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Caught with their pantos down

It's that time of the year again.

Oh no it isn't!

Oh yes it is!

I hate the panto. Last year I went to three. The stories are always the same, the jokes are ancient, the dames are sexist - and the happy ending? Little Miss Pretty finds true fulfilment and lives happily ever after, married of course, in the arms of her princehero. (Pass the bucket.) Why are there rarely any black actors in panto? Are they too discerning to apply or does casting believe that the great British public can't accept "happy ever after" with a black prince?

And what about Snow White and her seven little friends? I don't want to drive smaller than average people on to the dole, but why don't they have equal opportunity to use their talents, skills and abilities in jobs other than being stereotyped as Grumpy, Sneezy and co?

Your local panto usually includes a soap star dimly remembered from the Eighties; a local radio station personality who by definition can't act; a woman in jerkin and tights who looks even more like a puppet than Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds; a comedian who makes his living telling sexist and racist jokes in clubs yet who magically transforms into a jolly, kiddy-loving dame; a wrestler, ex-boxer or someone who just is a personality for nothing in particular; and a shining-faced young person who sings and dances superbly, carries the show and is never heard of again.

Oh and there's the entire roll of the local stage school. (Their relatives boost the ticket sales so well.) Last year I was the member of the audience literally dragged on to the stage by an early 1970s heart-throb TV detective (now alias Dick Whittington), to perform a Gary Glitter impression in front of 600 people. The audience clapped and sang along, loving every minute - loving every minute of the fact that it wasn't them. Why did I sit on the end of Row B?

Anyone on the end of a row is known to be fair game, while anyone in the middle of the first few rows will enjoy that other panto wheeze, a good soaking with water-guns.

If that doesn't get your expensive new Christmas top, the traditional melted choc-ice will.

If you want to see any actual acting skills at Christmas, stick to the primary school play. They will probably have learned the lines and should be sober. But if you want to hiss and boo, cheer, stamp your feet and yell out about the ghost in the cupboard until you're hoarse, then the panto is the better choice. It's the cheapest stress release therapy available.

I haven't booked my tickets yet, but I can feel the urge coming on. It's a sort of safetynet for the anti-climax after Christmas - something to look forward to. Well, what's wrong with a little magic and a happy endingIand that nice chap that used to be in Brookside is in it this year.

Jean Maskell works for Liverpool education authority

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