Based on an old English Ballad (preserved in the British Museum) of 1595, it tells the story of two children, abandoned deep in the forest upon the orders of their Wicked Uncle.
First presented on the stage in 1793 as ”The Children In The Wood”, an Opera performed at the Haymarket Theatre. It was created by Dr. Samuel Arnold. In this version the children survived, and were restored to their parents, but other versions stuck to the more gloomy conclusion of the original ballad.
It was the subject of an operatic “Burletta” in 1812 at the Surrey Theatre.
They succumbed to the elements in “Harlequin and Cock Robin: or, The Babes In The Wood” at Drury Lane in 1827,in what was the first “pantomime” version, and again in 1856 at the Haymarket.
In 1867 the character of Robin Hood was introduced to the story. He rescued the babes from their fate, but this was not always the case. Covent Garden’s pantomime in 1874 kept the unhappy ending, and also saw their Wicked Uncle meeting his death. In modern versions the babes always survive their ordeal, and the evil uncle is unmasked.
The parts of the children have been interpreted in different ways-from small children to comedians. Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell appeared as “The Babes” at Drury Lane in 1897. More often the roles are taken by Juveniles, or actors who comfortably pass as juveniles to play “Boy Babe and Girl Babe”.
When their Father dies, two young children- their names vary from one version to another- are entrusted into the care of their Uncle (sometimes portrayed as a wicked Baron). The uncle is eager to acquire the fortune left to the children and knows that it will pass to him if the children should die.
He persuades two cronies (often called Good & Bad Robbers) to take the children deep into the woods and murder them.
One of the cronies relents at the last moment, and kills his companion. The children are left to their fate. In some versions they are looked after by a guardian Fairy. They eat wild berries to survive, and when they fall asleep the birds cover them over with leaves to keep them warm.
In the original ballad this was the ending- the Babes did not survive. In pantomime it is traditionally the end of Act One.
ROBIN HOOD and The Babes In The Wood
In later versions of the pantomime the Babes were discovered by Robin Hood and Maid Marion. The children are taken into their encampment in the forest and Marion often becomes their nurse. The Merry Men are often part of this story. The Story ends when the evil deeds of their uncle are revealed, and the children are restored.
The introduction of Robin Hood to the pantomime version became very popular- often the title became “Robin Hood and The Babes In The Wood”.
How exactly Robin Hood came to be connected to the story of “The Babes” is uncertain.
The character of Robin Hood had been the subject of his own pantomime since “Merry Sherwood” in the 1790’s. a very far fetched theory could be that, in the original ballad the Babes were discovered by a Robin (Redbreast)- the feathered type, and that by word association the name of Robin (Hood) came into play. Unlikely, but then so is Robin Hood’s appearance in their story!
He first appeared in the “Babes In The Wood” in 1867 at Covent Garden. Robin Hood and his Merry Men, all played by women, were joined by Maid Marion who became the Nurse to the babes.
Robin historically had lived two hundred years before the Babes In The Wood were born, but soon he became associated with their story in the world of pantomime.
Because the story-line of the babes themselves is quite thin, introducing a second story- one already known to children- was a sensible idea. Rather than wait until the beginning of Act Two for Robin to find the babes, the pantomime versions often started with part of the Robin Hood legend.
As late as 1888 The Times could still express surprise at Robin Hood’s connection with the Babes In The Wood, claiming the babes were “mixed up with the proceedings of Robin Hood and his merry men in Sherwood Forest, owing to the accidental circumstance, as it would seem, of Maid Marion having been engaged as their Governess”.
From the beginning of the pantomime often Maid Marion would be the companion, sometimes nurse to the babes. The character of the “wicked” Sheriff of Nottingham became involved- sometimes he was the Babes Uncle. From the very start a plot could be woven that included Robin Hood disguising himself to meet up with Maid Marion, giving an opportunity for traditional Principal Boy and Girl love duets.
The Merry Men made an imposing chorus, often including Friar Tuck, Alan a Dale and Will Scarlett. The Good and Bad Robbers would interact with the Sheriff, and one, or sometimes both would find they could not carry out the Wicked Uncle/Sheriffs grisly task.
The Fairy would appear and command the birds to cover the Babes with leaves, and by the opening of Act Two they would be guided to Robin Hoods encampment in Sherwood Forest.
