We are thrilled to welcome creator of National Panto Day and Pantomime history expert Simon Sladen for a special guest blog. In this fascinating article Simon takes us through the homes of British Pantomime including the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the London Palladium and, of course, Birmingham Hippodrome…
In 1879, as the curtain came down on the opening night of Bluebeard at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the theatre manager asked the audience, “Well, are you satisfied?” “Yes!” they replied wholeheartedly. A new era had dawned for the history of pantomime.
No history of pantomime is complete without mentioning the importance of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Regarded by many as the birthplace of modern British pantomime under the management of Augustus ‘Druriolanus’ Harris, Drury Lane saw some of the most spectacular pantomimes ever presented, with casts of up to 500 people performing from Boxing Day to March each year.
With a capacity of over 3,000, Harris knew he had to stage the most spectacular shows possible to delight audiences from the stalls to the Gods. Under his reign at the theatre, spectacle, stars and story became his mantra, with special effects and grand transformation sequences delighting young and old as some of the most famous Music Hall names of the day trod the boards in a variety of fairy and folk tales.
Pantomime thrived at the theatre until 1938 when the final curtain came down on Babes in the Wood. With the theatre re-branding itself as the ‘Home of Musical Comedy’, the pantomime crown was ready to be inherited by a new venue, this time ‘The Home of Variety’.
The London Palladium opened its doors to the public on Boxing Day 1910, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War and Val Parnell took over the theatre’s management in 1945 that it began to establish itself as the new ‘Home of Pantomime’. Pantomimes at the Palladium, with its capacity of over 2,200, upheld the traditions and values established by Harris and just like at Drury Lane, showcased the very best of British talent.
Under its reign as the ‘Home of Pantomime’, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane popularised the roles of Dame and female Principal Boy, as well as the use of grand transformation sequences. But just as Drury Lane contributed greatly to the evolutionary course of the genre, so did the London Palladium, none more so than in 1956 when a male Principal Boy was cast in the form of Normal Wisdom as Aladdin. No female Principal Boy was then seen at the ‘Home of Pantomime’ for almost fifteen years until 1970 when Cilla Black was cast as Aladdin alongside Leslie Crowther, Terry Scott and Basil Brush.
The London Palladium presented a total of eleven different pantomime titles in twenty four different productions between 1948 and 1973, but with the advent of the Mega Musical in the 1980s, it became more and more difficult to programme a pantomime due to open-ended runs. An increasingly international West End audience unaware of pantomime’s traditions and for whom many of the top British names meant nothing led to pantomime’s West End demise.
Between 1974 and 1987 the Palladium only produced four pantomimes Cinderella (1976), Aladdin (1978) and Dick Whittington (1980), with Babes in the Wood (1987) ending the Palladium’s reign as the ‘Home of Pantomime’. With large scale pantos in London almost extinct at this point, the ‘Home of Pantomime’ was set to take up residency outside of the capitol for the first time in history.
The London Palladium pantomimes did not, however, only play the Palladium. Using the London venue as a launch pad for new productions, Palladium pantomimes were frequently enjoyed around the country at some of the UK’s largest venues, often retaining members of the original production’s cast.
One of these venues was the Birmingham Hippodrome, which in 1989 became home to the final Palladium pantomime Babes in the Wood complete with Cannon and Ball, who, along with Christopher Biggins, played to packed audiences from 15th December 1989 until 24th February 1990, only two days fewer than the Palladium’s own run in 1987. Other ‘direct from the Palladium’ pantomimes in the Hippodrome’s history include Dick Whittington starring Anita Harris (1971) and Aladdin starring Danny La Rue (1981).
The Birmingham Hippodrome’s first pantomime was Jack and the Beanstalk starring Beryl Reid and Reg Dixon in 1957. Since then, a wide range of pantomime titles have been produced at the venue and seen at theatres across the UK as they, like their Palladium forefathers, go on tour to delight audience members young and old. But whereas the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and London Palladium never presented Snow White as a pantomime, this will be the Hippodrome’s second version of the tale after 1999’s in which Lily Savage made her pantomime debut as the Wicked Queen. 2013’s Snow White is also set to celebrate two pantomime debuts with Gok Wan’s first foray into Pantoland as the Man in the Mirror and Gary Wilmot’s first panto season playing Dame.
Since 2008’s Robin Hood starring John Barrowman and 2009’s Sleeping Beauty with Joe Pasquale, these titles have enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in Pantoland, proving the Hippodrome’s influence over the industry as the ‘Home of Pantomime’ is looked to for inspiration. With this year’s production promising stunning effects by the Twins and featuring a host of stars from stage and screen, the Hippodrome’s reputation as the ‘Home of Pantomime’ shows no sign of fading as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves celebrates over half a century of glorious pantomimes.