Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto!

Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto.

I admit it: I look forward to the annual Christmas Pantomime every year. I had heard about them in old Christmas books, but of course had never been to one. We just don’t have these in the States. When I first came over to Ireland for Christmas , I was thrilled to hear that there were not one, but two different pantomimes held in Cork during December and January. Brilliant! At last!  I was psyched to go, but then was told “No way! The Pantos are for children. An adult can’t go… everyone would think you were a nutter!”  I was crushed.

"Alice in Wonderland" at the Cork Opera House last year.

“Alice in Wonderland” at the Cork Opera House last year.

Determined to see this Christmas tradition, it didn’t take me long to figure out I could invite my young niece and nephew. I could get to see my panto by using little Jack and Orla as camouflage! Twenty years later I still go to the panto every year. We pretend we’re taking the young ones, our Christmas present to our nieces and nephew (now four of them), but we all know they’re really chaperoning me.

The annual Christmas Pantomime is a hugely popular, eagerly attended part of the Christmas season throughout Ireland and the UK.  The Panto is a deliberately campy, over-the-top  stageshow that incorporates ham acting, singing and dancing, corny humor, men in drag, audience participation, topical references, and double entendres…  all aimed for children… but not-so-secretely loved by adults.  Picture a children’s theatre, crossed with a vaudeville music hall, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, MTV, and a touch of Jim Henson. A slice of old fashioned entertainment!

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

What are pantos? How did they begin? The Pantomime (which today  luckily has Nothing to do with Mime) is descended from the Harlequin and Columbina plays of the Commedia dell’arte dating back as far as the 16th Century. Simple sketch plays featuring stock characters depicting typical types of people, with bawdy humor, improvisation, and props: kind of a Punch & Judy Show with live actors.

London theatres in the 18th Century carried on this tradition, first as silent performances with only dancing and gestures (thus “pantomime”). Following nicely in the footsteps laid by the Medieval Mummer’s Plays associated especially with Twelfth Night, the Pantomimes quickly became a popular entertainment during the Christmas season. By the mid 19th Century the shows became more elaborate, with witty and topical dialogue, slapstick, and often spectacular and elaborate theatrical effects. The plots evolved from simple skits to a small repertoire based on nursery rhymes and folk tales. We’re talking twisted fairy tales here, with little resemblance and very little regard for the original tales.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

There is usually little or no reference to Christmas; the basic subject is adopted from a children’s story such as from Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & the Bean Stalk, Snow White or other such chestnut, and freely borrows characters and features from other tales, or invents wholly new bits you’ve never heard of nor dreamt. It is assumed that the audience is so familiar with the original story that there is little effort to develop the plot which is instead adapted for comic or satirical effect.*

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

The curtain rises. Enter the hero: “Hello boys and girls! I said HELLO BOYS AND GIRLS!!!”  and repeated yet again until the audience responds loud enough.

The mad performance follows a stereotyped routine with a love triangle that includes the hero and heroine, a comic lead played by a man in drag (the Panto Dame), an evil menace, a friendly godmother sort, and a lowly servant or other character who befriends the audience, is menaced by the villain and is besotted with the heroine. Every production includes a scary scene of dark menace, and a slapstick grand chase. And then there’s the famous banter with the audience. The Dame “recognizes” people in the audience:

“Is that Mary? Mary dear, you’re looking wonderful! In this light ye can’t tell you had Botox at all!”

And the audience does indeed participate, with the enthusiasm you would expect of children at Christmas. Not just booing and hissing the villain, or sympathizing “Ahhhhh” with the lowly friend. The cast will prompt the audience, but It’s just a formality… everyone knows the score.  The packed theatre will warn the hero (“Look behind you!”), and argue with the villain (“Oh no they don’t!” “Oh yes they do!” Oh no they don’t!”) You get the idea.

The brilliant cast of this year's panto at the Cork Opera House.

The brilliant cast of this year’s panto at the Cork Opera House.

I suspect most of the audience is there for the song and dance (including the dreaded audience participation bit at the end). The best of the panto for me is the topical humor. Beyond the winks and nods at pop culture, hit songs and celebrities, there are plenty of razor barbs aimed at politics and current events, and naughty double entendres galore. Clever and witty, these bits are played for the adults in the house, but still enjoyed by the children on their own level.

