Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A serious treatise on the English mythological interactive folk drama tradition

Oh no it isn't.

If Colin Baker is singing “Let's Do The Time Warp Again” (*), in green make-up, accompanied by a large amount of white smoke, a dozen pre-teen dancing girls (dressed as devils) and two adult ballet dancers, then it follows that either

a: You are reading a more than usually dubious piece of slash fiction or

b: You are attending Bath Theater Royal's annual production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Poor Colin. We're half way through the second act before there's any hint that he might have once appeared in a TV show which the kids would have heard of. Eventually, when he needs to bash down the door to the giant's castle, he whips out his sonic screwdriver. When that doesn't work, he hands someone his sonic mallet. (“When I nod my head, you hit it.”) Time was he wouldn't have been allowed on the stage until someone had gone through the “Knock knock?” “Who''s there?” “Doctor...” routine.

He is playing the giant's evil henchdemon, and therefore has to exchange rhyming couplets with the good fairy. His performance is every bit as subtle and nuanced as the the one gave in "Doctor Who" i.e not. But he relishes every corny line. “Did you find the gypsies' camp?” “No: as a matter of fact I found them rather butch.” Before the inevitable, luvvie-ish appeal on behalf of the Variety Club of Great Britain, he assures us that we've been “the best Saturday night audience we've had all week!”

How to describe a pantomime to a person who has never seen one? You know the sophisticated Italian commedia d'ell arte, where skilled mimes wittily improvise stock characters in traditional situations? We'll, it's nothing like that. A Christmas entertainment for children “of all ages” they must, at some time in pre-history, have been lavish dramatizations of fairy tales. But a Dawkinsian process of copying and re-copying means that you can no longer quite see the shape of the original story. Does the fairy tale lack a stock character? Then one can be invented: Jack the giant killer has acquired an idiot brother called Simple Simon, and is followed up the beanstalk by a pompous king who has fallen in love with his mother, Dame Trott. (Chris Harris has been playing dames in Bristol and Bath pantos for as long as anyone can remember. It's him, not the minor show business personalities, who's the evening's main draw.) The Dame is so poor that she must sell the cow. Cue a slapstick routine in which the cow refuses to be milked, tries to sit on the milking stool, apparently makes rude smells and finally provides a litre of semi-skimmed in a plastic carton. (“Why are you waving that milk in front of your face?” “It's past your eyes milk.”) Jack takes the cow to market; no-one will buy it. Cue several credit crunch jokes. The cow is too dirty to sell. Cue a song and dance cow-washing routine.

Lewis Bradley – Jack – came third on a reality / talent show called “Any Dream Will Do”: I suppose this makes him minor royalty. He's actually rather good. But it's a safe bet that when he was ritually intoning “I want this...I want this so badly” to Andrew Lloyd Weber, singing “I am a moo-cow cleaner” to the tune of “I Yam A Zider Drinker” wasn't precisely what had in mind.

But still, the general structure of the tale can't be deviated from. A peddler must swap Daisy for some magic beans. (The peddler is Colin, which would make no sense in terms of the story if anyone were actually following it.) As surely as night follows day, Jack's mum must throw the beans in the garden, and Jack must climb the beanstalk.
The castle at the top of the stalk turns out to be inhabited, not only by a giant but also by various ghosties and ghoulies. Jack doesn't want to be caught by the ghosties. His brother doesn't want to be caught by the....“We try that joke every single year” says the Dame.

I don't think pantos were quite so scatological when I was small. ("There's a stool coming" says Simon, before fetching something to sit on while milking the cow.) I don't think that a Dame, while dressed as a Viking (you had to be there) would have done quite such filthy things with her horn.
But the topical references are perennial. In the end, the giant falls from the beanstalk and is killed, and everyone celebrates. “And even better news – he's fallen on Trowbridge!”

I am not saying I would like to go every night. As a matter of fact, I am not saying that I would like to go every year. But there is something unquestionably joyful about watching adults behaving like silly kids for two hours. (Also watching the actual kids: the little ones who think that yelling “behind you!” at the ghosties is actually going to make some kind of difference; the slightly bigger ones who are too cool for this kind of thing but still laugh at the poo jokes.) I'd forgotten how genuinely funny a perfectly timed pie-in-the-face routine can be.

(*)It's the hippy shake that really drives you insane. Apparently.


  1. Panto! Brilliant timing; I'd all but forgotten, and now I have a ticket for tomorrow night :-) I'll let you have a serious critique if I survive nearly three hours of John Barrowman in tights...

    Never been to a panto. Strangely, i appear to be going on my own- everyone else seemed to have more pressing engagements in front of the Simpsons.

  2. Is he playing the principal boy or the dame?


  3. He's playing Robin Hood, which is such a horrific mix of the various memes in my head that it may well explode. It's a risk I shall just have to take.

  4. I was about to say "Robin Hood is usually a straight part".

    I decided not to.

  5. Did they really substitute "hippy shake" for "pelvic thrusts"? The traditional version was good enough for my parents - it's political correctness gone mad, I say!

  6. Sounds a lot better than the one I saw in Swindon this year with the faded EastEnder from Extras in it.

    It did have a quite impressive 3d animated genie, but that was the only thing going for it. Not a double entendre in the whole play.

    I think 5 year old niece enjoyed it.

