The Prince's balls get bigger every year...

PUBLISHED: 12:03 21 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:18 20 February 2013

The Prince's balls get bigger every year...

The Prince's balls get bigger every year...

Lynne Mortimer looks back at more than a quarter of a century of writing, directing and starring in local pantomimes. She recalls the awful jokes, plus encounters with the panto stars themselves - and not all of them were human!

Lynne Mortimer looks back at more than a quarter of a century of writing, directing and starring in local pantomimes. She recalls the awful jokes, plus encounters with the panto stars themselves - and not all of them were human!

The Christmas pantomime. When it has been a part of your life for nearly 40 years, it can have a strange effect on your attitude to life.
Oh, no it cant.
Oh, yes it can.
See what I mean?
For one thing, you cant help believing in happily ever after. When all your heroes and heroines start off good but poor and end up good but rich it finds its way into your psyche.
You find yourself heading off into the forest, hoping that by helping a frail old woman gather sticks for her fire you may have won a Fairy Godmother who will make sure you have a decent frock for the Princes ball.
So far, no luck, but Im trying to be good and waiting patiently for my windfall.
My love affair with pantomime started back in 1973. I was 18 and my boyfriend now my husband had already written two or three village pantos for Bucklesham Players.
His Cinderella, penned when he was 16, included the immortal line, spoken by Prince Charming: I love you, Cinderella... and can you cook?
It is just as well he didnt check out my cookery credentials before we married.
Since then we have brought Mother Goose home to roost and ensured the goodies are comfortably settled while giving many baddies their come-uppance.
We have created a veritable host of verse-speaking fairies and talking animals.
Over the years many local groups have used our scripts and we are very happy to loan them. There was the one occasion when the company took it upon themselves to effect a major rewrite and cut out the love interest ie the principal girl and the principal boy which prompted us to insist script changes were submitted for approval.
You cant have a proper panto without a finale wedding.
There is something magical about pantomime and, although it is often scorned, it has a very important role to play.
Many children have their first experience of the theatre through pantomime and, if they enjoy it, it can be the catalyst that creates a lifetime theatre lover.
Why, Sir Ian McKellen, our greatest living theatrical knight has given his Widow Twanky in a Christmas production of Aladdin.
Not long after he was playing King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Starring in Shakespeares tragedy, he gave a towering performance that was critically acclaimed by all the national reviewers.
But its a fair bet he got a lot more laughs as the love-starved laundress in the well-loved panto.
We shouldnt be too hasty to dismiss pantomime as a mere trifle, a piece of sequinned fluff of no consequence. The themes are as universal as many of those employed by Shakespeare... except pantomimes usually have more songs and never end tragically.
Love conquers all; amor omnia vincit. Its a given.
The Bard was not averse to a bit of cross-dressing either. Of course, he often dressed boys as girls because the actors were boys.
Pantomime takes it a bit further by going large with temporary gender reassignments. The Dame is traditionally played by a man while the principal boy is played by a woman.
As well as the comic possibilities presented by a boy being played by a girl, there is the traditional slap to a fishnet-clad thigh which doesnt work anything like as well when a man plays the role.
Meanwhile, having a burly chap play a comedy female character means you can get away with the ugly jokes.
The usual depiction of a Dame is of a single woman who is desperately seeking a man.
In Aladdin, Widow Twanky initially falls for the mendacious charms of the evil wizard Abanazar when her pretends to fancy her.
Is this the face that launched a thousand ships? he might intone.
Pity she didnt use a bottle of Champagne like everybody else... will come the retort from Wishy Washy, Aladdins brother and the main comedy character.
Many of our dames are prone to malapropisms. Consequently they will declare they are seeking an edible man rather than an eligible one.
Baddies are undoubtedly the best characters to play. Abanazar in Aladdin, King Rat in Dick Whittington, the wicked queen in Snow White, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty are among the meaty parts that offer actors a chance to laugh demonically and get thoroughly booed and hissed.
The comedy character Buttons in Cinderella, Wishy Washy in Aladdin, Simple Simon in Jack and the Beanstalk is always loveable but naughty. He is the one who will be adored by the coach load of Brownies in the front rows.
He is often the character that lobs sweets out into the auditorium and comperes the panto song.
There were dark reports for a number of years that health and safety regulations meant you couldnt throw sweets in case anyone sustained a nasty fruit drop injury. We have erred on the side of caution and use marshmallows and softer confectionery.
The conventions of panto are manifold and although there are variations on the theme for instance the hugely popular rock n roll version that packs them in at the New Wolsey, in Ipswich, each year we are unrepentantly old school.
We always have a behind you scene in which the chorus get to wear sheets as ghosts or black leotards with fluorescent bones for a UV skeleton routine.
Then, there is always a slapstick.
This is when at least one member of the cast gets a custard pie in the face. In Cinderella, mayhem and mess ensues when the ugly sisters get ready for the ball. In Aladdin, its soap suds at Widow Twankys laundry. Mother Goose has the Queen of Hearts making her tarts in the palace kitchen and Alderman Fitzwarren gets his shop redecorated in Dick Whittington.
The panto song is a regular feature an opportunity for some community singing and for younger members of the audience to clamber up on to the stage and join in.
The Grand Finale includes the walkdown. All the performers come on stage to take their bows in a strictly prescribed order that my husband jokingly calls a who's best.
In a final tip to tradition, we follow this with a few rhymes from the leading characters ending with a final couplet that reinforces the message that good-hearted people get to live happily ever after.
Yes, even I know thats not always the case but it is not a bad thought to hang on to as you leave the theatre on a cold February evening.
Its not quite a Christmas pantomime, I grant, but the pros tend to do their thing over the festive season while quite a number of the amateur productions opt for the February half-term week which usually includes Shrove Tuesday.

