Children's theatre: time to kill off panto

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
I would abolish pantomime. No, I'm not dyspeptic with a critic's hangover, from an over-indulgence in "Behind you!" and "Oh, yes you are!". Oh no, I'm not; it's because I'm a children's theatre buff.

Ask yourself this question: why is it that we, with our outstanding tradition and reputation for adult theatre, fail so miserably in our theatre for children? Why is it that our writers, directors and actors very soon get the message that children's theatre is mere child's play, something to do while you are looking for a proper job?

It comes as a shock, every time, when our theatre workers see what happens, and has been happening for a very long time, in other countries. Even in Stalin's Soviet Union, children's theatre was a recognised art form, and its proponents could make a respected, life-long career developing their craft.

Nearer home, the Scottish Arts Council will give you Denmark for a model, with about 70 youth and children's theatre companies, tackling "serious" plays for young people, with well-paid actors, working in good conditions.About six months ago, the Danish government opened a new theatre school for practitioners in youth and children's theatre, with its own 250-seat theatre and facilities.

All that is limelight years away from what we have. Compare it with TAG, our best-established theatre for young people. Over the years, its artistic directors have moved away (or should I say "on"?) to adult theatre, to the Edinburgh Lyceum, the Traverse, and to Newcastle. How soon will it be before the incumbent Tony Graham has to go the same way?

TAG actors are typically short-contract employees. Small wonder when you see their working conditions, of short rehearsal periods in rented rooms, and a tour of two schools a day, meeting the minibus early enough in the morning to drive 50 miles and put the set up before the 9.30am start.

One TAG director told me that his worst moment came after the dress rehearsal when he had to say, "Well done! Good luck! And here's your P45s."

If I had to explain the difference between ourselves and the Danes, I would point to the fact that Denmark does not have pantomime. How the Harlequinade and the music hall collided to produce this hybrid entertainment I leave to theatre historians, but we are stuck with it and, traditionalists that we are, we cherish this blight in the bud of our children's theatre.

Pantomime is the most ludicrous paradox of the theatre's year. For 11 months, theatres work hard at developing their youth work. In the 12th, when schools beat a path to their door, clamouring for admission, they feel compelled to serve them the traditional old soup, beautifully warmed up.

Whatever the soup is called, it will generally have a grossly misunderstood, maltreated young person, a set of hostile or indifferent adults and an affectionate, dependent animal, generally furry.

There will be fear totems - ghouls, spiders and witches - to scream at in complete security, and a benign extra-terrestrial to make it right in the end.

In case you thought it was damaging enough to a young audience (and maybe their parents) to serve up a familiar story with stereotypes for characters, and remove any sense of suspense or real involvement with the story or characters, there is worse news. This theatrical philistinism is invasive.

Opera, as we all know, gets a bad popular press. Overweight, overpaid and over here, we are told. Groups like Scottish Opera for All spend all their time fighting such prejudice. In one Glasgow pantomime this Christmas, the Prince says "I hate opera" (so Dandini goes in his place); a few miles away, another pantomime character is complaining about the price of opera tickets (obviously a matter of great concern in playgrounds all over the city).

So this anti-cultural indoctrination begins, in the corrupting tradition of pantomime. And with it the mindless racism of funny names for Chinese policemen, jokes about bald-headed men, and homosexuality, all of which have been purveyed to our children in these weeks.

Happily, traditions evolve, despite the widespread belief to the contrary in Hawick. Around Scotland, pantomime is slowly changing. Stuart Paterson is bringing a genuine playwright's skill to scripting folk tales like The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; Bob Black abandoned cross-dressing in this year's Cinderella at the Glasgow King's. The Wizard of Oz, much more of a children's theatre show, had a run at the Citizens and the Dundee Rep.

I get impatient with evolution. I would, as I say, abolish pantomime, and replace it with children's theatre. I've been watching panto for 50 years, and still enjoy it.

I shall always be grateful that pantomime gave me the chance to see that most hilarious of stage acts, Wilson, Keppel and Betty in the 1940s. Pantomime has a venerable tradition, like the House of Lords, and winter, but that shouldn't distract us from the fact that there is something much better.

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