Often Act Two involved a scene at Nottingham Goose Fair, and the famous archery scene- where the Sheriff would attempt to lure Robin into his castle by staging an archery competition.
By the end of the pantomime, the babes were returned to the castle, and the wicked uncle/Sheriff would be unmasked as the villain. The children would inherit their wealth and be looked after by Robin and Marion who might well marry at the end of the act.
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1907 - Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - Babes In The Wood
The original ballad “The Children In The Wood: or, the Norfolk Gentleman’s Last Will and Testament” was first recorded in 1595.
It tells of a wealthy widower from Watton in Norfolk, who left his two children in the care of his brother.
The children’s uncle then plotted their deaths. He employed two “ruffians strong” to take the children into nearby Wayland Wood.
“He bargained with two ruffians strong,
Who were of furious mood,
That they should take these children young
And slaye them in a wood”
Wayland Wood today stands alongside the A1075 East Dereham to Thetford road, and is owned by the Norfolk Naturalist’s trust.
One of the ruffians took pity on the babes, and instead murdered his companion before making off, on the pretence he was going to search for food.
The children survived for a time eating wild berries, but eventually died and a robin redbreast covered their bodies with leaves. This act refers to an ancient superstition that robins never suffer a dead body to remain unburied.
“In one another’s arms they died
Awanting due relief:
No burial this pretty pair
Of any man receives,
Till Robin redbreast piously
Did cover them with leaves”
Ill fortune then dogged the children’s uncle, with the death of his own sons, the loss of his farm and animals, and finally his own death in jail. The remaining murderer was condemned to death after his arrest for highway robbery and his confession to his part in the children’s deaths.
Griston Hall, where the wicked uncle of history lived, has ancient stone carvings that tell the tale of the children in the wood.
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The Pantomime Versions:
Dan Leno appeared as Boy Babe in “Babes In The Wood” at Drury Lane in 1897. In fact he started his career at Drury Lane in the same pantomime in 1888. In this early production he played the wicked Baroness. The pantomime’s full title was “Babes in the Wood and Robin Hood and his Merry Men and Harlequin who killed Cock Robin!”
In this version the “Babes” were played as comics by Herbert Campbell and Harry Nicholls. Hariette Vernon was a strapping Robin Hood. The Babes grew up during the second act, and were “leading an exciting and fashionable life about town!”
Leno was paid £28 a week for his first Drury Lane appearance, and, on the strength of his Baroness, was booked for the next three years.
In the 1888 Drury Lane “Babes In The Wood” the Griffith Brothers were the robbers, and Victor Stevens played The Baron.
Baron: You are two awful scoundrels?
Robbers: Right you are.
Baron: Your references?
First Robber: At ev’ry jail, for all kinds of offences.
Baron: And do you charge by time, or by the job?
First Robber: It all depends-
Second Robber: Are we to kill or rob?
Baron: Oh, just a murder- a mere ev’ryday one.
First Robber: Hum! Well, that kind of work don’t hardly pay one-
Second Robber: But seeing as it’s you- we’ve no objection
First Robber: And as we wish to work up a connection
Second Robber: And if it’s understood the gent intends to highly recommend us to his friends-
First Robber: Consider it settled.
Baron: Say no more! Your hands, my friends. Hurrah for crime and gore!
In the 1907 version at Drury Lane the two robbers handed over the babes to The Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, who intended to poison them with mushrooms. Managing to escape they met a family of Giants, were later imprisoned by rabbits, released by ferrets, and still managed to reach “Lollypop Land” where they became King and Queen!
In 1916 at the same theatre the babes escaped from the wood, and opened up their own Music Hall. The Baron and Baroness in this pantomime opened up a hairdressing salon, where they scalped their customers through incompetence- a scene similar to “The Exploding Hair Dryer” scenes to be found today in some versions of “Cinderella”, where one of the Ugly Sisters will be revealed as bald!
Drury Lane’s last pantomime was “Babes In The Wood” in 1938. It was produced by Tom Arnold.
In 1917 Wylie Tate produced “Babes In The Wood” at The Palace Manchester.