Prince: My middle name is George because I was born on St Georges Day
Buttons: I got my middle name from the day I was born too.
Prince: Whats that then?
Buttons: Pancake.

Daft but delicious.
In the 25 plus years we directed our pantomimes (and we have been known to cast ourselves in the best parts too) we never turned anyone away and we have seen some great talent develop.
Some of the leading lights of the larger amateur musical societies in the area started with Landseer Players, the group we have been involved with for around 30 years.
In the early days we mounted the pantomime in a church hall. The only way to get from one side of the stage to the other was to exit through the back door, run round the back of the building and re-enter through the outside door. It was not too bad in dry weather but when there was snow on the ground, or when it was teeming with rain, the entire cast could get a chill.
Although we strived for high production values, the finances never really ran to professional standards. Consequently, in Babes in the Wood, when Friar Tuck fell over, his tonsured wig fell off to reveal a very healthy and un-friar like head of hair on the actor.
When the hall was vandalised we were invited to perform at a nearby junior school and then, when that was demolished we moved to the main hall of Suffolk college and when that was demolished... do you notice a pattern emerging?
Our loyal production team have been called upon to make all manner of special equipment. The washing machine overflowing with bubbles; the hamburger catapult; the exploding oven; the exploding haggis; the growing beanstalk; the UV-lit inside of a whale and more. We also have flashes for the appearance of the fairy and the occasional special such as the year a Dalek (one actually used in an episode of Doctor Who) arrived to defeat the baddie.

Any man who craves adulation should join a theatre group. He will be treated like a demi-god.

