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Sexy secrets behind birth of panto panto.

Byline: LORNE JACKSON

IT'S the only genre of theatre to originate in the United Kingdom... oh, no it's not!

The finest actors of their generation, sports stars and reality TV celebs have all performed in such productions... oh, yes they have!

Pantomime's impact on British life is as great as the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Coronation Street combined.

Oh, yes it isn't! Um, oh, no it is! Er, we'll come back to that one later.

Perhaps.

But one thing is certain - and that is that nothing is certain when it comes to the wondrous, warped, wickedly wacky world of the Panto.

Each Christmas we're invited back to that land of laughs, where dialogue is dipped in double-entendreand antics are as animated as a DVD box set of Simpsons classics.

This year, one of the biggest pantos in the country takes place in Brum.

Jack And The Beanstalk stars include I'm A Celebrity winner Joe Pasquale, as Jack Trot and EastEnders' star Letitia Dean as Princess Apricot.

For many youngsters it will be the first panto they've seen.

Each corny gag will seem as fresh as a principal boy's face.

But just like that same principal boy - usually played by a woman - all is not as it seems.

Pantomime's traditions can be traced back through many centuries andmany countries.

A new book, It's Behind You - The Story Of Panto, sheds light on its origins. Author Peter Lathan explains that the tradition began with ancient Greek drama - but the Greeks didn't enjoy the innocent plays we'd recognise today.

Was it for children? Oh, no, it certainly wasn't!

And for one important reason - the central topic was BONKING.

Stories revolved around adultery and featured a sultry supply of very supple, very naked... women.

Sexual intercourse would often take place on stage.

If this classical version of panto actually has any modern day equivalent, it's probably that mucky video you discov-ered while baby-sitting for the neighbours.

You know, that tape they've sneakily stuffed between the ancient Betamax copy of The Great Escape and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The Greek entertainment now seems crass as a candlelight dinner with Bernard Manning.

But it had an impish impact - influencing Shakespeare's comedies and modern musicals like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. At this point the panto moved from foreign shores and became a very British tradition.

Right?

Oh no, it didn't! Next stop was Italy and the invention of the Commedia dell'Arte.

This was a mad mix of many influences - clowning, acrobatics, dance, music, satire and, of course, slapstick.

Like our modern pantomime, costumes were standardised so audiences could recognise a variety of stock archetypes. Many famous characters first appeared in this ancestor of our modern panto.

The characters Scaramuccia and Pedrolino were adapted by the French and turned into Scaramouche and Pierrot.

Meanwhile, Pulcinella evolved into that seaside favourite Mr Punch, while Arlecchino became the British Harlequin.

Like our modern panto, each touring showcontained plenty of grimy old gags. Another similarity was the inclusion of humorous references to the town where the actors performed.

The next pit-stop for panto was France, where many Italian actors moved.

But it wasFrenchperformerswhocame to London in 1673 - and caused a sensation.

Soon, colourful comic entertainments regularly took place in the capital, with plays written and starring English performers.

But another essential ingredient which went towards creating the modern pantomime was still required - the introduction of such famous stories as Jack And The Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Puss In Boots.

'Jack' is actually an old Cornish tale, but many stories come from other parts of the world.

In 1667 Charles Perrault published a compilation of French folk stories - Mother Goose's Fairy Tales.

In this dreamlike collection you'll find Puss In Boots, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood.

Later, in the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm published their collection of German fairy tales.

Such stories seem harmless fun when performed in today's pantos but the original versions were often cruel and creepy.

In Grimm's version of Cinderella, Aschenputtel (the little ash girl), the stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by birds at the story's conclusion.

Sleeping Beauty is even harsher, reading like one of EastEnders' gritty storylines.

The princess is not kissed awake by a passing prince. Instead she's raped by a king.

Still asleep, she gives birth to twins who attempt to breast-feed. Instead, they find poison in her finger which they suck out, reviving their mother.

You'll find none of these harsh stories in our own pantos. Instead, there are over-the-top Dames like Widow Twankey in Aladdin.

Originally she was called Widow Ching Mustapha. But in 1861 panto author H J Byron used her modern name for the first time.

This was actually a contemporary reference to Twankay Tea, a fashionable brew from that year. The tea leaves were shipped over from Tuan Ky, a Chinese province.

Such topicality is essential in pantomime in all its forms.

In the original Greek version, young performers were dressed in the fashionable styles of their day.

The Italians and British used topical gags and even today trendy celebs are used to market the entertainment.

From Frank Bruno to Melinda Messenger - or rather, from boxing to buxom - panto is timeless yet topical.

Which explains how this most ancient of art forms has managed to keep pushing itself into the future, with newyoung fans being born ever year.

'He's behind you!' might be the favourite chant of excited children gobbling sweets in the stalls.

But when it comes to the prat-fall pleasures of panto - clearly the glory days are still well ahead.

CAPTION(S):

PANTO PAST: Jean Kent as Prince Charming featured on the cover of Illustrated in January 1948, John Inman in one of his favourite roles as Widow Twankey, Julie Andrews as Cinderella at the London Palladium in 1957; OH YES IT IS: The new book, It's Behind You - The Story Of Panto; What's the best panto you've ever seen? Write to Pantos, Sunday Mercury, Weaman Street, Birmingham B4 6AY
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Dec 19, 2004
Words:1009
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