Their rosta of stars now included the husband and wife team of Dorothy Ward and Shaun Glenville, along with Wee Georgie Wood and Ernie Mayne. Again Lauri Wylie wrote the book (with Clifford Harris), and James Tate wrote the music.
Artistes in the Wood:
Over the years Babes In The Wood has appealed to pantomime artistes who found a special niche. Double Acts in particular have found the roles of Good and Bad Robber to suit their material.
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Jimmy Jewell & Ben Warriss appeared in“Babes In The Wood” at the London Palladium- later Jan Hunt (then called June Gaynor ) appeared with this Tom Arnold production as Girl Babe in the provinces. Jewel and Warris played Robbers many times in their career, as did Mike and Bernie Winters, Hope and Keen, Cannon & Ball, Little & Large, Gordon and Bunny Jay, and in earlier times The Hengler Brothers specialised as “robbers”. Sid James-from “Carry On” fame played robber several times in his pantomime career, and in recent times Geoffrey Hughes and Roy Hudd played these roles many times in Roy’s version of this pantomime.
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The role of Nurse appealed strongly to two comedians who, specialised in being “A fella in a frock”- always playing themselves- Arthur Askey and later Les Dawson. These two great comics played “Big Hearted Martha” and “Nurse Ada” respectively, and made the part their own.
The role was often played by the late Jack Tripp in Roy Hudd’s version, and was played by the artistes including Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan), Clarkeson Rose, Sonnie hale, John Inman at the London Palladium , and by Ossie Morris the Welsh comedian in his native Wales. Max Wall even played Dame Trott in “Babes”- at Bristol in 1953, and several ladies have played the role including Betty Jumel.
Roy Hudd, Keith Barron and Geoffrey Hughes - Babes in the Wood, Sadlers Wells
The Villainous Uncle- This role, whether Baron or Sheriff has appealed to the great Panto Villains. Previous incarnations have included Alan Curtis- at the Palladium in 1965, Keith Baron, John Nettles and, in a very unusual piece of casting “Monsewer” Eddie Gray, from Crazy Gang Fame in the 1940’s.
Among the heroic Robin Hood’s the list includes artistes like Patricia Burke, Adele Dixon, Eve Acott, John Hanson, Edmund Hockridge, Frank Ifield, Edward Woodward, Julie Rogers, Marty Webb, Ruth Madoc, Nigel Pivaro, Anne Nolan, Lisa Hull, Anne Sidney, Jonathan Kiley, Hilary O’Neil,
Maid Marions have included Eunice Gayson, Ruby Murray, Lulu, Cheryl Baker, Katie Budd, Bernadette Nolan, Lesley Ash, and Danniella Westbrook.
The Character Names:
The Principal Boy:
Robin Hood- Earl of Huntingdon.
The Principal Girl:
Maid Marion.- ward of the Sheriff or the Baron.. Sometimes Nurse or cousin to the babes . Sometimes Lady Marion Fitzwalter. Often spelled as Marian.
Often the Nurse to the Babes:
Nurse Glucose, Nurse Ada (Les Dawson) Nurse Gladys Glucose (Desmond Barrit), Nurse Ribena (Jack Tripp ‘90’s) Martha, Big Hearted Martha (Arthur Askey),Nurse Gertie (Freddie Lees) Nurse Tickle (Christopher Biggins),Nurse Gloria Goodbody, Nurse Bunty Biddle (Julian Orchard ), Dame Durdan,
Dame Trott , Dame Trot, Nurse Merryweather (‘50’s), Wilhelmina Whackster (Governess), Phyllis MacWhackington (1908), Dame Golightly,
Simple Simon, Jack Spratt, Marmaduke (The Squire’s Son), Simple Sammy, Sandy The Page (Sandy Powell),
Their names change with every production- there are no set traditional names.
Dorothy & Norman (1908), Eric & Phyllis, (‘20’s), Winnie & Bertie (1930’s), Ethel & Gussie, (Ethel Revnell & Gracie West 1940’s), Reggie & Cissie (‘50’s), Peter & Mary, Bobby & Betty, Peter & Jane, Paul & Pauline, Dickie & Daisy, Peter & Pauline (Palladium 1965) Jack & Jill, John & Jennifer.
