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Theatre performers on stage

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

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.

Aladdin is showing at the Hackney Empire this Christmas
The genie's lamp from Aladdin, a popular Christmas pantomime which is showing at the Hackney Empire

Christmas pantomimes to watch in 2023

Every year there are amazing pantomimes to watch up and down the UK and this year here are a few you won’t want to miss.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Legends of the Scottish panto scene have come together for a fantastic interpretation of Snow White in Glasgow. Elaine C Smith and Johnny Mac are true veterans of the panto scene and they’ll be taking over the King’s Theatre until early January.

Peter Pan at the London Palladium

The London Palladium always put on a hugely impressive pantomime and this year is no different. The core cast of Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot, and Nigel Havers are back but they’ll be joined by comedy superstar Jennifer Saunders to make the show even more memorable.

The Little Mermaid at Scarborough Spa

This one isn’t for the family, it’s a strictly adult affair and features many recognisable faces from Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The Little Mermaid is saucy, NSFW and led by an all-star drag queen cast including Divina De Campo and Choriza May.

Aladdin at the Hackney Empire

The Hackney Empire is home to one of the most revered dames in the whole of pantomime. Clive Rowe is back in his legendary position as the queen of all the dames, Widow Twankey, and this year they’re putting on a performance of Aladdin, running until December 31st.

The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan at Darlington Hippodrome

Some people are made for pantomime and Christopher Biggins is one of them. While he did once claim he was giving up panto for good, it certainly isn’t happening this year, and you’ll find him as Mrs Smee in the Darlington Hippodrome production of Peter Pan. Rikki Jay, Steve Arnott, and Peter Peverley will perform alongside Biggins.

Hansel and Gretel at Shakespeare’s Globe

Rewritten in a unique and enchanting style by poet laureate Simon Armitage, Hansel and Gretel has been transformed into a new and engaging fairy tale bringing magic to audiences of all ages. In Armitage’s reimagination, Hansel and Gretel are seeking a safer life and there’s music and magic along the way.

Jack and the Beanstalk at the Manchester Opera House

TV favourite and well-known West End star, Jason Manford is in the leading role of Jack in Manchester’s Jack and the Beanstalk. Manford will be joined by Ben Nickless, Myra Dubois, and Emma Williams on stage as they retell the classic fairy tale with a glorious panto twist. Catch the show before 31st December.

Cinderella at the New Wimbledon Theatre

Giving wicked dames a new lease of life, Craig Revel Horwood is back in his starring role of the Wicked Stepmother in the New Wimbledon Theatre’s production of Cinderella. Pete Firman and Alison Jiear perform alongside the wicked dame for a show described as the “fairy godmother of all pantos”.

Dick Whittington at the Richmond Theatre

TV’s Paul Merton is not the most typical of pantomime dames but he’s giving it a shot and proving a huge success in the Richmond Theatre’s production of Dick Whittington. The classic panto story comes to life with Merton as Sarah the Cook and it’s on until 7th January so there’s plenty of time to see the show.

Peter Pan at Resorts World Arena, Birmingham

A panto in an arena is an unusual concept but with a star-studded cast and one of the most popular panto stories to play with, the Resorts World Arena definitely pulls it off. Boy George leads the cast with others on stage including Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Dorit Kemsley and comic Jordan Conway. The show is running until 24th December so don’t miss out.