Pantomime and Brexit

It’s a golden rule of panto that nobody can be excluded from its fuzzy embrace. Nobody gets to sit on the outside of the auditorium community looking in. When the clown enjoins everyone to stand up to sing the song sheet at the end of the show, he’s not satisfied to let Uncle Barry stay seated with his arms folded upon his chest, and will single him out for censure if he fails to execute the hand gestures with the requisite enthusiasm. Even the Manicheism of the formal plotting is abandoned in the final scene, when the baddies that we have been booing for two hours are persuaded to throw off their cloak of evil, and become good – a move that is invariably rewarded with the Dame’s hand in marriage. One thing that the pantomime form strives for above all others is inclusion. Creating that sense of belonging is the business of all comedy of course – when we laugh together, we reaffirm both our own identities and our commitment one to another – to the group. “Above all else, comedy is an invitation to belong” observes Andy Medhurst. But he goes on to point out, that belonging is only ever contingent. It, and the group it creates, are merely a temporary refuge:

Comedy’s consoling fantasy is that however difficult life might be, however much forces way beyond your control try to rip you into pieces, there can still be moments where – right here, right now – you can join those who are like you in a celebratory rite of communal recognition.[1]

Medhurst reminds us of the fact that identities – both those of the individual and of the group – are not fixed. They are constantly being reformed, shifted, reimagined and reaffirmed. So the belonging that pantomime trades in is one that is partly produced within the theatre space itself. It is no accident that the clown, on his first entrance, asks, “Do you want to be in my gang?” and the audience bawls “YES!” That initial contract establishes the sense of belonging on which the whole panto depends, and any panto production worth its salt doesn’t stint on the work it takes to ensure that absolutely everyone is signed up. “Whenever I come on I’ll shout ‘Hello Kids’, and you shout ‘HELLO WISHY’, OK?… Shall we practice?” But of course the kids don’t shout loud enough the first time, and the whole operation is repeated twice more. The Dame and the Principal Boy might also make similar contracts of their own, with their own catchphrases, not to mention a range of other devices scattered throughout the show to make the audience vocalise their membership of the group. If this all makes the pantomime sound a bit like joining the Moonies – well, it sort of is a bit like that. Unless you’re prepared to sign up to these contracts at the start of the show, there’s not a lot of chance that you’re going to enjoy what follows.[2]

There are further complications to achieving that sense of belonging of course. As soon as you define a group identity, you also define its boundaries. Medhurst quotes Stuart Hall’s observation that identities are:

…the product of the marking of difference and exclusion… Throughout their career, identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside’, abject.[3]

In other words, as well as laughing together within our group, we can also laugh at those who are outside the group. Laughing at is just as powerful a way of creating a feeling of belonging to the group as laughing together. But laughing at is a pretty nasty activity, and it’s one that really goes against all the inclusiveness that pantomime strives to attain. The baddie is a brilliant solution to this dilemma of course. They are excluded from the group, at loggerheads with all of the principle characters and thus a legitimate target for our scornful laughter. Yet they are also part of the world of the panto, and so have a right to reply. We boo and hiss the baddie, but they goad us into doing so, revelling in our hatred, daring us to continue and jeering us on before then performing a brilliant song or routine to wild applause and laughter. As their volte face at the end of the show suggests, the baddie’s outsider status is both defined by and a product of the group identity of pantomime as a whole. There’s no better expression of this symbiotic relationship than the ‘oh no it isn’t… oh yes it is’ exchange, which ends when the baddie reverses the terms by speaking the audiences’ line back to them, forcing the audience to speak the baddie’s lines, collapsing the difference between them and dissolving the house (and the routine) in laughter.

