Pantomime and Television: ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ (1966) at the BFI Southbank

‘…this is a splendid snapshot of a moment where old theatre traditions were under threat from the power of television’ BFI Programme Notes.

I’ve always thought panto on television was a bit of a weird idea. Panto is such a quintessentially theatrical experience – what with the calling out from the audience, the getting up on stage, the laugher and the community singing – that televised panto seems to miss the point. But of course, that thought itself is to miss the point. Because television and panto actually have a completely symbiotic relationship. Even from the very earliest days, television producers turned to live theatre broadcasts to fill the schedules. I’ve written before about the techniques developed in the 1930s for ‘relaying’ shows such as Me and My Girl (1938) direct from the West End, and as early as 1937 the BBC offered London residents (the only people who could at that time receive the service) ‘Television’s First Grand Christmas Pantomime’.[1] It was Dick Whittington and his Cat, written by Arthur Askey (although there’s no indication that he performed in it), and was broadcast at 9pm on the day after boxing day. It was partly the liveness of television that allowed and encouraged this pantomime practice – matching the liveness of the theatrical performance as opposed to the much more laborious (and perhaps some would argue stilted) techniques of cinema. But also of course, television as it developed in the late 1930s and most particularly from the 1950s onwards drew extensively on the ‘light entertainment’ aesthetics of variety, cabaret, musical theatre, stand up comedy and dance that had always fed into pantomimes. Richard Dyer, writing of the Light Entertainment television of the late 1960s, suggests that one of the most common strategies used to overcome the apparent coldness of the technology (and the fact that the performers and audience didn’t in fact share a communal space), was to make ‘use of forms supposedly of themselves redolent of togetherness and warmth – music hall, the circus, night clubs, minstrel shows’… and of course, pantomime.[2]  In fact if you stop to think about it, even the apparently pure theatrical elements I’ve listed above – the interaction with a live audience, getting members of the public up on stage for ritual humiliations, the chaos of the slosh scene and the community singing in the finale find their close televisual equivalents in TV game shows and quiz shows such as What’s My Line? and The Generation Game, the various star hosted music shows of the 1960s and 70s and the studio comedy shows of the 90s and beyond. All variously rely on the hilarity of embarrassing audience members or covering them in gunk, on the communal laughter of the studio audience or the togetherness of a sing song. I’m not sure how much some of these elements of pantomime developed in response to television or if the influence was in the other direction (I need to do more research to find out), but it seems relatively certain that rather than experiencing TV as a threat by the late 1950s and 60s, pantomime was drawing on it as a resource – of celebrities, speciality acts, comedy material and topical references. The rash of sitcom stars appearing in panto in the 80s was a feature of my childhood, and as TV modes have changed, panto has kept up with them. So now it is ‘reality TV’ stars that find a home in panto after their 15 minutes has passed. This year I’m looking forward to seeing Love Island’s Wes Nelson as Dick Whittington at the Thameside Theatre in Grays, while X-Factor stars are scattered in productions across the nation and gags about popular shows such as Bake Off and Strictly are standard fare.

BBC's First TV panto
From the ‘Radio Times’ for Monday 27th December 1937

Certainly it’s clear that by the 1950s pantomimes were regularly broadcast on television, either relayed live from a theatre show (in what Dyer calls the ‘outside broadcast mode’), or written and performed specially in the studio. Some of these survive in the archives of the British Film Institute and excitingly they pulled one out for us to view last Sunday. Fittingly, given his contribution to ‘Television’s First Grand Christmas Pantomime’ (which is now lost), it starred Arthur Askey.  Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp was originally broadcast by the BBC on 25th December 1966 at 4.40, Written by David Croft, it starred Askey (as Widow Twankey), Roy Castle (as Wishee Washee) and Charlie Cairoli (as the Chief of Police). I was excited to see it, but perhaps I was quite odd in that emotion. The screening wasn’t exactly well attended – there were approximately 15 people there, and my hapless companion and I reduced the average age in the room by about half. The ribbing I got from my Facebook pals also suggested that their childhood memories of Askey, Castle and Cairoli were less than fond. Nevertheless, I was interested to see what the show might tell us about how panto may or may not have changed in the past 52 years, and it didn’t disappoint.

