Christmas cheer (and boo, hiss)

As the curtain rises on Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Aladdin et al, Miranda Fettes finds out what people like best about panto

The japing world of pantomimes is sweeping the nation, from Shetland to Stranraer, with multiple appearances by all sorts of politically incorrect heroes and villains, numerous men in tights, ladies in breeches, bulky dames with deep voices, pets dressed in human attire and, of course, the pantomime cows, horses and camels.

"Pantomime is an essential part of the Scottish Christmas theatre season,"

says a spokeswoman for the Scottish Arts Council.

"While some have negative perceptions of it, panto can be unique, well produced and well considered. Pantos are not only tremendous entertainment, but are also a way to introduce children to the joys of live theatre."

At Dalry Primary in Edinburgh, everyone was treated to Sleeping Beauty by MM Productions, performed in the school.

"We decided to bring the pantomime to them for those that wouldn't be able to afford to go to the theatre," says the headteacher, David Fleming.

"In a multicultural Scotland, it's not in the culture of lots of nationalities in the community to go to the pantomime. We've got 30-odd nationalities."

P7 pupil Matthew Browne grins. "It was funny. I liked some of the songs they sang.

"Before it started, the actress that played Aurora came out and started dancing. Everyone started dancing.

"There was a newt and it came in pretending to be on a motorbike to the Crazy Frog ringtone.

"Billy, the king's jester, fell on his bum."

It was a frog, not a newt, interjects his classmate, Gaynor Crilly. "She said 'My name's Froggy'," she reasons.

"It was really funny. They were acting as if they were enjoying it. We got their autographs after."

Bethany Holman agrees it was a frog. "It was green, it had glasses and it had a big head.

"This was the first pantomime that made me want to shout yes and no."

Matthew remains convinced the character was a newt, saying it introduced itself as Somebody Newt. But whether it was a frog or a newt, the children have more to disagree about, namely, last year's panto.

"It was Rumpelstiltskin," announces Gaynor.

"No, it was The Comic Crew. And there was an alien and a robot and the alien started hitting on the teacher, Miss Cooper," says Matthew.

A quick look at his files and Mr Fleming establishes that it was in fact The Hunchback of Notre Dame. "I think lots of things are merging into one in their memories," he chuckles.

In Kilmarnock, the Palace Theatre and Wish Productions are presenting Jack and the Beanstalk (until December 31). The whole of Annanhill Primary went on the same day, with 420 children almost filling the theatre.

"I liked the pantomime because it lasted a really long time and when we got back it was lunchtime," says one P2 child.

"I liked the jokes," says another. "Tamara? Don't wait for Tamara, Tamara never comes."

"It was better than being in school." "It was real live people," say some other 6-year-olds. "It was funny. The Mum was a man and Jack was a girl."

One child "liked the dancing vegetables best". Another says: "My favourite bit was when all the adults got hit on the head with the Mum's aeroplane wings." But the best bit, according to one pupil, was "when the teachers all got soaked and my teacher screamed".

"I liked being able to yell and scream and boo at the baddy," says a classmate, adding: "I wasn't scared."

It was not just the children who had fun. Teacher Margaret Weir found herself envied by a few of her friends. "Lucky you," they said. "A morning at the pantomime and you call it work?"

But she had her reply: "An audience of over 400 excited children were entertained with jokes, music and drama. They listened, watched, cheered and clapped. They shouted, wriggled, sang and laughed. Work? Oh yes it was!"

At Glasgow's King's Theatre, panto veterans Gerard Kelly and Jonathan Watson lead the cast of Cinderella (until January 14). Fiona Ross, of Bearsden in East Dunbartonshire, took her three children and husband to see it.

"We haven't missed a King's panto for the last five years," she says. "I think it starts off Christmas each year and the kids always enjoy it."

Her son, Harry, who is in P3 at Bearsden Primary, says: "I really liked that new mum (the Wicked Stepmother). I liked the flashing lights. They were all going different colours.

"It was quite funny when Buttons was crying because he was only joking. The two Ugly Sisters were funny. They had really funny costumes and different hairdos."

His sister Emma, an S1 pupil at Bearsden Academy, says Buttons and the Fairy Godmother were funny, adding: "The dancers were really good."

In Inverness, despite temporary closure of the Eden Court Theatre for development, the company is staging Sinbad in a heated big top in Northern Meeting Park (until January 7). "We may not have a theatre, but the show must go on!" says a spokeswoman.

"As the largest family event taking place each year in the Highlands, attracting an audience of 36,000, we knew we would need to find a very big venue. Searches proved fruitless, until it was decided that if there wasn't a suitable venue we would have to provide our own."

Actor Arron Usher, 27, is one of the dozens of pantomime stalwarts up and down the country who choose to return every Christmas to a chorus of children's heckles of "Boo, hiss!" and "It's behind you!"

"Christmas is simply the best time of the year to be an actor and appearing in pantomime is like no other job," says Usher, who is playing Wishee Washee in Aladdin at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh (until December 31).

"While it might look easy, it really is hard work. You have to be on the ball constantly because if the kids don't like what you're doing, they will let you know.

"It's great to see the excitement on the kids' faces as they interact with the characters. That's very rewarding, but can also be a nightmare.

"During the first panto I ever did, the sweetie bag burst during the sweetie shower and the kids in the front two rows invaded the stage, scrabbling around for treats. Then the show went on.

"Looking back, that's all part of the magic of panto."

If you get a kick from heckling, the peculiar traditions of the beloved British panto are apparently here to stay. A Radio Times poll last year revealed Cinderella as the nation's favourite panto, followed by Aladdin, with Snow White and Jack and the Beanstalk in joint third place. The nation's lesser favourites are Babes in the Wood in ninth place, which elbows shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe into 10th place.

The Ugly Sisters top the poll as the nation's favourite pantomime dames, closely followed by Aladdin's formidable mother, Widow Twanky, while Cinderella's evil stepmother is outshone as the public's favourite pantomime baddie by the menacing Captain Hook.

We boo and hiss but we love him really (though you may have something to say about that).

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