Now is the time of year when men dress up as women, women dress up as men, and Cherie Blair will defend their right to do so before the Court of Human Rights at the taxpayers’ expense.
Yes, it’s the pantomime season, a mid-winter festival of misrule when the British drop their sense of reserve and take their children along to see a young woman, who is the principal boy, share risqué jokes with a grotesque elderly man, who is the dame. At least, that’s the way it used to be, but not for much longer.
This year, the British shed their sense of reserve, perhaps for ever. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, taught us to grieve en masse, in public, and with a hint of menace. The martyrdom of Louise Woodward at the hands of a cruel and oppressive foreign regime gave us a second welcome opportunity to come together, to share our pain and anguish, and to give a fat lip to anyone who disagreed. An uprising of popular compassion somehow makes pantomime redundant.
To gain its effect, panto must be in stark and comic contrast to a world of normality. But when daily life is so richly absurd and peopled by monstrous caricatures, what chance the parodist? No wicked witch conjured from the imagination could compare with the black-arched-eyebrowed and blood-red-lipped reality of Edwina Currie; no fat-bottomed gawky dame with the real-life Duchess of York; no Mephistophelean incarnation of dark menace with Peter Mandelson; no will-o-the wisp evocation of intangible fairy godmother goodness with Tony Blair.
Even the contextual references of pantomime are lost on the youthful audiences of today. To give just one example, it is customary for the pantomime dame to support his vast, pendulous bosom, each component of which is endowed with a life of its own, with a brassiere constructed from two colanders. But for most children today a colander is as meaningful an artefact as a mediaeval scold’s bridle. In the age of the working mum and the microwaved TV meal, vegetables do not come out of the ground dirty and to be rinsed, but out of the deep freeze, ready-wrapped. To get a laugh today the dame should use something readily recognisable, such as a couple of those plastic buckets used to transport the larger takeaway helpings of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
When life imitates art, even to the extent of copying pantomime, art is doomed. For instance, a staple component of the panto was a cow that was disjointed, had inflated rubber gloves beneath, and fell over a lot. Taking that as their cue, farmers fed dead sheep to their previously herbivorous bovine herds and lo! it worked. Real-life cows, too, walked into things and fell over.
Pantomime was a celebration of bawdy. Females (or males) in bloomers were chased across the stage by wicked moustache-twirling uncles; rumbustious things went on behind screens and beneath sheets; and the air was thick with nods, winks and innuendo. But what price dear old smut when counsel in a court of law defends a couple accused of having sexual intercourse on the bonnet of a car at Heathrow Airport in broad daylight, on the ground that such behaviour in public is now routine and unexceptionable? If, on the way to the theatre, kiddies encounter semi-naked couples polishing cars in a fashion that, to an earlier generation, would have seemed both unusual and acrobatic, what chance has the panto got?
In one respect, however, the pantomime may not have outlived its usefulness. It no longer shocks, titillates, amuses, or entertains, but it provides seasonal employment to down-and-out celebrities. These are among society’s saddest people, men and women who once strutted the limelight, luxuriated in the warmth of public approval, signed autographs, sent mimeographed replies to fan letters, appeared on Call My Bluff and Through the Keyhole, filled the tabloids, and cut the ribbon that opened yet another freezer centre. And now they are gone. In lonely dwellings they turn the yellowing pages of their scrapbooks, relive their memories, and wait for that last curtain call to summon them into the wings of eternity.
But, in an annual miracle as wondrous as spring itself, the panto season comes along and for a fleeting few weeks breathes life anew into old celebrities. Names you had long forgotten again bedeck the billboards, arthritic hands slap varicose thighs, vocal chords creakily flex, and rheumy eyes blaze again with counterfeited lust.
And theatreland, generous and warm-hearted, extends this relief and comfort beyond its own. For you don’t have to be a former actor or entertainer to be in panto. To be a former anything will do, provided you were well known for whatever it was. Thus is the painful transition from a somebody into a nobody alleviated.
So step forward Christine and Neil Hamilton, Gerry Malone, Michael Portillo, Edwina Currie, the Duchess of York and, of course, David Mellor. All these and more are desperate once again to be in the privileged positions from which cruel fate ousted them. Panto gives them the chance once again to look down from on high at the vulgar mob beyond the footlights. But, just as happened before, on the stroke of midnight and in a puff of smoke their chauffeured limousines will turn into pumpkins… Oh yes they will.