Stopum & Copham,(‘30’s) Rob & Plunder, Jimmy & Harry (Jewel & Warriss 1950’s),Marmaduke & Horace (Jewel & Warriss), Horace & Herbert, Bill & Ben, Bubble & Squeak, Slippery Sam & Dangerous Dan, Sidney & Cecil, Percy & Cecil, Kind Heart & Pie Face, Cecil & Sebastian, Rudolph the Ruthless & Bertram The Bold, Smash & Grab, Daffy & Taffy (Wyn Calvin & Len Lowe), Hector & Les (Les Dawson & Hugo Myatt) Jasper Snatchem & Rodney Willoughby Fortesque (Bill Maynard & Derek Nimmo)Bob Over & Ben Dunder (Brian Freeman & Sid James Mike & Bernie (Mike & Bernie Winters ‘75),’Orful Onslow & ‘Orrible ‘Uddy (Geoffrey Hughes & Roy Hudd ‘90’s)
’Orful Onslow & ‘Orrible ‘Uddy (Geoffrey Hughes & Roy Hudd)
The Merry Men:
In keeping with the legends of Robin Hood they can include:
Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Mutch The Miller, Allan-a-Dale.
The Villain: “The Wicked Uncle”
In older productions he could be the Baron:
The Baron Swanker (1908-of Swankpot’s Manor), Baron de Rostonveg, Baron Humphrey, Baron Baddun, Baron Cul-de-Sac, Baron Stonehart, Baron Badheart, Squire Snatchall, Sir Diddlum Dumpling (Sheriff of Nottingham).
In more recent times- from the 1960’s, more often it is The Sheriff of Nottingham who becomes the Uncle of the Babes.
Queen Mab, Fairy Bluebell, Fairy Queen, Fairy Sunbeam, Lovelight (a good fairy 1908), Fairy Silverleaf, Fairy of the Leaves, The Forest Fairy, Fairy Moonbeam, Meadowsweet, The Snow Fairy.
King Richard I (The Lionheart).
Additional Characters have included:
Tilly (The Baron’s Maid), Marjory Daw (The Baron’s Maid), Nicholas (The Baron’s Page), Billy (The Page), Perks (The Page), Bonzo- The Babes’ Dog, Neddy The Donkey, Additional Merry Men included Will o’ the Willow, Ben the Bow. Tom the Tinker. Mythical characters have included Herne The Hunter, and Cock Robin, “The Merry Maidens”- Played by “The Roly Poly’s”, Mr. Blobby, & Falcon The Gladiator, (1995).
saw Vera Lynn join as “Special Guest Star” in the Tooting “Babes In The
Wood”, with Hal Monty and Sally Barnes, touring to Sutton and Woolwich.
THE PANTOMIME VERSION:
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The Pantomime versions differ from one production to another, but generally the story line is fairly consistent. This Pantomime has two stories in fact- almost two separate tales: that of the Babes In The Wood, and the Tale of Robin Hood.
They are joined together by the device of Robin Hood discovering the two babes in Sherwood forest, not generally for the first time, but certainly taking them under his protection, and in revealing the villainy of their Uncle, he also regains his rightful title as Earl Of Huntingdon by the end of the pantomime. The babes are safe-and wealthy- and Robin is no longer an outlaw by the final curtain.
In some panto versions the first entrance would be the Forest Fairy, setting out a little of the story. Hopefully she would fly across the stage and land- flying one fairy today is thought quite spectacular. In Victorian times almost the entire chorus would fly in “Babes In The Wood”- on stage AND in the auditorium at the end of the act!
The Village of Sherwood/The Town Square of Nottingham
1987 Palladium - Babes in the Wood
The Opening Scene would most likely be set in the village, or the town square. Colourful dancers- in some productions a Maypole dance, in others the villagers sell their wares.
The Characters are introduced. The plot would be set: The arrival of the two babes- boy and girl into the village. They are orphans, and to be looked after by their Uncle. In modern productions he would be the Sheriff of Nottingham. In older productions he would be the local Squire or Baron.
Into this scene we would meet the Lady Marion. Maid Marion is often the cousin of the babes, and in some older versions she would be employed as their nurse. Into this story line, when the Sheriff had met the babes for the first time, the details of their late Father’s will would be revealed. The babes would inherit their Father’s estate and wealth when they “come of Age”. The Sheriff is therefore their guardian.