aladdin-01

The show was filmed ‘as live’ – i.e. it opened in the classic manner, with shots of the audience in the auditorium as the orchestra played the overture, and throughout the show there were cutaways to kids and families in the audience responding to the jokes, gazing in anticipation, applauding and so forth. Introducing the screening, Dick Fiddy had offered the usual warning about the attitudes of 50 years ago being incompatible with modern sensibilities, priming us for the potential racism and sexism of what was to come. I was certainly interested to see how a story like Aladdin would be interpreted, since modern productions are generally quite careful to avoid the racism embedded in the Victorian text. This element was most evident in Roy Castle’s opening routine where he did a range of gags about being able to ‘speak Chinese’ offering ‘comedy’ imitations of the sound of Manderin speech with mundane English ‘translations’ of the phrases. Each was accompanied by facial expressions and bodily gestures associated with the western stereotype of the ‘oriental’ – hands pressed together in a ‘praying’ gesture, lots of wobbling of the head, smiling and bowing etc. There was also a hint of the ‘Ah-So’/‘Arsehole’ gag, although not delineated clearly enough to trouble the censor. Other racist elements were scattered throughout the show – Abanazar was played in brownface by Alan Curtis, a fact alluded to when after a bout of excessive overacting, Askey’s Dame suggested that he might like to have a go at playing Gunga Din while he was at it. Later, in the ‘new lamps for old’ scene, he offered the Princess his sales patter in the accent of an East End Jewish trader, reminiscent of Ron Moody’s contemporary performance as Fagin in Oliver! Later in the play Wishee Washee was provided with a mute girlfriend. ‘So Shy’ was played by Pat Goh as an excessively demure Chinese girl, who literally couldn’t speak until the Genie granted Wishee’s wish that she should be able to say ‘I do’. This portrayal (which surely owed a debt to Liat from South Pacific) was just the most extreme example of a more general tendency in the women’s roles which was just as noticeable as the outdated racial stereotypes. Although Aladdin was a breeches role (played by Angela Richards), she had no agency whatsoever outside of the scene in the cavern and was entirely absent from every comic routine. Similarly, the Princess (Mary Miller) functioned only to sing ‘Baubles Bangles and Beads’ in a startlingly fruity accent, and practically didn’t appear again. These gender politics were strikingly different from those of modern pantomimes, not because they were actively derogatory to women, but rather because the writers just seemed to be at a loss to know what to do with the female characters apart from have them stand on the stage and sing – a literal embodiment of Laura Mulvey’s 1976 argument that women only ever connote ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ and never have a hand in the action.

Comic routines dominated the panto, and men dominated the comic routines. In fact, they were their only practitioners. Including Castle’s opening routine described above, there were five extended comic scenes. Castle’s opening; a baking scene with Castle and Askey; a milking the cow scene, again with Castle and Askey; an elaborate slosh scene using copious amounts of shaving creme ‘pies’ and well executed pratfalls performed by Cairoli and his troupe, and a speciality scene performed by Castle which featured him playing tunes on a kettle by blowing into the spout as though it were a trumpet. None of these sequences would have been out of place in a modern pantomime, and indeed versions of baking, the cow and the slosh scene are still standard features, even down to the gag where the clown is put through the mangle and ‘transformed’ into a cardboard standee. None of these routines involved calling up any audience participation (although they regularly do in modern pantos) that might have been to do with the television cameras, of course. And again the TV cameras might explain why there was relatively little call and response, the exception being the enthusiastic booing that Abanazar enjoyed.

Radio Times 25/12/1966
Radio Times listing for ‘Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp’, 25th December 1966. Thanks to Sheldon Hall for this cutting.

