Panto is alive and kicking

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Taking the children to the panto? No, no, don't groan. Traditional pantomime does, in some people, rather tend to curl the toes and shrink the testicles, and I have some sympathy with this view.

When ours were small we used to struggle through the three and a half hours of the local panto. The chief problem was that the costume department and the local school of dance were plainly on some kind of Class A substance, and could not be satisfied by merely contributing to the plot. So at random moments, just when you were trying to work out whether Abanazar was a man or a very basso profundo piano-mistress, there would be a wholly irrelevant 15-minute tap interlude with 76 grinning tots dressed up as cereal packets, or a harlequinade of dancing skeletons under UV light. One was uneasily aware during this prolonged torment that if the director had rashly tried to cut them short, someone from the Lucilla Battleaxe School of Dance would have cried "It's hammer time!" and led her tapping troops onstage anyway, to sweep Aladdin and his uncle into the dustbin of history with tinsel stars stuck up them.

And then, after the big choral wedding scene, just when you thought it was over, the damned Dames (never fewer than two, once three) would waddle back on stage and start calling children up to be questioned in a seamy manner about whether they had boyfriends and girlfriends yet. After the first of these horrors, my husband went on strike, and I continued heroically until the children were big enough to be taken on trains to proper cities to see proper plays.

Because that's the point: that's why panto remains necessary, for all its wearisome perversions and longueurs and hijackings by dumb celebrities who can't sing. It is children's theatre: so blatantly and obviously infantile that parents who would never normally take a child to anything but the cinema will, once a year, be lured across the threshold and expect their offspring to breathe the same air as the players, interact with them, and roar and cheer and laugh in a place where they know the cast will be glad of it. Theatre, even the most long-running mechanistic lollipop of a musical, is about sharing a real-time experience in a big room with real people.

Cinema, for all its glories, never gives you that. And even cinema is better than the television, because at least in the cinema your response is influenced by the movement and laughter and gasps and tension of living strangers, ranked all around you. Television doesn't ask anything of the audience; you can make tea or chat and the grinning figures on the screen don't know. Or, more importantly where children are concerned, you can cheer and wave and punch the air in appreciation, and the glassy little people in the box don't give a damn.

Live theatre is part of education, in the fullest sense of learning to be human. From prehistory, people have gathered round fires and under trees to have stories built up for them, by real people and in real time. It is only very recently that we cut this link with electrical wizardry. And we are still made of flesh and bones and bloody beating hearts, and the old visceral thrill of performance is necessary to us. Children perform for us and for one another with glee; even the financially and culturally poorest of them have a right to see how marvellously adults can perform and tell stories to one another with all their adult skills.

I have never forgotten the Coldfair Green school drama club outing to London to see David Holman's Whale: 50 Suffolk children, none of them yet 10 years old, invading the capital for the first time and swarming into two rows of the National Theatre to gasp and reach out to the flying raven and the sea-woman with her net of green hair. The joy was the simplicity of the set: everyone learnt that day that they too, with a couple of chairs and a net and a rope, could create a world and make the dull everyday world believe it. I hope that this winter's star attractions do the same for panto-escapers: you don't have to afford His Dark Materials at the National, for Jason and the Argonauts at Battersea Arts Centre sounds pretty damn good, and everywhere in the country there will be something for children who are past the panto stage. It is a duty to find it; if school hasn't done so, parents must.

But if there's only panto, so be it. It may be OK, it may be awful, it may be cheesy or inept or four hours long; but it's live. The liveness of it, the risk and thrill, is education, education, education. Oh yes it is!

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