Pantomimes find other categories of class, location and identity to laugh at which help define the group within the theatre, although again, they tend to be categories that avoid isolating groups sitting within the auditorium. In Norwich’s Aladdin, Abanazar the baddie announced that he came from ‘somewhere dark and desolate.’ ‘Oh really?’ responded the clown, ‘King’s Lynn?’ Local football rivalries also provide conveniently schematic objects of ire – rarely does a Newcastle panto fail to offer a gag against Sunderland, or a Norwich panto miss an opportunity to make fun of Ipswich. Rival pantomimes, too, are fair game. In Eastbourne King Rat threatened to send Dick Whittington to a torture chamber… and then gave him tickets to see Honey G in Sleeping Beauty at Hastings. In a meta moment during the slosh scene in Stirling, the dame and clown ruminated on how the scene was holding up the plot…. ‘but there IS no plot!’ ‘Well, there’s been no plot in the panto at the King’s Edinburgh for twenty years, and they get away with it!’ Local politics, bureaucracy and popular TV culture offer other targets for ‘harmless’ mockery. Eastbourne wasn’t the only panto where Honey G was mocked in the year of her X Factor fame. The Kardashians are often parodied as the ugly sisters in Cinderella – obsessed with consumer culture, their own beauty and their selfie-celebrity. Parking charges in any given town offer another perennial. The long-delayed Edinburgh tram scheme became a running gag at the Edinburgh panto over the decade of its construction, with the Dame summoning a mythical tram down from the sky like Vic & Bob’s ‘Dove from Above’. For their Peter Pan in 2013 (at the height of the recession) the King’s Edinburgh poked fun at the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and local MP Alistair Darling, casting him as the banker patriarch, presiding over a posh home in the New Town and allowing many gags about his social pretentions.

Reinforcing group belonging through repeated ritual utterances; gently mocking outsiders or members of different groups; pricking the pretentions of the vain and the powerful; expressing frustration at shared circumstances which are beyond our control… One might be forgiven for expecting pantomime to be the natural home of political satire. It is not. Even in Grimaldi’s day, pantomime rejected this register of political comment. Writing of the pantomimes of the early 1800s (the period of George III’s reign and the Prince Regency), David Mayer notes that:

Pantomime arrangers freely satirized transient fashions, new inventions, and topics of fleeting interest, but satirical treatment of national politics, royal misconduct, and religion… was almost non-existent. However abnormal political conditions may have been, the pantomime did not acknowledge the fact. In its treatment of the monarchy and the activities of Parliament, it suggested a climate of stability and contentment that history assures us is false… As political pressure became more acute, the pantomime retreated towards escapism. Only rarely did managers and arrangers… allow pantomime to reflect the political turbulence of the period. Only infrequently did the pantomime present a climate of opinion or specific issues, and then both the opinions and the conditions that provoked them were obliquely presented, more implied than explicit.[4]

Mayer argues that this lack of pointed political satire can be explained by the stringent political censorship that the theatre was subject to in this period. Examiners of the  Lord Chamberlain’s office read every script and had the right to demand cuts or refuse a licence altogether.

No such strictures control modern pantomimes, and yet they similarly display little interest in political satire. I would argue that this is down to the characteristic that I’ve already discussed above, viz the importance of including all audience members in the group dynamics of the show. Conservative or Labour, Green or Lib Dem, Monarchist or Republican, believer or atheist, nobody must feel left out, or singled out in a show that is essentially about the entertainment of children. Or such was the case until 2016.

I’m sure you can see where this is heading. The Brexit vote in 2016, and the shenanigans that have followed it, surely constitute ‘abnormal political conditions’. The division of the country into Brexiteers and Remainers, cutting across traditional party political allegiances, and gradually polarising into hardened ‘no deal’ and ‘revoke’ camps which refuse compromise of any sort, constitutes a shift in the body politic of the nation which presents a real challenge to pantomime’s rhetoric of togetherness and inclusivity. The dominance of this single issue across the entirety of political and cultural life over the past four years means that pantomime cannot simply ignore it, and yet the issue is so utterly divisive that it’s difficult to see how it could be alluded to without leaving some section of the audience feeling attacked. This is exacerbated by the fact that in media reporting and in the minds of the nation, Brexit takes on a regional character which matches the local topicality traditionally associated with pantomime. Areas are apparently strongly either for Brexit or for Remain and local pantos which seek to address their local audience again ignore this at their peril.[5]