After all these years I’d hate to think of celebrating Christmas without this tradition. The first niece we took, Orla, is now an adult close to setting off for college; nephew Jack… well he’s as tall as the beanstalk, and little Amy and Rachel are growing as fast as they can. They all grow up too fast, and soon I fear will probably be too old for this tradition. On the other hand, so far even Orla still loves going to the Panto with us, and we’ve just gained a new nephew less than a year old… I think my Christmas celebrations are safe for years to come!

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Antiques on Film

We all see the world in our own way. Our senses and perceptions are unique, our thought processes idiosyncratic. In the end our differing tastes, interests and personalities are what makes life so beguiling.

My father-in-law was the Head of Mechanical Trades Department at the Cork Institute of Technology.   He lives, eats and breathes metals, fluxes, solder and welding arcs. When he watches a film or television program his attention without fail is caught by the metal object in the corner (“Stainless would’ve been much better for that!”), or grabbed when a character refers to a metal prop (“They could never use tin for that! They would have to use galvanized for it to stand a chance!”)

And woe the poor cinematographer who dared shoot a welding scene… “That’s rubbish! It’s the wrong flame altogether! They could never weld that iron at that temperature! Are you joking me?”  We all have memories from our youth of our parents and their favourite sayings: my wife and her siblings can’t glimpse a welder or cutter at work in a film without warning “Don’t look at the flame!!!”

As for me it’s antiques. My long suffering wife has sat at my side in theatres and sitting rooms for nearly two decades and listened to me admire that chair the murderer is sitting on, or gripe about the villain smoking a cigar near the old master oil painting, or tense over the callous nephew tossing the gravelly object onto the Pembroke table (“Watch the finish!”)

Sherlock Holmes Room II

Period bliss: Authenticity on display at The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street.

When the research is done right, the set design of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period. For example in most any Dickens or Holmes it is an eye-opener to see how a miscellany of Victorian clutter can suddenly make sense, and a visually striking design, when seen in the hesitant glow of oil lamps or gas sconces. It is inspirational to see Art Deco furniture and accessories set in their period architecture (a la Poirot). It is just as exciting to visit an Arts and Crafts suite as intended in a Craftsman’s house, or to nestle in a period Adirondack lodge.

On the other hand, when they get it wrong it is worth ringing down the curtain. Once you start to pay attention you may be shocked at the mistakes that are often made. The worst is when they can’t get the style right for the time period.  How can they possibly expect us to watch George Washington and General Knox discuss Dorchester Heights while seated on Regency chairs at an Eclectic Movement desk? I mean, what did we fight a revolution for anyway?

Films cast during the Middle Ages seem to  be especially bad … all those fantasy films with dungeons and dragons and knights in shining armour, set in these wonderfully atmospheric crofter’s cottages and stone towers. Ever notice how even peasants are typically shown in quarters crowded with furnishings? The reality was an oak table. Period.  Maybe a couple of joint stools. That’s the inventory. The whole medieval enchilada.  The wealthiest folk might, after many generations, have been able to save up for a press or dresser. But all these fully furnished rooms with richly carved cabinets, upholstered chairs, sumptuous bedsteads, heroic banquet tables and tapestries… only in King Arthur’s dreams!

Let’s jump ahead and follow Daniel Day Lewis or Mel Gibson into the Colonial Period. Now we’re talking.  Remember all those films where the redcoats couldn’t find the secret document hidden in the pewter smith’s carved mahogany library cabinets, or the frontier belle flirted in her father’s well-appointed ballroom, or in a dawn raid all this furniture would get pulled out of the pioneer’s cabin to be piled on a bonfire?  In reality these folk lived pretty as humbly as their ancestors did in the Middle Ages, although dressers, settles and a few other pieces were often on the scene by now. As for the rest I fear suspension of disbelief can only go so far, no matter how clever the plot!

Now you might think I’m taking this all a mite too seriously.  But consider:  Washington Irving borrowed and stole some folk lore here and there, moved it upstate of the Catskills and gave us the forever wonderful Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Then along comes Johnny Depp, the fog and mystery rolls into the 17th Century Hudson Valley, the suspense mounts, the Headless Horseman rises in his stirrups to dash his jack-o’lantern… and then our hero sits in a circa 1820 Windsor fan-back chair and gazes adoringly at his beloved nestled beneath her 1880s patchwork quilt. Now what can Christopher Walken possibly do to terrify us more than that?

Hollywood has got a lot to answer for, but in fairness they do occasionally get it right. When they do it is not only a sensuous pleasure, it can also be a stimulating lesson in history and the decorative arts. Come back next time and join me in a visit to Downton Abbey.