Behind the scenes in a pantomime
Things that the audience does not see-and hear!
By Dorothy Ward
(the famous pantomime star)
Popular Music Weekly, January 29th, 1924

Here we are again! As they say in the harlequinade, and pantomime is with us. I wonder do people pause to consider how pantomimes come into being. Those anxious moments that lead up to the ultimate production: the constant rehearsal: the cutting out of some songs and the putting in of others. And every song that is to be sung has to be rehearsed.

Songs play a tremendous part in pantomime, as no doubt most of you know. It would be a very poor pantomime indeed that did not depend partly on the big musical hits for its success.

Songs are chosen for “panto” with the greatest possible care. Eleventh hour successes are put in, and older numbers have to give precedence to the new ones, for success is the thing, and no principal boy can sing her way to triumph unless she has the right song to do it with.

I have seen pantomimes ruined through a bad choice of songs of the year. In some cases, when those pantomimes possessed “stars” of merit who were included in the production, the show has failed because of the poorness of the songs. I am not saying, of course, that the songs are everything, but they are of tremendous importance.

 Whilst I am talking to readers of this paper, I would like to reply to some of those people who would like to see “Bluebeard”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Dick Whittington and his cat”, “The Babes in the Wood”, “Cinderella”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Humpty Dumpty”, “The Forty Thieves” and “Puss In Boots” give place to fairy plays adapted from Hans Andersen, Maeterlinck, or the legendary fairy stories of Scandinavia.

They want to see, in other words, the old British pantomime done away with. Of course, their view is absurd, because there is all the difference between a pantomime and a fairy play. To my mind, children are more thoroughly amused by a pantomime that is not too high-brow than a fairy play where the music is difficult to understand and the characters so symbolical that the childish mind cannot comprehend the real meaning of them.

And here comes another point: How on earth could you get into the fairy plays that some people advocate those popular songs that make ordinary pantomime so successful? All over England pantomimes are in full swing. How many fairy plays could exist and play before large audiences? I have always loved the old pantomime ideas, but, of course, there is one pantomime I shall always like in preference to others.

I refer to “Jack and the Beanstalk”. For it was in “Jack and the Beanstalk” that I first got my chance as principal boy. It was something of an ordeal. I had always hoped to be principal boy in a big London production, and you can just imagine how nervous I  felt when at last that ambition was realised.

I never felt so nervous in my life!

I was sure that I would stutter and break down, and – well, you know, do just the very things that I had not the slightest intention of doing. Just like Auntie when she recites! Actually, I did none of those things. I think it was the kiddies across the footlights that helped to inspire me.

Pantomime is not without its amusing side. I shall never forget as a child being told a story by an old player who was present when a pantomime fell absolutely flat. The producer was listening gloomily to the cries of disfavour that came from the audience.

“It is hard to tell just what the public wants”, he murmured gloomily.  

“It’s easy enough to tell in this case”, came the reply from the manager. “They want their money back!”

People who write pantomimes are often jealous of their work. I remember on one occasion when one of the players in a pantomime departed somewhat from the “book”. This rather horrified the author of the pantomime, who was present at the rehearsal.

“My dear laddie”, he said, swaggering over to the comedian who had committed this dire fault, “be good enough not to “gag”, please. Speak my lines and wait for the laugh”.

“All right”, said the comedian sorrowfully: “Only my last train goes at midnight !”

If people realised the pains that are taken with a pantomime I feel sure they would be filled with amazement. I know, for my part, that sometimes twelve months beforehand the first preparations are made. Before the curtain falls on one “panto” the plans for the next are well ahead. The story has to be chosen, the ballets conceived, and often a girl who is playing a small part one year may the next year be snapped up to play a very big one, the contract being actually signed the year before.

In London there are schools of dancing devoted to training girls for pantomime, and it is the duty of the interested party in the pantomime to draw the raw material from these girls and make it into the perfect article for the great day.

I am giving you a comprehensive view of the whole thing because I know how interested you must be in something that has become so justly popular that it is an annual event. As I write, looking backwards, I can see other days, other players – the great ones in whose steps I am endeavouring to tread.

Somehow I never venture on to the boards at pantomime time without seeing the shadows come from the “wings”, and into the empty theatre at times the forgotten laughter hangs like an incense. It is not so with other plays. Why is it so with pantomime?

The answer is quite easy. Small and great alike have played in pantomime. It is the direct descendant of the good old days.

There is a romance and a seeming fitness about it that is so peculiarly British. Not too clever to appeal only to a limited class, but so generous that children and grown-ups can laugh together, and a happy memory can be implanted in the mind and retained in after years.

Miss Dorothy Ward is now appearing as principal boy in “Mother Goose” at the Olympic Theatre, Liverpool. January 1924.

See also
Dorothy Ward and Shaun Glenville - A Pantomime Partnership

Dorothy Ward

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