With these thoughts in mind I started taking note of the ways that the pantos I’ve seen have referred to Brexit in the years since the vote. I’m not making any big claims here. Brexit has been a divisive issue that has dominated UK politics for the past four years. All I’m asking is: how has this been registered in a theatrical form that generally shies away from divisiveness? There’s nothing scientific about my sample either. I tend to go to around twenty pantos a year, in towns where I happen have friends or family who are prepared to indulge me in my panto passion. Lots of them are in London and Scotland and which are predominantly remain areas.[6]  Some are further afield in ‘remain’ cities which nevertheless may have large surrounding catchment areas that suported ‘leave’.[7] Others are in smaller towns where the majority vote was for leave.[8]

https://www.lowestoftjournal.co.uk/news/aladdin-pantomime-success-ann-widdecombe-mark-read-marina-theatre-1-5343944
Anne Widdicombe in Aladdin at Lowestoft in 2017

One way that Brexit has entered the pantomime world is simply through the process of casting. My greatest regret is that work commitments prevented me from getting to the production of Aladdin starring Anne Widdicombe as the Empress of China in Lowestoft in 2017. Widdicombe was in many ways an obvious panto choice – she had made the crossover from politics to light entertainment most memorably with her appearance in Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, and had indeed appeared in panto in 2011 and 2012 and again in 2016 (replacing an injured Lorraine Chase at short notice). Nevertheless, her long history of anti-EU campaigning, her return to active politics around 2016 and her vocal support for Brexit made her by 2017 a charged casting choice – one which could only really have been considered in a heavily leave-supporting area. Lowestoft is such a place, with 37/62% split in favour of Brexit, and her appearance there secured the Marina theatre the most successful pantomime of their history. Widdicombe’s role as the Empress of China – not a baddie per se, but certainly a figure representing an obstacle to the union of the hero and heroine: an unbending traditionalist who must relent before the pantomime can achieve its happy ending – suggests that the meanings she represented did not go unchallenged in the course of the show. Nevertheless, local reviews suggest that those who booked in anticipation of ‘political jokes’ were not disappointed, although they are frustratingly vague about the details of the fun. The most detail I can find is from Daniel Bardsley who reports that:

In keeping with Widdecombe’s parliamentary background, there are many topical political references, with mentions of present-day villains or heroes (depending on your political persuasion) such as Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Jean-Claude Juncker, while Brexit – inevitably – is thrown in for good measure.

Most shows, of course, do not have a high profile Brexiteer as their top-line star, and their Brexit gags take their place alongside the range of topical gags which simply express frustration at politics more generally, or a fantasy of escaping from them. In Stratford East’s Sleeping Beauty the good fairy listed Brexit among the things (like ‘love’ and ‘death’) that she had no magical jurisdiction over. At Catford’s Aladdin in December 2018, on the eve of the ‘no confidence’ vote in Theresa May’s government, Abanaza declared that he’d stop at nothing – ‘I want world domination, and to bring the country down into chaos.’ But then he stopped himself with a realisation, ‘Oh wait – the government’s already doing that!’ In Cinderella at the King’s in Edinburgh, the ugly sisters joked together: ‘If Donald Trump, Theresa May and Nigel Farage were stranded on a desert island, who would survive?’ The answer again invoked the drawing of the entire auditorium into a single group from which politicians were excluded: Who would survive? – We would.

Often it’s the audience themselves whose response (invited of course) makes clear the feelings of the house. When the Dame at Greenwich’s 2018 Robinson Crusoe (who was returning to the theatre after a couple of years absence) announced in the farewell verse that she’d had such fun she was going to stay – she was ‘a remainer’, the audience erupted in cheers of approval. Meanwhile in Hackney’s 2017 Cinderella the wicked stepmother spotted Dandini as a foreigner. ‘Foreigners in the Royal Family?’ she asked (in a disgust which also alluded to the right wing press’s treatment of Megan Markle) ‘…that’s why I voted leave!’. The line elicited enthusiastic boos from throughout the house.

