panto at Guildford with my nan and granddad, as a special Christmas treat. They’d spoil us, as grandparents always do, by buying us a plastic tiara each to wear, a bag of sweets to scoff (no crinkly wrappers), and a light-up something to wave during key moments. We loved it.
“Of course, the tradition fell apart as we grew into older and sulkier teenagers, but I look back on those heady panto trips with such fondness. And, last year, my sis and I recreated the experience with a trip to Woking theatre – sans tiaras – and we loved it still.”
“It was pure, unbridled fun”
Felicity Thistlethwaite, executive digital editor, says:
“I remember it being pure, unbridled fun. For that short time as a tweenager, nothing mattered –I was lost in a sea of laughter with the rest of the audience.”
So, what can we do to help save pantomimes, and the theatre industry?
Earlier this month, Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, told MPs that Christmas shows were economically “vital” for theatres.
He said: “It is the time when theatres, being blunt, make the most profit, and that profit they need for the rest of the year to invest in everything they do and all the other types of productions.”