Why Covid-19 has stolen the Christmas pantomime cheer – Aidan Smith

Covid has stolen Christmas. The traditional theatrical entertainment of the season is collapsing to the floor faster than a beanstalk, faster than a dame’s bloomers. And as a former rear-end of a pantomime horse, I’m devastated

Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Scott – Edinburgh’s very own panto legends – in Snow White at the King’s Theatre

This wasn’t a school larkabout or am-dram with the spinster sub-postmistress as the principal girl but a proper professional production. Oh no it wasn’t? Oh yes it was. The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 1994-5, Babes in the Wood. The names above the title? Cannon and – why yes – Ball.

There will be no panto at the King’s this Christmas, or at many other venues in many other towns. In the midst of lockdown we all thought life would be back to normal by then, but pantos are a law unto themselves and a special case. The collective noun for them – a pundemic – tells you that.

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Right now, the Edinburgh Festival can present at least some of its many aspects to empty venues so we can watch socially distanced on a screen and, as I did at the weekend, marvel at the poise and control of the dancers and other performers, all in their own space and lost in the art of the moment.

Panto stars are never lost in the art of the moment. They are always in each other’s spaces and faces – close combat with custard pies. We, the audience, are essential to the plot, such as there is one.

Who else is going to holler the time-honoured warning of impending doom? Who else is going to groan at the terrible jokes? Who else is going to indulge the soap opera dependable who turns to us and grumbles about how he could have been a contender, could have been in Hollywood hanging out with J-Lo and Scarlett, only instead he’s stuck doing this rubbish? Glorious rubbish, though – just not this year. When the UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden says pantomime “represents huge transmission risk” I know exactly what he means. I’m thinking back to the pantos before my searing, epoch-making role when I was a junior spectator, scrabbling under the seats of the King’s with my pals for Liquorice Allsorts and Soor Plooms which had been dropped in the general mayhem. A sweetie was a sweetie and we did not regard secondary chewing as any kind of risk.

I’m remembering auditoriums rocking with laughter and sneezing, everyone packed in tight, a mass of joy and germs, kids chasing each other up the aisles, grannies waving brollies at them, damp duffle coats being dropped from the make-believe WWII Lancaster hovering in the upper circle.

But this scene – Hogarth would paint it, or the Beano artist responsible for the fights, limbs jutting out of a dust-cloud – is definitely what we must now call pre-Covid. Dowden may not want to come over like the Wicked Witch. Of a possible reprieve for pantos he says: “If we can do it, we will – but it looks challenging.” It looks grim. It looks like a great big smack on the backside for the nation and off to bed with no supper.

This is a tragedy for theatres – crummy jokes cracked in winter-time subsidise lyrical soliloquies recited during the rest of the year. And it’s particularly tragic for Scottish venues like the King’s because our pantomime scene seems more authentic with more time-served troupers and fewer telly fly-by-nights; in other words more performers who really care about the traditions and cherish the craft.

So you’ve been dragooned into a boyband or girl-group by a karaoke svengali in high-waisted trousers and a slashed-to-navel shirt – that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to cut it in panto. “As seen on TV” is not a recommendation in itself. There’s method in the madness of panto. Falling into the orchestra pit and making out it’s a dank well is not as easy as falling off a log. Tight is the slipper and heavy the crown on the panto star: can you send ’em home happy? When the children, and the big kids, spill onto the pavements does the mica in them twinkle like stars even when all covered in slush?

Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott have been banging out the King’s panto forever, possibly longer. None of them has ever appeared on The X Factor. In the manner of good faces for radio, they’ve got good bods for panto. Jokes as old as the Pentland Hills are mashed up with topical titters. It works brilliantly.

A few years ago Gray was deliciously indiscreet about some of his “crowbarred-in” co-stars in pantos past. They included “that bloody harrumphing hound from the insurance ads” – Churchill – and another dog act. “This was Ward Allen and Roger,” he told me. “We asked the guy: ‘How long do you do?’ ‘Oh, just five minutes.’ He was on for bloody three-quarters of an hour. We were screaming at him from the wings to get off. By the time he did we’d lost the kids.”

Another year Gray was cast as Rolf Harris’ mother. “He was 60, I was 32. Incredibly we never met on stage, not a single crossover. He was only there to sing Two Little Boys and Jake the Peg. Just crowbarred in.”

Know your audience – our triumvirate do. Previously the King’s panto was “bought in” and, just up from England, the set might still have been draped in the Cross of St George. If this was the case back in ’94-’95 then I didn’t notice, on account of being jammed up alongside the assistant stage manager clad in heavy synthetic fur, all for a story for my newspaper. I do not think I made a horse’s backside of the role but as my accomplice farted – doubtless an old panto custom for debutants – I cannot be certain.

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