From the Hilda Campbell-Russell Collection
However- should anything happen to the babes- if they should both die- Their Uncle would inherit everything! The plot is set. The babes are already in danger!
Out of sight of the Sheriff, a disguised Robin Hood would creep into the village to meet up with his sweetheart, Maid Marion. Robin Hood in pantomime has always had a strong singing role, and opportunities for rousing songs, ballads and love duets abound. Often Robin’s Merry Men would provide a chorus to many of his numbers.
Where there is a comic (often when the robbers are the established comedy duo there might NOT be another comic) the “Simple Simon” part would be introduced, and then the entrance of the Dame.
The Dame in modern versions would be the Nurse (not Marion), and in addition she would be the local school mistress. Comedy, songs and plot conclude the opening scene.
1987 Palladium - Babes in the Wood
A Road Nearby/The edge of the Forest
If The Good & Bad Robbers are the “top Turns” in the panto, they would have most certainly appeared in the opening scene. If not, they might well make a brief appearance with The Sheriff, when he discovers they are available for any “Dirty Doings Going On”.
Certainly in this front cloth scene the Robbers would establish their characters- one a bit of a bully, the other a bit of a simpleton- but clever with it!- and certainly both of them cowards. They set out their store to rob, pillage, maim and murder, and rapidly employ comic cross-talk and double act routines. In this frontcloth they would most likely meet the Sheriff, who will outline his plot. They will be employed to take the “sweet babes” deep into the forest, and kill them both.
The robbers might well encounter Maid Marion and the Babes at this point. The Dame and comic would most likely be involved in this front cloth scene. The Fairy would most likely make another appearance, to let the audience know she was looking out for the babes.
A traditional “Set Piece” in this pantomime. The School Room scene would normally open with the chorus and juveniles on stage. The set would contain benches, a teachers old fashioned lecturn, and, of course, a blackboard! This scene contains a lot of historical reference to Will Hay routines from variety and film, and from a “comic book” idea of a classroom- older than the Will Hay Comedies, it retains a very 1930’s atmosphere!
The curtain rises to mayhem. The “school children” misbehaving, and in a state of near riot. (perhaps that is the modern reference to daily classroom life today?). Into this chaos enters the Dame as School mistress. Traditional academic robe and square mortar board hat usually worn.
The class (and audience) are subjected to some very old but classic school room jokes. The class is silenced by the clanging of a school bell. The Dame may call the register- “Hands up those who are not here”. Invariable the Good and Bad Robber will have disguised themselves (badly) as school children in an attempt to kidnap the two babes. They will take part in a lot of the banter with the Dame, as will the comic “Simple Simon” if there is a comic.
Dame: “You’re late! Why are you late?”
Robber: “Sorry Miss. I saw this sign. It said “School. Slow Down”. So I did.
The Dame will order the Robbers/Comic to sit down. The “Trick Bench” will be put into good use. That involves a bench made in such a way that when one or two persons sit on the one end, the third person can sit down with no problem. The problem is, as he goes to sit, they rise, causing him to fall on the floor. This “business” is repeated several times, accompanied by loud crashing from the drummer in the pit. At some point the “victim” will realise, and the bench will be swapped around, but sadly he will still fall on the floor.
This behaviour would generally outrage the Dame, and punishment would follow. In past times the “Caning Business” would be an essential part of this routine. The Dame would administer a hearty “Whack”, the victim would sit down, fall off and the Dame’s “Slapstick” cane would be put to use again. Finally the Victim, or his tormentor would be summoned to the front.
Dame: “Bend Over!”
Comic: “I don’t know how Miss!”
Dame: “You don’t know HOW? Ridiculous boy.. Hold this cane.. I’ll show you.. now you bend over like this and….”
The gag is pretty obvious! However today you might find this scene missing. Political correctness has sometimes left more of a mark than “Six of The Best!”
The Comic will be summoned to the front for chewing gum.
Dame: “Hand it over- That’s chewing Gum. No chewing gum in class.”
Comic: “It s ‘not.
Dame: “I said hand over that chewing gum!”
Dame: “For the last time- hand it over!”
Comic: It’s Snot! (hands it over)
Dame: “Ugh! It IS Snot!”
