Pantomime Perplexities

Tit-Bits 10th December, 1948

 Why Dame must be a man, and Principal Boy a Girl.

What on earth have the Bailiffs to do with a Fairy Queen?

With a wave from a magic wand two American comics have been transformed into Cinderella’s extremely English Ugly Sisters. They are still wondering just what hit them. When the curtain comes down on the last night of the run of “Cinderella” at the London Palladium, George and Bert Bernard will probably still be shaking their heads over the mysteries of English Pantomime.

For many a year the phrase, “It’s tradition” will crop up between the Bernard Brothers to denote the utterly inexplicable. For “It’s Tradition” has been the answer to all their perfectly reasonable questions.

For instance, “Why is the Dame a man? And the Principal Boy a Girl? Why does the Fairy Queen have to enter from one side of the stage, and the Demon King from the other? And why, oh why, when the management provides them with costumes worth £200 or more, do the Principal Girl and the Principal Boy have to provide their own silken tights?”

When they were first offered the engagement as the Ugly Sisters, the Bernard Brothers were asked if they knew the story of Cinderella. “Oh yes”, they said “We know the story. We had it as a ballet in the States. But it was all played straight. What is all this about broker’s men and comedy acts? We don’t get it!”

That was way back in the early autumn, when in the midst of preparing for the November Royal Command Performance, Val Parnell was putting the finishing touches to his anti-austerity production of “Cinderella” at the Palladium. “Our principle,” he told me, “is to stick closely to the original story- if we don’t, we soon hear about it from the children- but to interpolate as much lavishness and as many specialities as possible. We are going all out this year to recapture the glories of pantomime in its heyday at Drury Lane and the Lyceum, with big transformation scenes and a riot of gaiety and colour”.

Old Slapstick: New Gags

“The old slapstick comedy, of course, goes down as well with adults as with children and is an indispensable ingredient in family entertainment. Adults get double value- the fun of the show itself, plus the pleasure of watching the children enjoy themselves”

Pantomime planning begins around midsummer day and gradually works up to fever pitch during autumn and early winter. Once the story is chosen- and Cinderella leads in popularity, with Dick Whittington and Aladdin, and Puss-in-Boots as runners up – and a writer engaged to turn the old nursery classic into an up-to-date pantomime packed with topical gags and popular songs- the management starts on the hazardous task of trying to work out which famous stars are likely to be available at Christmas.

A play that starts badly and then picks up later can provide a terrific headache, leaving the pantomime producer wondering whether his Principal Boy is going to be free or not. And the demands of pantomime can even bring a successful run to an untimely end – like “Starlight Roof” which had to close, though it was playing to capacity, and well booked up, because all the principals were going into pantomime.

All the year round the talent scouts are combing concert parties and variety turns for likely pantomime material. Francis Laidler once estimated that he covered something like 30,000 miles a year travelling, but his discoveries amply repaid the effort. In an amateur production at Bradford he found Sydney Howard and promptly offered him his first professional part, in the Princes Theatre pantomime.

Then, round about September, all the song publishers begin to bombard the producer with their Christmas numbers. Having made his choice, he often has all his plans upset because a week before opening night, a new and hitherto unknown song sweeps the country- and just has to go into the show. Fortunately, where it goes is of secondary importance because absurdity is one of the most important ingredients of good pantomime. Barry Lupino has a story about a pantomime in which he appeared, which had a chorus dressed as Chinese dancing in a Dutch garden and singing “There’ll Always Be an England” – closely followed by a rendering of “Soldiers Of The Queen” by Harry Welchman!

Most Amazing “Curtain”

For sheer irrelevance, the dramatic moment just before the final curtain fell on “Cinderella” at the Lyceum in the 1920’s can seldom have been beaten. Walter and Frederick Melville, the brothers who put on the pantomimes at the Lyceum for twenty-eight years, had that year fallen out so badly that they were no longer on speaking terms and legal action was pending. Just before the curtain on this historic occasion, comedian George Jackley suddenly announced to the audience that the joint managers had been reconciled- whereapon the two brothers strode, smiling before the footlights, one from each side of the stage, and shook hands.