The issue of ‘foreigners’ of course was a central, if indirectly expressed, theme in the Brexit campaigning – a theme which was amplified by the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy on immigration which combined incompetence with straightforward racism and culminated in the Windrush scandal. It’s perhaps not surprising that London areas with longstanding multi-racial populations and traditions of inclusivity, as well as large numbers of settled non-British EU nationals in the workforce, offered pantomimes which celebrated these ideas in defiance of Brexit’s ‘little England’ rhetoric. Both Hackney’s and Greenwich’s versions of Cinderella made use of the character of Dandini to comment on the extension to the hostile environment policy that Brexit represented, drawing out its destructiveness and the uncertainty suffered by EU citizens who faced having their right to ‘remain’ withdrawn. In both shows Dandini is an Italian immigrant (a dancing teacher) who is anxious about being deported. In Hackney we discover that his initial reaction to the vote was been fatalistic (he offers a burst of ‘Que Sera Sera’) but later when Prince Charming reassures him it won’t happen, his response is that of many Europeans struggling with ‘leave to remain’ applications, replying ‘That’s easy for you to say’.  Eventually of course, when the ugly sisters turn their romantic attentions to him, he starts to think deportation might offer a lucky escape after all.

Elsewhere the meanings of the ‘foreigners’ theme are differently inflected. The story of Dick Whittington offers the possibility for quite troubling readings, which haven’t been taken up in any of the productions I’ve seen. Nevertheless, the theme of the town taken over by hoards of rats so that it’s ‘no longer safe to walk the streets’ is one that  always needs careful handling. The 2017 Bury St Edmunds version was castigated by The Stage as ‘lacking in local reference and colour’ but I thought it was fascinating in the way it trod a fine line between the possible political readings of London’s experience of that year. ‘Fairy Pearl’ (a pearly queen) introduced the capital as a place where ‘whether you be king or waif/ you’re welcome in London and I’ll keep you safe!’ – an excellent emphasis on inclusiveness at the top of the show, and one with echos of the #LondonIsOpen campaign launched by the incoming Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2016 to carry the message that London was ‘open for business’ while also ‘reassuring the more than one million foreign nationals who live in London that they will always be welcome, and that any form of discrimination will not be tolerated.’

Nevertheless, Fairy Pearl goes on to explain that the town is over-run with rats and ‘evil men are ruling London through fear.’ In the fiction, Sir Reginald Rat has installed himself as mayor and London is ‘no longer a safe place to be’ – a feeling that was certainly abroad after the terrorist attacks at London Bridge and Westminster Bridge in the summer of 2017 and one which the London Is Open campaign explicitly attempted to respond to. Later in the story Alderman Fitzwarren vocalises a common defiant response to terrorist activity when he advises his daughter that ‘if we stop living our lives then the rats have won’. The show was careful not to put any explicit topical references in, so that the story could have been read as either one about a corrupt old boy network forcing its way into office, or one which conflated the ‘invading other’ with the threat of unrestricted immigration and terrorism. In one scene Sir Reginald Rat announces that humans must look after his rats in their own homes ‘allowing them to piddle and poop where they please’. I don’t think that the ‘piddle and poop’ lines were intended to be weaponised against foreign refugees, but the reading remains… possible.

I feel mean even writing that. The panto as performed was big-hearted and generous, with all of the inclusivity I’ve described above fully in place. Sir Reginald Rat taunted the audience, and his rats ate Mary Berry recipe books and made numerous cheese gags. Later scenes offered environmentalist lessons by suggesting that the rat problem is the result of the failure of the town to recycle properly, while in the final sequence Dick (who was played as a ‘breeches role’) realized that he couldn’t rule the town alone and asked Alice to be mayor with him. At the end the audience were invited to decide Sir Reginald’s fate, and it was decreed he and his rats would have to swim back to London. ‘That should take about two years’ remarked Dick, again invoking Brexit and the negotiation period triggered by Article 50. In the venerable tradition of panto, the show was pitched so that nobody should be discomforted by its topical allusions – even though those allusions held enough hints for the construction of left or right wing interpretations of London’s plight to be equally possible.

