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'It's behind you': A brief history of pantomime

Theatre performers on stage
Pantomime performers on stage at the Carriageworks Theatre stage in Leeds | Image: LD Media UK /

Considered one of the most quintessentially British traditions, the pantomime is a must for thousands of families around the UK. Today we associate pantomimes with recognisable names from soap operas and talent shows taking to the stage for fun and laughter, but where did the tradition begin? Let’s explore where the pantomime came from and how it has developed into the spectacle, we all love today.

Commedia dell’Arte

Pantomime initially developed from an Italian theatrical discipline. In the 16th century, pantomime was born from commedia dell’arte, a Renaissance Italian street-theatre genre. Performances brought together laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy and a set of recognisable stock characters. Companies began touring their shows around Italy and France, performing at fairgrounds and telling the tale of their main characters. The character list included the clown Pierrot, old man Pantalone and Columbine, a girl who fell in love with a servant called Arlecchino. In some versions, Pantalone also had a servant known as Punchinello. This character is still seen in pantomime today as the puppet Mr Punch.

Performers would wear masks to make their characters immediately recognisable. It also meant the actors could make political jokes and satirical comments without being recognised. Commedia dell’arte toured across Europe, arriving in England several times. Performances were seen and written about by Moliere, Shakespeare and other playwrights of note in the period.

Commedia reaches England

By the late 17th century, commedia dell’arte characters were commonplace in English comedy dramas. The characters were so well-known it made natural sense to incorporate them in popular shows. John Rich, a leading theatre impresario, was the first to take these well-known characters to the English stage. He invented a genre of play known as Harlequinade which saw an acrobatic Harlequin clown take centre stage. The plots would follow a familiar pantomime route, with magic, slapstick and comedy chases. As the Harlequinades became more popular, more theatres wanted to create their version. Joseph Grimaldi’s Harlequin character became one of the most revered, theatrical and vibrant of all time.

By the Victoria era, a visit to the pantomime was an essential Christmas event for those who could afford it. Famous names from the variety world would take to the stage to sing, dance and deliver topical comedy.

The father of modern pantomime

Augustus Harris is one of the most legendary figures in West End history and he became popularly known as the ‘father of modern pantomime.’ He encouraged the most extravagant of shows to be produced and stoked competition in the British theatre world. He took over the lease of the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane and it became home to spectacular annual pantomimes that ran all year from Easter to Christmas. Harris wrote many famed pantomimes including Little Red Riding Hood and Little Bo-Peep. Lavish scenery and over-the-top characters lay at the heart of Harris’ work.

The future of pantomime

Pantomime remains endlessly popular and beloved by audiences because it strives to remain current. The latest pantomimes, like those before them, are peppered with culture-driven jokes and political satire relevant to the current day. Pantomime evolves with society and this is what makes it so fun and so popular. You won’t see those traditional commedia dell’arte characters anymore but the essence of their ideas, slapstick and fun remains.

Top Panto Facts You May Now Know

Here are just a few interesting panto facts you may not have known before now:

1. Evil comes from the left

The villain of the piece in any pantomime will always enter from stage left. All good pantomimes have a dastardly villain thrown into the mix and traditional pantomime custom means they must enter from the left. This links back directly to the ancient concept that the left signals hell and all things evil.

2. Popular beyond Britain

We associate pantomime with Britain and many people outside of the UK find our obsession with the over-the-top show a little strange. However, it has grown in popularity in other countries including New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Furthermore, countries like Jamaica have their twist on the classic panto with their pantos combining the traditions we know and love with local Anansi folklore.

3. Don’t miss the “slosh scene”

The messy madness in the middle of the pantomime has a technical name. Whether pelted with sweets or squirted with water pistols, it’s a favourite for younger family members and is known in the business as “the slosh scene”. Characters get cream pies in the face and audience members may get more than a little messy themselves too.

4. Pantos were originally silent

Could you imagine your favourite pantomime without any words or music? It seems almost impossible when the noisiness of the show is one of the best things. However, before the Theatres Act in 1843 - apart from those performed in patent or licensed theatres - consisted of miming and dancing. Spoken word performances became popular from this time onwards and the puns and innuendos we all love became an integral part of the show.