  7. Yeah: there was probably some crazy idea that Colin Baker doing pelvic thrusts at ten year old dancing girls was in poor taste.

    The Bristol / Bath panto's are very traditional, Mr. Harris is clearly an Actor with a capital Act who cares about the Panto Tradition. I believe that there is a large company that literally "manufactures" the big showbizzy ones and ships them out to regional theaters.

    Changing words is part of the game. Last time I went (about five years ago) Jack spent the Act 1 finale wondering if there was really a giant beanstalk in his garden or if he had, in fact, imagined it; fearing that he might meet a terrible death in the giants castle; and reluctantly saying goodbye to the Dame. To the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody. ("Is this a beanstalk? Is this just fantasy? ") T

  8. Pardon me, but has your old website gone away?
    It is really to bad if it has, there was good stuff there.

  9. Try the Wayback Machine by clicking this link.

  10. Argh. I see that link doesn't really work. It appeared to work, but most of the sub-links which lead to actual articles get a "Missing from Archive" error. It is possible to get to those pages with the Wayback Machine, but much more difficult than I was counting on. Anybody have a mirror?

  11. Back from Robin Hood panto. It was very very entertaining (mainly, I must confess, because it was playing the slash notverysub-text for all it was worth- "Is this your first time in handcuffs, Robin?")

    But there was Paul Zerdin who is an excellent ventriloquist, and Titan the Robot who may or may not have a person inside but is impressive either way, and ice dancers, and a beautifully camp (not that it can be done any other way) rendition of "Knights of the Round Table", and a moderate sprinkling of Doctor Who jokes and not too much scatalogical humour, and a pantomine elephant, and Don McLean in a succession of unlikely costumes (I guess he can do dames in his sleep by now) and Pete Gallagher as a satisfyingly evil Sheriff. But mostly there was John Barrowman dressed in sequined tights and ice-skating backwards while bellowing out "I Will Always Love You" as if his life depended on it. That's three minutes of my life to treasure.

    And he's even easier on the eye in the flesh. They were having a ball with the whole "Robin Hood may love Maid Marian, but JB has other ideas " thing.

    There's got to be a fic, I'm afraid. One can't ignore the calling of that sort of muse...

  12. Oh, and the first Tardis joke came about 2 minutes in...

  13. You can get most of the stuff from the old website by using the Wayback Machine to go the even older adress:


  14. Theo, yes, that's how I get there, but the problem is that the pages aren't labelled, so it's not friendly to navigate. By the by, since Theo's address doesn't show up as complete on my browser, it's this.

  15. The August 27th, 2006 page seems to have all working links.

  16. In response to several people's question ...

    I have a complete achive of Andrew's original site, aslan.demon.co.uk, taken after he'd stopped posting new stuff to it. I often read it when I feel the need to remind myself whether or not Balrogs have wings.

    I've emailed Andrew to ask his permission to put it up somewhere public, which I think would be great; but I've not heard back from him, and I won't make it available until I do, in case he has plans to use some of the material commercially (and also because, well, it would be bad manners).

    Fingers crossed.

  17. Hi, adoring public!

    Much of my old stuff is on http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/writing.html (arcived by subject, with a view to looking impressive to publishers / employers: and thanks again to people who wrote the "puffs" I have quoted.) (*)

    I am looking into whether I can get the old web-page up there as a kind of memorial to itself; if that doesn't look feasible I'll be taking Mike up on his kind offer.

    I am very...chuffed...that people still want to read the old stuff. Really.

    (*) I must add the quote from Jezuk which is possibly the second best thing (**) anyone has ever said about my writing: "Mr Rilstone goes on longer than strictly necessary."

    (**) The best thing was the link the 6 essays on the Star Wars written straight after "Clones" with the single comment: "Possibly taking it all a bit too seriously."

  18. Continuing to provide a public service: here is an actual link. (Sure, copy and paste works just fine on this one, but a link never comes amiss.)

    By the by, while I think your "Open Letter to the Controller of BBC 1" is one of the best things anybody has ever written about Doctor Who (I often quote it without realizing I'm quoting it), but I do want to correct a couple of factual errors. 1) Robert Holmes did not write The Three Doctors. Bob Baker and Dave Martin did. 2) The Time Lords were not a deus ex machina to end The War Games. The main story line of The War Games was over before the Doctor called in the Time Lords. Any number of devices could have been used to return the soldiers back to Earth. (For one thing, the "limited life span" of the War Chief's time travel machines played no role in the story except to create the problem that the Doctor needs the Time Lords to solve.) Rather, the Time Lords were a device used to exile the Doctor to Earth and were tacked onto The War Games for that purpose. As for The War Games being "dreadful" and "rambling," well, you're entitled to your opinion, I suppose. I think the first nine episodes hold up remarkably well so long as you're watching it for the story and enjoying the mystery rather than just waiting around for the Time Lords to show up. (I may, however, be one of the only modern fans who didn't know how it was going to end the first time I watched it. Maybe it's not possible to recapture the magic of viewing it for the first time unless you've actually had that experience.)

  19. 3. It wasn't the Klingons Kirk was bluffing with Corbomite.

    I'm not sure I've actually read that particular piece before, I don't know how I missed it. But now I doff my metaphorical hat to it.

  20. He does use it on the Romulans in "The Deadly Years" as well as on Balok in "The Corbomite Maneuver" though.