The pantomime that has perhaps gone furthest in challenging the rule of impartiality since 2016 is (in my opinion) the star of the London pantomime world – the Hackney Empire, written and directed each year by Susie McKenna. Hackney is a 78% remain voting area, with a very diverse population, so it is perhaps hardly surprising that here anxieties about alarming sections of the audience have been set aside in favour of the decision to embrace the dominant political flavour of the area and celebrate diversity, inclusion, free movement and Europe. The 2016 production of Sleeping Beauty was the most explicitly themed around Brexit that I’ve encountered. Here Hackneytopia shares a border with Westminsteria, and while Hackneytopia embraces all magical creatures, its neighbouring borough has decided to banish them, and set up a border barrier to prevent free movement. As though that weren’t explicit enough, the court jester has been made foreign secretary and one of the songs is called ‘Never ask the people what they want’. At the wish-fulfilment climax of the show, the border barriers came tumbling down and everyone became friends again – a result celebrated in a song sheet paean to friendship, although a reminder of the continuing real-life division of the country was there in the Dame’s fantastically satirical ‘Brexit dress’.

https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2016/sleeping-beauty-review-at-hackney-empire-london/
Gavin Spokes sporting the Brexit dress in Hackney, 2016

Only one reviewer mentioned the possibility that such ‘invasive’ references might ‘raise a few eyebrows’, and even he suggested this merely as a possibility which was unlikely given the skill with which the satire was executed. Most others read the show as a welcome big-hearted antidote to a small-minded mean-spirited year. ‘Leave it to Hackney’s panto to raise the standard for decency, anarchy and joy,’ enthused Stewart Pringle in The Stage,

Hackney Empire’s extravaganza has always been quietly political and unquestionably heart-felt, but this year writer/director/panto-goddess Susie McKenna has nailed her heart up high, in a show that’s sumptuous in its traditions and thrilling in its modernity… Almost every element of Sleeping Beauty is realised to panto perfection, but it’s the fearless and warmly framed political bent that shines though.

In the years since the first shock of 2016, Hackney’s satire has been a bit less pointed – more of a background consensus that flavours the proceedings in all pantos, although while elsewhere (as I’ve described) consensus is created within the auditorium around relatively uncontroversial objects of frustration, Hackney still isn’t afraid to make the assumption that we are all on the same page re: Brexit. It would be hard to be a Brexiteer in this audience. In 2018 their Aladdin envisioned a Ha-Ka-Nay in post-Brexit chaos with the government all at sea and a complete shyster in charge (his name: Jacob Peas Bogg). Reviews no longer worried about its partisan satire. Fiona Mountford noted that the script was ‘craftily furious’ about Brexit, while for Chris Weigand the satire wasn’t enough. The territory is ‘ripe for satirical swipes’ he suggested, but while ‘there will be throwaway Brexit gags in pantos up and down the land this Christmas… too many of these lines don’t sting like they should.’

Hackney Empire’s 2019 pantomime opens on Saturday. Let’s see what this year brings.

 

 

 

[1] Andy Medhurst, A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 19.

[2] Similarly I have been to pantomimes where the actors themselves seem a little bit embarrassed at this process – they go through its motions half-heartedly and cut them short way too early as though keen to get on with the plot. That’s a sure sign that the panto will be a duff one. Nobody wants to belong to a group whose very leaders are embarrassed to be members.

[3] Medhurst (p. 18) quoting Stuart Hall ‘Who Needs Identity?’ in Hall & Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage, 1996), p. 4.

[4] David Mayer III, Harlequin in His Element: The English Pantomime 1806-1836 (Cambridge MASS: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 238.

[5] This impression is a media construction of course. While some areas are very strongly for one side or the other, in the vast majority of places (and in the average for the nation as a whole) the margin of difference is less than 5 %.

[6] Hackney, Stratford, Catford, Wimbledon, Richmond, Greenwich, Watford, Bromley the London Palladium, Edinburgh, Stirling and (several in) Glasgow.

[7] Norwich, Newcastle, York, Cardiff.

[8] Bury St Edmunds, Margate, Eastbourne, and Kings Lynn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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