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Phil Willmott: How to write a pantomime

Oliver Broad as Atticus Ratticus in Phil Willmott's production of Dick Whittington at the Corn Exchange in Newbury. Photo: Sheila Burnett Oliver Broad as Atticus Ratticus in Phil Willmott's production of Dick Whittington at the Corn Exchange in Newbury. Photo: Sheila Burnett
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For the past 10 years, August has always found me sitting down to write a pantomime for one theatre or another (happily for my bank balance, unhappily for the production team who usually wanted the script at Easter). Then November always finds me in a pantomime rehearsal room as a director, figuring out the funniest way to cover actors in shaving foam.

For something that’s such an essential part of many of our annual incomes (arriving usefully just in time for January’s tax bill) and is so vital to the box office survival of many venues, there’s little discussion of how to do pantomime well.

I found myself talking through the process for a nervous first-time panto director in the pub the other night, so I thought it might be useful to outline a few of the things I’ve learnt over the last decade.

1. Understand what your audience wants

Unless you’re lucky enough to be working for a particularly brave and enlightened management, nobody wants to produce or see your clever deconstruction of the traditional story or pantomime form.

Remember, if Brown Owl makes a group booking to Cinderella, she’s looking forward to and expecting to see an old-fashioned pantomime of the Cinders story (ideally with Shetland ponies). Who are you to tell her she’s wrong? If the idea of that bores or frustrates you, don’t take the gig. Your audience isn’t bored by the idea of traditional panto – it’s what they’re handing over their hard-earned cash to see.

The more you try to make your show about global warming, gender inequality, class war etc the more you’re trying to make it about you. Panto isn’t about you or me. It’s bigger than that.

Likewise, no one wants to hear an original score. Sorry, but we want to bop around to One Direction.

2. Think like an eight-year-old

Do not aim your pantomime at making your mates laugh or impressing the critic from the Guardian. If you’re not careful, too much time in rehearsals will be spent making a show for them. Keep reminding yourself, your bosses and your cast that the vast majority of your audience will be around eight years old.

Here’s the most important thing I’ve ever learnt about pantomime: if you put your whole focus into creating two hours of theatre that will surprise and delight eight-year-olds, reducing them to helpless laughter one minute, spell-bound silence at others, desperate to shout out and join in throughout, then you’ll have a pantomime that’ll work for all ages even on the “adults only” nights. Inside every grouchy teenager or reluctant office partygoer there’s an eight-year-old who’d love to be entertained.

3. Go smut-free

Cut the saucy jokes and double entendres. Honestly. The art of pantomime humour used to be that it was risque enough to make the adults chuckle while the innuendo went over the kids’ heads. Not anymore. Society has become so obsessed with protecting children that dirty jokes make any adults accompanying children tense up.

Besides, do your cast a favour and don’t burden them with material that’ll go down like a lead balloon on the many school matinees.

4. Learn to be a celebrity whisperer

If you’re obliged to work with celebs, ensure they understand right from the start that nothing or no one is going to humiliate them. They’ll already be wishing they could earn the big money offered to them in some other way so if you don’t make them feel safe and valued you won’t get the best out of them.

Respect the old-school comics. They know more about whipping up an audience then you do. On several occasions I’ve tried to persuade a household name from the 80s that, for instance, their catch phrase or Basil Faulty routine won’t mean anything to kids only to watch them get a new, young audience crying with laughter with immaculately timed and delivered old-school material.

5. Stick to the template

Stick to the standard format. You might as well, it’s been developed by people far cleverer then us over more than a century. It’ll also give you a template so your writing doesn’t drift too far off message. There’s plenty of room for fresh ideas within this but if you don’t stray too far away from the path you can be confident you’re on track.

The format

  • Open with a startling front cloth scene, usually setting out the villain’s intentions (eg. Abanazar wants the lamp, the Wicked Queen has a mirror, King Rat or the Demon threatens to destabilise the story etc. A fairy or the Fairy Godmother must save the day and wants you to join them on the journey.
  • Follow this with a full stage scene with a big song and dance routine to lift the mood.
  • Introduce the comic character eg. Buttons, Wishy Washy, Silly Billy etc with a routine or song that endears them to the audience.
  • Introduce the dame(s) with a spectacular entrance on some form of transport. Bicycle, Sedan Chair, Rickshaw etc. Establish their man-hungry credentials with jokes, a dive into the audience for a flirt and/or a comic song.
  • Show your title character enduring hardship.
  • Introduce them to their love interest and establish the main character’s support group of friends and family, using traditional comedy pantomime routines and funny songs in funny situations.
  • Have your baddie put them or their lover in peril.
  • Gather the good guys (Dwarfs/Fairy Godmother/Nice Genie etc) to set off to rescue the hero/heroine or save the day, with an uplifting number just before the interval.
  • Open Act two with a big toe-tapping company song.
  • Re-establish what’s at stake and remind the audience of the peril.
  • Have the comic characters devise a rescue plan.
  • Increase the peril and maybe add a sad or dark moment for the title character.
  • Have the comics execute the rescue plan, usually employing musical comedy, have them screw it up, then succeed with the input of the title character, culminating in evil punished and a marriage proposal for the lovers.
  • Get one half of the audience to compete with the other in a singing competition.
  • Climax the show with individual bows for the lead characters so the audience can cheer their favourite.
  • Send everyone home with a big musical number tinged with a hint of melancholy when the characters say goodbye and good luck in a traditional spoken verse moment.
  • Finish on a Christmassy note that can easily be cut for performances after Boxing Day.

Compulsory elements

  • At least one character getting covered in gunge (known as a slop scene)
  • A call-and-response set piece with the audience (“Oh no he didn’t”, “Oh yes he did”)
  • A comic routine in which the audience must call out to alert a character to a danger, often a ghost (“He’s behind you”)
  • A comic routine in which something with a rigid order such as props laid out representing the 12 days of Christmas are mixed up by the baddies and restored to order by the goodies thanks to the encouragement of the audience
  • A wow moment: the pumpkin changing to a coach, Dick Whittington underwater, Aladdin’s magic carpet ride, the beanstalk growing
  • An opportunity for the comic to name check groups and people with birthdays from the stage

General notes

  • There should rarely be a moment when someone isn’t being naughty in the sense a child would understand it.
  • You’ll need to structure the action so that scenes can be played on the forestage, in front of a cloth, when the crew needs to set up more elaborate scenery behind.

Optional extras

  • Things dropping from the roof
  • Getting kids up on stage (only for very experienced comics)
  • Squirting water pistols into the audience or throwing sweets (a health and safety nightmare these days)

Understand the importance of your mission

Yes, pantomime can feel like a necessary evil in our fight for financial survival, but never ever approach it cynically. The audience will pick up on it. If we’re to install a life-long theatregoing habit in today’s kids we have to give them the funniest, most magical two hours of their life. Every performance.

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