There are dozens of set pieces to a school room scene. The counting routines on the blackboard, proving the teacher never works a day in her life, the hanging up of a school cap on a blackboard- the comic draws a hook, and hey-presto- he hangs his hat. Spelling routines, Question and answer routines-
Dame: “What is the shape of the world?”
Class: “Dunno Miss”
Dame: “Foolish children. Look I’ll help you out. What is the shape of my hat?”
Class: “Square Teacher”
Dame: “That’s the shape of the hat I wear on week days. What is the shape of the hat I wear on Sundays?
Class: “Round Teacher”
Dame: “Correct! So what is the shape of the world?”
Comic: “Square on weekdays, round on Sundays!”
During this scene the robbers may make a few attempts to kidnap the babes, but, under the watchful eye of Teacher, they will not succeed. The scene ends, as it started in chaos!
Frontcloth: A road in Nottingham
This scene might include an appearance by the Fairy, and an encounter between Robin Hood and Maid Marion. It might certainly include the Robbers in some further plotting with the Sheriff, and the chance of some comedy interludes between them.
Another “Set Piece” in “Babes In The Wood” is the Nursery Scene. Mainly involving the Dame and the babes. This would be a scene to feature the Dame preparing to go to bed. The traditional dame “Strip Routine” would probably be found here, with Nurse Glucose divesting herself of a multitude of garments, corsets and kitchen appliances!
The Babes might be brought to the nursery by Maid Marion (and possibly Robin Hood- although he would be in danger of being discovered inside the Sheriff’s Castle). It is likely the Dame would read the children a story, with many interruptions for requests for glasses of water.
Some versions might incorporate a “Haunted Bedroom” scene here, but more often that might be found in the second half, or set in a spooky part of the forest.
Finally the Dame might have a moment of “Pathos”, and sing the babes to sleep. As she tiptoes away she might whisper “Nighty-Nighty”, to which the babes would most definitely reply “Pajama-Pajama!”.
From the Hilda Campbell-Russell Collection
Not a title you’d be likely to read in the programme, but a very old panto joke that would find its way into the script somewhere! The plot might well continue with Marion arriving at Sherwood Forest to warn Robin and the Merry Men that she fears for the Babes safety, with the opportunity of a song involving the lovers and the outlaws.
The First Half Finale:
Pantomime plots vary from one production to another. In some versions there may well be a scene in the Palace Kitchens, with the Dame and the Comic. Often this will be the Dame’s last appearance before Act Two, as it is not really possible to involve the dame in the “murderous plot” that is about to unfold. There may be a further frontcloth. In some versions directly after the Babes fall asleep in their nursery, the “speciality” act is introduced under the pretext of “The Babes Dream”- this could be a toyland scene, a speciality involving puppets or U.V (Black Light) dancers and puppets, or- in some extreme cases- even a glimpse “Under The Sea!”.
Many pantomimes will conclude Act One with the essential plot- the Babes being taken into the Wood. In older versions this was certainly the case. However- the plot for the Babes themselves is thin. This is the reason the Robin Hood story was “tagged-on” in the 1880’s- and in some modern versions you might well find the babes do not get taken into the forest until a quarter way through act two.
1987 Palladium - Babes in the Wood
Deep In The Forest:
In our imaginary version, the Babes meet the Sheriff who promises them a special treat- they are to go with their “bodyguards”- the two robbers- into the woods to pick berries. (the same ruse used in both “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White”).
The Robbers take the two children into the woods, and are duty bound to kill them. One robber finds he cannot do this- the children are sent off stage, and they begin a fight,
Two of the finest exponents of “The Duelling Routine” were Hope and Keen. As Robbers they had perfected a brilliant and well executed routine involving their comedy duel. It was the highlight of any production they appeared in.
At the end of the duel, with both of them of one mind- they cannot kill the babes- they abandon the children to fend for themselves, and set back to Nottingham to report they have “Done the deed” to the Sheriff.
