Cinderella Poster
Credit: slightlywinded

A Beginner's Guide to the Pantomime

Pantomimes: A Christmas Treat for all the Family

The Word 'Pantomime'

The word 'Pantomime', or 'Panto' as it is more commonly known, means simply a form of entertainment. It is an integral part of a family Christmas treat in Great Britain where performances are available in most towns and cities. The cast consists of either a bunch of local amateurs who perform in their village hall or a group of professionals, who perform in major towns and cities. The professionals include at least one celebrity who is either a well-known pop singer or a famous comedian.

The History of the Pantomime

The Pantomime or Panto was first performed in the Middle Ages. Today, it is a mixture of influences but it is mainly influenced by the 'Commedia dell' Arte, an Italian street entertainment that originated in the 16th Century. This street theatre used not only music and dance but acrobatics and comedy too and was performed in fairgrounds and market places. These touring companies were often made up of family members and they would pass down the stories, the costumes and the characters to their younger members who would continue the tradition. By the 17th Century the 'Commedia dell' Arte had travelled through France and had reached England. Performances now had to be mimed, apart from the singing, as the Italian troupes could not speak English.  But as the popularity of this style of performance grew, so too did the rivalry between theatres. This rivalry encouraged more and more theatres to perform in our own language and so the birth of the British Pantomime began.

Joseph Grimaldi

In 1800, Joseph Grimaldi performed in a pantomime for the first time. He took on the character of a clown, a character wearing huge shoes, a colourful costume, and most famously a painted face in bright make-up.

The Characters

The Panto Dame

Grimaldi went on to introduce the role of the Panto Dame who was a man dressed as a woman. This tradition is still an important part of today's pantomimes where the Dame is usually a flamboyant and large, comic figure. The Dame never takes on the role of a villain. The warm character is usually portrayed as an older man, unattractive and quite 'common'. 

The Ugly Sisters

These are also men dressed as women. They are villains but also have to portray a comic side to their characters. They have to gain sympathy from the audience one minute and the next, they are becoming villains, as in 'Cinderella' when they bully their prettier sister.

The Principal Boy

Traditionally, this character, like Aladdin or like Jack  in 'Jack and the Beanstalk', or Dick in 'Dick Whittington', was played by a female, certainly throughout the First and Second World Wars. It was a treat for the audience to see a girl wearing tightly fitting breeches  and knee-high leather boots. The part of the Principal Boy was being taken over by a man after the wars. In the late 1940's, Norman Wisdom took on the role of 'Aladdin', and he was followed by a host of pop stars like the famous Cliff Richard. Today, the ladies have regained the role. 

The Principal Girl

This part has always been played by a pretty girl who exudes innocence, like Snow White in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', although in the present day she is becoming a bit more assertive.This reflects how the pantomime follows the influences of social and cultural needs of the present day.

The Good and The Bad Characters

There is always a Fairy Queen and a Demon King in some form or another. The good character always enters the stage from the right and Evil always enters from the left. The villain enters first and he is followed by the good Fairy Queen.


Every pantomime will have an animal,  that is, two people [the front legs and the back legs] in a costume of an animal, usually a cow or a horse. 

The Chorus

Song and dance are important features of the panto and this is led by an invaluable group of people who are not featured as individuals but collectively add strength and depth to the performance.


Slapstick is derived from the device that was used in the original Commedia Dell' Arte performances. It is a wooden sword that was used sometimes as a weapon and at other times as a magic wand. It had a flap that was hinged so the user could create a loud slapping noise to enhance the effect that a rival was being hit. A member of the live orchestra today will perform sounds to simulate the slapping.

The Plot

It is a fairy tale in which good triumphs over evil. The evil is either over-powered or the bad character learns the error of his ways and bows to good. The theme is about the girl [ Principal Girl] finding the right man [Principal Boy] and keeping him. The Dame befriends the principal Girl and Principal Boy and is involved in all the good acts with them. At the end of the story the Dame is often associated with one of the parents of the principals. It's the most well-known 'happy ever after' story.

Audience Participation

Every pantomime insists on audience participation. As these performances are aimed at children they are encouraged to 'boo' when the villain enters the stage, warn the principal Boy when the villain is present, shouting, "He's behind you," and argue with the Ugly Sisters, shouting "Oh, no you're not", when they shout, "Oh, yes I am." The children love it and are encouraged to shout louder and louder. Sometimes the characters walk off stage and get closer to the audience, even inviting children to join them and take part in the panto back on stage.

The Future of the Pantomime.

The future seems secure. As long as there are children and Christmases there will be all kinds of pantomimes that will adapt and change to make sure that everyone in the family has a magical Christmas.



Snow White Poster
Painted Face of Panto Character
Credit: Steve Huison