This year we are delighted to welcome back Simon Sladen to the Birmingham Hippodrome blog. Simon is widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading experts on British Pantomime. He is Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Pantomime Editor for The British Theatre Guide and creator of National Pantomime Day. Here Simon delves into the history of Jack and the Beanstalk at Birmingham Hippodrome.
In 2013, Jack and the Beanstalk was the most popular of all pantomimes, seen on more stages than Cinderella, Aladdin or Snow White. Its roots date back to the 18th Century when the first printed copies of the story were read, but it wasn’t until 1733 that it became a festive favourite, 86 years before the first pantomime version of the tale appeared.
Jack and the Beanstalk; or, Harlequin and the Ogre delighted audiences at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London’s premiere panto theatre, in 1819. Not only was this the first time Londoners saw the title in panto form, it was also possibly the first pantomime to feature a female Principal Boy. Completing a hat-trick of firsts, Jack and the Beanstalk was also the first pantomime to be presented at Birmingham Hippodrome, when in 1957 actress Beryl Reid appeared on the Hippodrome stage complete with Brummie accent channelling her radio character Marlene from Educating Archie.
But the Hippodrome had to wait fourteen years before it saw Jack again, this time with Irish pop group The Bachelors as the show’s headlining act.
Four seasons later, it was time for Jack to defeat yet another Giant. The Hippodrome’s 1976 production starred Charlie Drake, one of the biggest comedians of the day and no stranger to the pantomime stage having appeared numerous times at the London Palladium.
A fellow Palladium panto star was to be the Hippodrome’s next Jack in 1983 when Cilla Black played the title role. That year the Hippodrome orchestra featured eleven musicians and a French circus family called the Santus Troupe. Their speciality act involved nine people riding a bicycle and was just one aspect of a spectacular show strong on music, spectacle and comedy.
The production ran from 19th December 1983 to 25th February 1984 and much like this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk featured two Comics in the form of Paul Squire as Simple Simon and Jimmy Cricket as Silly Jimmy,
Comedy has always been at the heart of a Hippodrome panto and in 1988 the theatre presented a slightly different version of the tale with Russ Abbot as Jack – this time not the Hero, but the Comic. Abbott’s television sidekick Bella Emberg played the Vegetable Fairy battling against It Ain’t Half Hot Mum‘s Windsor Davies as Demon Blackspider whilst Jilli Foot played the panto’s Principal Boy Tommy Tucker. The show ran for slightly longer than the previous Jack and the Beanstalk and opened on 16th December 1988 and closed on 25th February 1989.
1994 saw Ray Meagher swap Summer Bay for Southside when the star of Home and Away graced the Hippodrome stage as King Crumble and a decade later Birmingham welcomed another soapstar to its Jack and the Beanstalk, this time Eastenders‘ Letitia Dean, who as Princess Apricot fell in love with funny man Joe Pasquale’s Jack Trot.
And so to 2014’s fresh new production, honouring past Jack and the Beanstalks with the return of two Comics in the form of Paul Zerdin and Matt Slack as Simple Simon and Silly Billy whilst Gary Wilmot joins a long line of Dame Trots including Don Maclean, Wyn Calvin and Tudor Davies.
The Hippodrome’s eighth Jack and the Beanstalk adds another soapstar to its tally, this time Corrie’s Chris Gascoyne with Jane McDonald and Blue’s Duncan James not only the latest stars to make their pantomime debut at the venue, but also following in the footsteps of fellow singers Cilla Black and the Bachelors.
In a show featuring magical special effects, breath-taking musical numbers and laugh-out-loud comedy for all the family, this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk is set to be the Hippodrome’s biggest yet! #brumpanto
You can follow Simon on Twitter @simonsladen
Birmingham Hippodrome is the home of the UK’s biggest pantomime productions. This year’s Jack and the Beanstalk opens on Friday 19 December until 1 February.
A permanent exhibition of pantomime at Birmingham Hippodrome can be seen on Level 1 foyer.