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Study of pantomime reveals stage secrets

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: January 03, 2013

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PANTO season may be in full swing at theatres in Exeter and around the country.

But despite being part of England's cultural heritage, the theatrical form has received limited analytical study or academic attention until recently.

Now the University of Exeter's Professor of Theatre History Kate Newey is leading a major project on the history and practice of pantomime, which she believes has been overlooked due to the widely-held misapprehension that panto is essentially lightweight and frivolous.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is funding A Cultural History of English Pantomime, 1837-1901 – a joint research project with Professor Jeffery Richards from Lancaster University.

Victorian pantomime was similar to the style and representation found in modern-day performances, with an emphasis on knockabout humour and the comic panto dame, such as Dan Leno, a famous music hall performer.

According to research, Leno's popularity would be similar to that of soap opera actors or reality show stars who attract audiences today. Another way theatre managers encouraged audiences into their particular show was to highlight the special effects.

Professor Newey said: "Panto would generate considerable profit and would often subsidise the theatre for the rest of the year. Victorian theatre managers would try to get the latest inventions for special effects into the show to attract the largest audience.

"This drove the motivation for invention and industrial innovation in stage machinery. The commercial impact of pantomime was responsible for this explosion of technological advancement in the theatre."

Research also shows theatre managers were concerned about the mention of party politics. In the 19th century laws were enforced on plays and pantomimes.

However, it was possible to offer a subversive take on topics otherwise banned in "legitimate" theatre. Nelson Lee, a Victorian performer and writer for East End theatres in London, wrote more than 200 pantos in 25 years, using fairyland and fairies to comment on social issues such as the Poor Law.

Controversially, a panto in the East End touched on the issue of transatlantic sailing safety. A dispute between ship owners and sailors intensified as numerous sailors drowned when a ship capsized due to the regular practice of overloading, which brought the advent of the Plimsoll Line, a safety procedure.

The Hoxton Theatre panto created a scene in which ghosts of sailors were shown, illustrating issues of the day.

Professor Newey suggested the equivalent today would be if the panto commented on the current cuts to benefits and welfare or MPs' abuse of expenses.

She added: "Panto is humorous, and yet it was able to contain hard-hitting political satire on the likely issues which people would have been talking about at the time. Panto was often anti-authority and seen as a safety valve for local popular opinion."

And while today ballet is often considered a rather highbrow art form, it was first introduced to mass audiences within a fairyland pantomime setting.

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