Outlandish costumes, double entendres, ugly sisters, men in drag, custard-pie-throwing, celebrity turns and boo-hiss audience participation are all part of today’s classic Christmas panto.
They owe much to the enterprising Victorians’ love of spectacle. By the late 19th century the most extravagant pantomime productions at the largest London theatres could last up to five hours and featured clever stage tricks, stunning costumes and huge casts.
Today’s pantos derive from various sources: Dick Whittington was based on the life of a real mayor of London who died in 1423.
The 1862 panto version by the prolific pantomime author J Byron featured Dick being chased by a villain in a hot-air balloon – the year two English balloonists, Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher, made the news for breaking the altitude record in a balloon (from the Stafford Road Gasworks in Wolverhampton, almost a panto story in itself).
Sarah Wyatt has dealt in performing arts ephemera for 30 years and will be at the Ephemera Society’s winter fair in London on Sunday, December 3, with some of her stock of panto playbills priced from £10-175.
“I enjoy finding the historical aspect of items as they reflect so well the times in which the performances took place,” she said.
“I recently had a playbill from 1829 which referred to the newly-formed Metropolitan Police; and a 1910 programme for a Dick Whittington pantomime in which Sally the Cook was a suffragette.
“I like hunting down an obscure reference to discover new facts about the past, some new relevance, knowing that this is something which will hopefully excite one of my customers and fill a gap in their collection.”