A set of illustrations by Rene Cloke taken from "Pantomime Stories" published by Ward, Lock & Co. Limited (London and Melbourne)
The babes wander until they are totally lost. At this point the Fairy will appear, and summon the birds to protect the children from the dark, cold night. As in the original ballad the birds will cover the sleeping children with leaves. Traditionally a flying ballet would take place. The Victorian productions often had dozens of chorus ladies flying across the stage, dressed as birds. In the auditorium a set of “Auditorium chorus” would swoop low over the heads of the audience at the same time. Showers of glittering leaves would be dropped on to the sleeping children.
Grand productions might reveal a waterfall effect in the woods. Possibly as the children slept the figure of Robin Hood might be seen crossing a bridge over “Curries Waterfall Effects” to discover the children as the curtain falls.
Today we would expect less flying- if any- but the use of all the lighting and “snow” effects to create a magical ending to act one. The tableaux of the “Babes In The Wood”.
Traditionally, whether the babes were abandoned at the end of Act One, or, if this plot does not occur until a few scenes into Act Two- the opening of Act Two is Nottingham Fair. Sometimes called “Nottingham Goose Fair”.
The Scene has the villagers enjoying a bank holiday at the fair, with Robin and his Merry Men attending in some form of disguise. The song and dance routine often centres around villages selling wares, stalls set up, and often a “floral” type dance.
This scene has as part of the plot to do with the Sheriff’s desire to capture Robin Hood. An archery contest has been arranged with a large prize. Robin attends in disguise, wins the competition by scoring a bulls eye on the target, and is nearly captured by the Sheriff.
The target has long been a complicated prop for the prop makers. A large circular target, often placed near the wing, it has one or more “flat” arrows flush against the surface of the target. These are painted to look like the target and are invisible to the eye.
When Robin fires his arrow there has to be some distraction. As he fires the chorus will shout and point at the target. The audience looks at the target, and hopefully does not witness Robin not actually firing his arrow. It vanishes into his cloak. Meanwhile behind the target a spring is released, and the “flat” disguised arrow flips up. This all happens in a few seconds, and appears as if Robin has shot an arrow across the stage and scored a bulls eye!
If the Babes have been rescued by Robin at the end of Act One- in some versions they are kept hidden in Robin’s hideout in the forest. In one or two versions they are returned to Nottingham (much to the displeasure of the Sheriff) and the Robbers are once again employed to kidnap them. In one version the Robbers pretend to be fairground magicians, and perform a trick. The Dame is placed into a “magic Cabinet”, vanishes and re-appears. They repeat this with the babes, and this time both robbers and Babes vanish.
The last section of the pantomime involves comedy front cloths with Dame, Robbers and comic. Often there will be a scene in the dungeons of the Sheriff’s Castle- possibly a “Ghost Gag”.
In other versions either Marion or Robin- or sometimes even both are imprisoned deep inside the castle, and the Merry Men help them to escape.
One thing is certain- whether the babes are abandoned at the end of the first half, or during the second half, Robin comes to the rescue. He will fight the Sheriff of Nottingham. In some versions he wins outright, in others he is tricked, and set for execution. The Sheriff has to be seen to be a villain by someone with more authority than he has.
From the Hilda Campbell-Russell Collection
Enter King Richard
In many versions the fate of Robin is hanging in the balance when unexpectedly King Richard (The Lionheart) returns from the Crusades. This part is usually doubled with a chorus man, or even a “merry Man”, as he only appears in the very last scene.
The King has entrusted his realm to the likes of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and upon his return the Sheriff’s villainy is revealed. He has raised taxes, stripped nobles of their titles, attempted to murder his wards, and now is disgraced and exiled by the King.
In the final scene Robin Hood kneels before King Richard, and has his former title- Earl Of Huntingdon restored. The Babes are put in the care of Robin and Marion, who announce they are to be married.
The Songsheet follows- if the Robbers were the “star Turns” they will lead this sing-a-long, having been pardoned: And the scene is set for the Royal Wedding, often in a Grand Hall of the Castle, or even within the walls of the Tower Of London.
The two tales of the Babes & Robin Hood come together at the end. They may not sit too comfortably together during the pantomime, but aided by the comedy of Dames and Robbers, the heroic deeds of the Principal Boy and the out and out villainy of the Sheriff, they make a jolly British Pantomime based not on Fairy Story, but on Fable.
Link to article from John Culme's Footlight Notes on Babes in the Wood
This page was last updated 21st July 2007