Panto at the Palladium: Dicks, dames and queens at London’s home of pantomime
The Palladium staged its first pantomime in 1914 and developed a tradition that brought the biggest stars to its stage. Nick Smurthwaite charts panto’s rise at the venue and how, after a 29-year gap, it is back at its extravagant best
As well as being our best-known variety theatre, the London Palladium is also the capital’s home of pantomime, where many Londoners cut their theatrical teeth, including the theatre’s present owner, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“One of my earliest memories is of being taken to the Palladium pantomime,” recalls Lloyd Webber. “I never dreamed that one day I would be the custodian of Frank Matcham’s beautiful theatre.”
Since it was always considered the Rolls Royce of pantomime, the Palladium’s seasonal offering prided itself on the brightest variety stars and the classiest production values.
The Palladium as we know it today opened in 1910 as an upmarket music hall presenting operetta, farce, melodrama and, of course, variety. Pantomime started there in 1914 with Dick Whittington, loosely based on a real-life historical character, which was originally staged in the early 19th century with Joseph Grimaldi.
The same pantomime was given a makeover by new owner Charles Gulliver nine years later (starring Clarice Mayne, the same popular music-hall star in the title role as the 1914 production). Gulliver, a founder member of the Variety Artistes’ Federation, had a taste for the extravagant and the mind-boggling set pieces were equal to anything found on today’s festive stage.
Amazingly, there are grainy old black-and-white recordings of some of these early pantos free to view on YouTube, showing, among other things, Cinderella’s gilded coach being pulled on stage by six live Shetland ponies.
Back then, pantomime was confined to early afternoon performances – it was regarded very much as an entertainment aimed at children – but in the 1930s this was upgraded to later matinees and evening shows when Peter Pan first came to the Palladium in the form of Elsa Lanchester and her husband, Charles Laughton, as Captain Hook, straight from a season of classics at the Old Vic.
Though the theatre had already established itself between the wars as a top-quality venue, the arrival of Val Parnell in 1945 sent its reputation through the roof. One of the great post-war impresarios, Parnell treated the Palladium as his personal fiefdom, bringing over big American stars such as Danny Kaye and Judy Garland, and introducing the long-running TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which was to make a star of Bruce Forsyth.
Mindful of the growing influence of TV and pop music, Parnell cast the likes of Cliff
Richard, Tommy Steele, Norman Wisdom, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery and Charlie Drake in leading panto roles to be sure to appeal to the widest possible age range. For a couple of decades, there were very few top British entertainers who would decline an invitation to do the Palladium panto.
Who wouldn’t have paid top dollar to see a cast that included Terry-Thomas, Peggy Mount and Norman Evans – the inspiration for Les Dawson’s Cissie and Ada sketches – as Dame Martha in the 1952 Humpty Dumpty? Likewise, the 1970 Aladdin, with Cilla Black in the title role, Leslie Crowther as Wishee Washee, and Terry Scott – one of the great pantomime dames – as Widow Twankey? Scott’s striptease was one of the funniest pieces of physical comedy I’ve ever seen on stage.
Playing dame at the Palladium was the ultimate accolade for Scott, Arthur Askey, Billy Dainty, Emery, John Inman and all the other brilliant actor-comedians who dared to get into drag. It was also the greatest challenge for a succession of costume designers to come up with increasingly outrageous outfits for the actors in question.
For those who saw him – he died in 1986 – Dainty was probably the best all-round dame, playing her as “a tough old bird”, in his words, with the energy, physicality and vulgarity of a music-hall comedian in his prime. He told one interviewer: “You can be a bit vulgar with the dame, show your knickers, even take your knickers off, but there has got to be some point to it. You can’t do things just for the sake of it.”
Dainty played Sarah the Cook in the 1969 Dick Whittington, starring Tommy Steele, who had already made the transition from pop to musical theatre. Understudying Steele in that production was an unknown actor-singer named David Essex. Two years later Essex was catapulted to fame in the musical Godspell.
Another star in the making who cut her teeth in the Palladium panto was Elaine Paige, who is credited as one of Aida Foster’s Children in the 1965-66 panto Babes in the Wood. She starred opposite Julian Clary as the haughty Queen Rat, 53 years later, in last year’s Dick Whittington at the Palladium.
Since Qdos brought panto back to the Palladium in 2016, under the direction of Michael Harrison, the production values have been second to none. The Stage’s critic Paul Vale said last year’s show revelled in “extravagance for extravagance’s sake”, which is precisely where we started out in 1914.