About the all important “mechanics” of pantomime, the experts are as reticent as magicians. The transformation of the pumpkin and the sudden appearance of Cinderella’s fairy coach through the fireplace are subjects they refuse to discuss, though they admit that the trickiest part of the show is the sudden change from a Cinderella in rags to an immaculate Cinderella, with the latest coiffure and perfectly dressed.

Be sure to watch the clock in the ballroom scene- its activities are a full time job for one man, because, as it was explained to me, stage time and Greenwich Mean Time bear no relation to one another. In other words, no matter how carefully rehearsed a scene is, it can never be timed to the exact second. That means that a clock that actually goes cannot be used. The only solution is a property clock skillfully managed- so skilfully that there is no danger of an enthusiastic youngster calling out “Your clock’s stopped, Cinders!”, or worse still “Look Daddy! The hands on the clock are moving too fast!”

Probably the first of the big stars to go into training for the Palladium “Cinderella” was Tommy Trinder. And training is the word. He has been putting in time with the Fulham Football Club as a kind of insurance policy against a recurrence of what happened to him in Birmingham during the pantomime run of 1938-39. On that occasion a football match was arranged between the professionals and the stage staff, with Evelyn Laye (then, as this year, playing with Tommy) kicking off and then tactfully disappearing. But it was more than a football match. It turned into nothing short of a man hunt, with Tommy being marked down by the two toughest and heaviest of the stage hands. "“hey pushed me around like a bit of scenery”, recalls Tommy.

Another incident of his pantomime career was when a large horse was introduced into “Cinderella”. No one quite knows why. It was a real giant, borrowed from the local brewery and at the dress rehearsal the beast missed its cue. Tommy, true to form went on improvising but still no sign of the horse. Nothing, in fact, but the hysterical neighing of a terrified animal, which eventually forced Tommy off the stage to investigate.

The horse was suspended in mid air in a hydraulic lift which had broken down under the animal’s weight- and had to be reassured for what seemed an eternity by soothing words from Tommy, until mechanics got the lift working again.

This year Tommy is more than relieved to find that the coach is to be drawn by nicely trained ponies from Maidstone zoo- moreover they are ponies who habitually give rides to children in the summer, so should be reliable in temperament and make themselves at home in this joyous environment.

In Trinder’s Dressing Room

They will probably find their way into Tommy’s dressing room before they’re through. Nearly everybody does and Tommy likes it that way. He collects such a host of friends that it closely resembles a crowded club room- a fact which once called down on Tommy’s head a reproof from the late George Black.

George Black had gone round to Tommy’s dressing room to talk business. He elbowed his way through the crowd and Tommy, in his despair, had to suggest that they had better talk outside in the corridor. Next morning Tommy received a letter from George Black saying “When you have a theatre of your own, you will find out that it isn’t a good thing to have all those people at the back”

Unabashed Tommy replied- “Dear Mr. Black, when I have a theatre of my own, I’ll be far too anxious about how many people there are in the front to care about those at the back!”

Teamed this year with one of the loveliest of all Prince Charmings – Evelyn Laye- and with Roma Beaumont who made such a success in “Perchance To Dream” – and the still baffled but imperturbable Bernard Brothers – Tommy Trinder is going to have the time of his life, playing to the audiences he loves and understands best of all – children.

And Grandpa will be enjoying it too, for the show is likely to bring back memories of the good old days of Dan Leno, Herbert Campbell and Queenie Leighton, who delighted him when as a small boy he was taken to the “Lane”.

“I’ve got to give my best to my future fans”, Trinder says. Meantime his present ones will be hunting around for young neices and nephews to provide an excuse for a trip to the pantomime. For that, like so much of the fantastic business of pantomime, is also traditional.

Roger Sandwell.

Tit Bits Friday 10th December, 1948.

This page was last updated 5th February 2003

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