So, what were the differences? One thing I was delighted to see (and have never seen in modern pantos) was that the ‘kitchen’ set backdrop was made of hard wood or chipboard, and punctuated with a series of hidden traps of different kinds which allowed characters to suddenly vanish and appear through the backdrop at will. Such traps are remnants of the Victorian stage craft central to the production of the Harlequinade which was at the heart of pantomimes until the early C20th. David Mayer gives a good description of them and the various early C20th pantomime inspired films they appear in.[3] I noticed a couple of vertical pivot traps, and some simpler ones that were simple sprung double doors. All were disguised in the backdrop, not indicated by doors or other apertures in the scene painting, but ‘secret’. The transformation of Widow Twankey’s humble home into a gorgeous palace was also effected through an antique stage effect that I’ve never seen – the painted flats depicting the palace were simply released and unfurled in front of the previous images in a neat and sudden drop, powered by gravity. Mayer has also suggested that pantomimes, ‘through their jokes, tricks-of-construction, and well-chosen topical scenary offered a running index or a window to their own specific eras’, noting that the early C20th filmed Harlequinades about which he writes are striking for their lack of such topicality. [4] This is true too of Aladdin, which despite being completely datable from the music, fashions and attitudes on display, shows very little in the way of topical allusion or political gag. When Abanazar greets the princess with a series of inflated compliments couched in excessive purple prose, Askey’s Twankey responds in disbelief – ‘Oh come off it, Godfrey Winn!’ he declares, exasperated. In Roy Castle’s speciality act playing the kettle as though it were a trumpet, the Kettle suddenly starts smoking, ‘Ah, it’s alright Mr Wilson’ he responds, referring to the famously pipe smoking Prime Minister, ‘you can come out now – but you can’t smoke in the Theatre you know!’ These were the only two vaguely topical gags that I noticed. There were sight gags though – Askey’s Twankey wore a traditional Dame’s frock at the start of the show, but towards the end she was kitted out in a little mini-skirt, and later in a Mary Whitehouse style wig and spectacles. It made for curious viewing for me, since in his heavy spectacles and permed wig, he took on a startling resemblence to my own grandmother.

Askey

What of Askey’s dame though? It’s been said many times that a Dame should really always remain a man in a frock. As I’ve noted before, I’m not really of this school. The best Dames I know of – Clive Rowe at the Hackney Empire, Allen Stewart at the King’s Edinburgh, and Richard Gauntlet at Norwich Theatre Royal, are never in danger of being mistaken for actual women, but they aren’t just their performers in a frock either. They are distinct female characters, with characteristics and mannerisms of their own. In contrast Askey was… Arthur Askey in a frock, with all the seedy improbability and down at heel just-in-from-the-pub-lets-do-this-show oops-that’ll-be-edited-out-before-broadcast cynicism that that implies. That’s not to say he wasn’t brilliant. The routines were excellently executed, the work of an experienced professional who understood how the form worked. But it’s also clear why it was that friends old enough to remember watching such performances as children were less than affectionate about his work.

Perhaps the highlight of the programme – as it is of many pantomimes – was the song sheet routine. Here the reticence about dragging audience members on stage was forgotten and copious numbers of children were brought up to be introduced in the usual manner: ‘Oooh I was seven too,  when I was your age’, and each got a chance to sing a line of ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, while the camera lingered on their shyness or their excited stage consciousness or their complete confusion. Those children would be pushing 60 now, but their younger selves shone through just as children do in the same scene on the stage today, even down to their ‘reward’ when each was given a ‘spoonful of sugar’ in the form of a ladlefull of sweets placed directly and overflowingly into their hands, so that their departure from the stage was marked by vain struggles not to lose their loot.

Further events in the BFI’s Vintage ‘It’s Panto Season!’ can be booked here

 

[1] Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2009) pp. 150-181.

[2] Richard Dyer, Light Entertainment (London: BFI Publishing, 1973), p. 27. He notes the irony of television’s suggestion that these forms are somehow more authentic and ‘organic’ than TV itself, since circus and music hall [and we might note, pantomime too] had always been ruthlessly controlled, fully capitalist, mass entertainment businesses.

[3] David Mayer, ‘Victorian Pantomime on Twentieth-Century Film’ in Jim Davis (ed.), Victorian Pantomime (London: Palgrave, 2010. 201-214.

[4] Mayer, p. 211.

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