The Xmas Pantomime is a peculiar British tradition that is used to introduce children to the theatre, or in my case used to put them off it and instead start a lifelong clown phobia. I don’t think the panto exists in many other parts of the world, but I thought I'd celebrate one aspect of the art form that hasn't been lauded much: the ITV Xmas panto series.
I'd guess every country has an annual Xmas tv tradition, which usually involves watching depressing non-seasonal things such as It's a Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz. But in Britain, for a small and content group of people (some of them even being the children the programs were made for), Xmas only really starts when the nightly ITV panto series appears. This year they're on every night this week on ITV 27 or some such minor channel at around 6pm.
Four feature length shows were made around ten years ago featuring the stories of Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington and Cinderella. They stared what were then the top echelon of British comedy talent. Sadly, as all the new tv comedy made in the last ten years has been completely devoid of talent and laughs, they probably still remain the cream of British comedy. They were written by Simon Nye back in the days when he could still write funny sitcoms and he provided a perfect mixture of comedy, story and a well-judged use of the more enjoyable traditions of pantomime. Nearly all the scenes work on two levels, providing custard-pie throwing slapstick to entertain the adults while still providing plenty of risqué double-entendres to keep the children giggling.
In truth they do go downhill with the earlier ones being the best, so the first, Jack and the Beanstalk, is my favourite. Jack is played by Neil Morrissey as essentially Tony from Men Behaving Badly, Ade Edmondson as Dame Dolly is Eddie Hitler in a dress, and Julian Clary camps it up with every possible variation on 'he's coming up behind you'. The humour works from knowing what's not being said because the audience is children. So when Denise Van Outen as Jill asks Jack what he's thinking, Jack will pause for just long enough to let us know he's wondering if she's a natural blond (the best line from Men Behaving Badly) before providing a more appropriate answer. And you know Dolly is only just resisting the urge to whip out a chainsaw and saw Baron Wasteland's legs off. It even captures Julie Walters at a time when she was funny, features the cult figure Peter Serafinowicz and makes good use of Paul Merton's droll delivery as the narrator.
Second up was Cinderella, in which the rudeness was sadly reduced, but which was probably the more accomplished panto. Paul Merton and Ronnie Corbett are the ugly sisters providing traditional old-fashioned comic routines while Frank Skinner is surprisingly good as Buttons, especially as at the time his comic persona involved very adult material. Samantha Janus as Cinderella for once manages to avoid being irritating and, as it was filmed around the time she was involved in the fondly-remembered comedy Game On, her timing is excellent. The only sour notes are provided by Alexander Armstrong, a smug comedian whose popularity escapes me, as a charmless Prince Charming and one-trick pony Harry Hill who makes no concessions to the format as he trundles out his dreary 'comic' monologues.
Those two shows provide excellent entertainment, but the goodwill isn't maintained for the final two shows, which run out of steam quickly. Aladdin is messy, with the other half of the Men Behaving Badly team Martin Clunes not working as well as Neil did and Ed Byrne as Aladdin seeming unsure what pantomine is all about. But Julian Clary and Paul Merton are again excellent and anything with Leslie Phillips in it can never be all bad. The final show Dick Whittington is a chore to sit through and I don’t think I've ever managed it all in one session. By now the comedy had been purged of all risky innuendo for fear of complaints to OFCOM, and instead inexplicably popular kiddie pop stars of the time appeared. Sadly what makes it fall completely flat is James Fleet. His stiff but gormless aristocrat role that worked so well in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Vicar of Dibley fails on stage and just comes over as, well, stiff and gormless.
Despite the diminishing returns, the shows are small and perfectly formed Xmas tv fare. Ten years on, they're still ideal for those times when you have a mince pie in hand, a port in the other, and your expectations are low, especially if you haven’t got any children who can take you out to see a live pantomime!