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Maggie Brown: Panto can be a springboard for a lifetime of theatregoing

The cast of CBeebies' The Snow Queen. Photo: BBC/Ray Burmiston
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I was brought up in a strict churchgoing family that let its hair down once a year, thanks to my otherwise quiet and business-minded father, who loved pantomime. Just as it was part of his childhood, he made sure it was part of ours.

On Boxing Day we would go to the matinee performance at the Bristol Hippodrome. We sat in grand circle seats, which had to be in the middle, and sometimes we were even in the front row. It was all the better for singing along with the lyrics displayed on a drawn-down screen, and to catch whatever was batted out to the audience. But we always managed to be far enough away not to be beckoned on stage by the dame. In the interval we had tubs of vanilla ice cream: my sister and I competed to see who made it last the longest.

To a five-year-old child the Hippodrome seemed huge, and just being there together at a live show, rather than at church, was great. The blue jokes just floated over my head.

Pantomime really does not translate easily to TV, though there have been noble attempts. These include the CBeebies Christmas show, which this month was recorded at the Curve, Leicester, over several performances. This year it is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Snow Queen, and it is notable that the channel’s executive producer Tony Reed said that in recent years, the show has “moved away from telling traditional pantomime stories in favour of literary classics”.

There is little panto-style programming for grown-ups. In 2015, ITV made a noble attempt at a live family Christmas musical, with the broadcast of The Sound of Music, though it was not desperately successful.

It is instructive to attend made-for-TV events, because it dawns very quickly that you are not the priority, as with live theatrical performance. The focus is the millions at home. If recorded, a show can also be full of stops and starts, like a bad rehearsal. I took my son to a live Dancing on Ice broadcast, and he insisted on leaving the hangar-style set early.

Now hardened by contact with TV stars, and learning about them through their autobiographies, I think they use panto as a useful income top-up rather than a dream to take part in a British performing tradition.

Which is why, when continuing the custom with my children, I opted for the traditional panto at Greenwich Theatre, which my father used to love too, even if it lacked the Hippodrome’s sense of grandeur.

Panto is important. I realise now that it opened up my interest in theatre

Panto is important. I realise now that it opened up my interest in theatre: first for the light-hearted musicals my mother took me to, and then for regular visits to the Bristol Old Vic. There were also trips to Bristol Little Theatre, partly thanks to tickets provided by my school.

My children have caught the theatre bug. When paying for themselves, they gravitate towards comedy, though one daughter has recently fallen in love with the Donmar. Maybe panto has had its part to play.

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