BIG READ: Oh yes it is! The great British pantomime season begins

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Cast members and the trio of dogs chosen. Credit: West Meon Theatre

Trio of prized pooches picked for upcoming theatre show

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It's a long-standing tradition that unites the generations as families trip off to the theatre in the run-up to Christmas. 

With twisted fairy tales bursting with songs, slapstick, gender-crossing and innuendo, panto is as much a staple of Christmas now as it has been for decades.

Portsmouth has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the panto season – fantastic theatres where celebrities have queued up to perform over the years.

From huge stars of their day such as Danny La Rue, Joan Rivers, Andrew Sachs and John Nettles, to soap stars and pop stars many would struggle to recall.

The magic of the Christmas panto is one of the joys of the festive season. Over her 30-year career at Kings Theatre, Southsea, Sandra Smith, who is now retired, has seen pantomimes brought up-todate for the modern era.

The 73-year-old says: 'Pantomime is fantastic because it is the time of year that families come together and it really is for everybody – the little ones all the way up to grandparents.

'I am from Holland and when I first saw a pantomime I didn’t know anything about it but you soon get the hang of it and before you know it you’re shouting, and it is lovely.

'I have memories of when I used to bring my children, who are well in their forties now.' Each year theatres across the area draft in celebrities to join a cast of seasoned professionals and local drama groups. In the past Beryl Reid, Joan Rivers and Bruce Forsyth have graced stages, with more recent stars including Towie's James 'Arg' Argent, television presenter Melinda Messenger and Vicar of Dibley and Game of Thrones star Clive Mantle.

'Over the years we have had celebrities people are excitedabout’ says Sandra.

‘But we also have local actors who are now in the West End and are professionals, but they still come back to do pantomimes in their home towns.

'For a lot of them it is how they got involved in theatre. ‘For example, if they joined the Portsmouth Players (musical society) and then started doing theatre shows and pantomimes, directors would often see the shows, pick them out and take them to London.'

Along with the pull of seeing celebrities try their hand at slapstick comedy, Christmas pantomimes in the area’s theatres have kept families entertained since the early 20th century and have become a family tradition providing lasting childhood memories.

Sandra adds: 'I used to sell tickets to maybe one person with their child and when they got older they brought more children and cousins along.

‘Then the grandmother would buy more seats and then you would sell 10 or 15 because they would bring their whole family.

'People would often say to me, “I need to book pantomime tickets as my grandmother brought me and now I am bringing my children” and that is so lovely.

'It is an occasion and definitely a cross-generational thing.' Christopher Marlowe, pictured on the front, has been performing in panto for more than three decades.

This year he is appearing as widow Twankey in Aladdin in Bognor Regis. He believes panto’s continued popularity has a lot to do with audience participation and adds: ‘I think it’s the cartoon characters, the vivid colours of the costumes, and the sets that bring the magic. ‘Props like the flying carpet and Cinderella’s coach are simply fantastic.’

Back in the 18th century pantomime was performed throughout the year but, opening with some racy burlesque, families were not the target audience. 

During the Victorian era, theatres directed pantomimes at younger theatre-goers and the performances became staple Christmas and Easter holiday entertainment.

Sandra says: ’Pantomime has been performed in England for so many years and in Britain it is a tradition, but one that keeps changing.

'With all the modern technology we have now, the props and set are much better, and I think it definitely makes the difference.'

The popularity of pantomimes grows every year but for Sandra the sentiment remains the same.  'I think it’s really funny and very often the parents will tell the children the story of the pantomime before so they already know the story a little bit.

‘It means they can participate, and that is what they need so everyone gets involved. ‘I used to stand by the sides and look at the audience and you could see all the different ages.

'There were children and parents all laughing together, and even when they were saying “Oh yes you are!” or “Oh no you didn’t!”, they would all be participating in that and it was wonderful to watch.

'It is such a good feeling to see everyone having a good time.'

Audience interaction is a major part of pantomime performance but participation and even speaking was not part of the original set-up of a show.

Early pantomimes in the Middle Ages were silent and consisted of only dancing and gestures. Comedy is a relatively new addition. 

‘Audience participation is so important and comedy is what families come for’ says Sandra.

'At the end of a stressful year parents can enjoy the innuendo while the children are utterly absorbed – it is fantastic.

‘It's the time of year families come together and a pantomime is suitable for all ages.

‘It's fun and everybody can go. They can all enjoy it together. 'It truly is a very English tradition.'