The revolving fireplace is one of the riskier props. It has always been a favourite in the behind you! scene when the leading characters are beset by ghosts, monsters and the undead.
By using the revolve you can despatch a character through 180 degrees and bring round a ghoul or a vampire.
The problem is that the revolve has to be operated by two members of the stage crew who respond to the spoken cue. But, pantomime being what it is, cues can disappear into a welter of ad libs, leaving the crew bewildered.
We have had characters disappear mid sentence; revolve dizzily two or three times hanging on for dear life, or fail to revolve at all.
One of the things that an amateur show can provide that a professional show can rarely match, is a big chorus.
There are always more women than men. It is one of the first rules of amateur theatre.
Any man who craves adulation should join a theatre group. He will be treated like a demi-god. If he can also speak intelligibly and walk in a straight line, he will be up for a leading role... okay, that might be an exaggeration but men remain at a
premium in amdram.
The chorus populate the stage at various times; notably to sing the opening number (eg On a Wonderful Day Like Today); the number at the end of the Act One cliffhanger (The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow) and the finale song (Reach for the Stars).
They will invariably be clad in peasant-type blouses and skirts to depict townspeople or village people (not the Village People).
We would tend to alternate headwear of floral bands and headscarfs. Oh no; not the headscarves... cant we have something different?
A floral headband?
Audiences expect to see a gaily-coloured array of amiable peasants. Realism is not an option were not talking about the ragged, poverty-stricken street dwellers of Les Miserables. No, fairytale places are always inhabited by ridiculously happy people. Theres no hint of revolt or republicanism in these shows.
The stories have their roots in the collected works of Perrault (Cinderella; Red Riding Hood), the Brothers Grimm (Snow White; Sleeping Beauty) and traditional nursery rhymes (Mother Goose; Humpty Dumpty).
Interestingly, there are one or two that are loosely based on fact. Babes in the Wood, with barely a nod to historical accuracy or chronological exactitude, incorporates the mystery of the Princes in the Tower with the folk legend of Robin Hood. The Babes are left to die in the forest by the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham but they are saved by the birds who cover them with leaves to keep them warm. Found by Robin Hood, they are then restored to their rightful estates.
Dick Whittington was a real man who did serve as Lord Mayor of London on three occasions. The pantomime take on his story has our hero coming to London to seek his fortune.
When his cat kills the rats plaguing the court of the King of Morocco, Dick is showered with riches and comes home to England a wealthy man.
Since our early days of panto, political correctness has meant some rethinking of stereotypes. We try not to be too baldly ageist, sexist, fattist or, indeed, baldist. It may have diluted the humour somewhat but its probably for the best.
Contemporary references are vital for panto and we have shamelessly used any number of well known catchphrases and advertising slogans. Back in the Seventies when everyone watched sitcoms such as Dads Army, Are You Being Served? and Allo Allo, you could always do well with Stupid boy, Im free and You stupid woman.
Sometimes the suspension of disbelief you need in order to be a pantomime fan can tip you over the edge, just a little bit.
This may account for one of the highlights of my 20 year career as a journalist.
It was when Sooty, the small yellow bear, 62 years old but looking just the same as he always did, appeared in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich.
Anita Dobson starred as the wicked queen but when it came to celebrity interviews, my sights were set on Sooty.
I have to confess he was not the most voluble of interviewees.
It was certainly a quieter interview than the one a colleague conducted with Brian Blessed, who was Captain Hook in Peter Pan at the Regent, the previous year. The interview took place in a small room at the theatre, where even the Blessed whisper was too big for the space.
Sooty, I admit, was a challenge. To be frank, it was a slightly one-sided conversation but fortunately the bears companion Richard Cadell was on hand to clarify some of the knottier points. When Sooty got fed up with my persistent probing, he fired his water pistol at me.
It had never happened to me before. As a news reporter I would occasionally have the phone slammed down on me or a door shut in my face but the water pistol was a first.
The photograph of this damp encounter haunts me still. It was about a year after it appeared in the paper that the first email arrived. It was followed by others with a similar format.
(Name of person) would like to be your friend on Facebook, it informed me.
I was surprised because I was not on Facebook, at least, I hadnt thought I was.
It transpires that some wag had hoicked the picture of Sooty and me from a website and used it to create a Facebook profile.
On a similar theme, the following year, I was privileged to interview Basil Brush.
The interview with the hilarious fox was conducted over the telephone and I can only presume he was on speaker because it cant be easy holding a receiver with paws.
He was playing the Emperor of China in Aladdin at The Regent, with Debra Stephenson as the eponymous hero.
Basils review hailed him as having true comic bite as well as bark. I wish Id said that.
After two such ground-breaking interviews, I await similar opportunities with Mr Blobby and Kermit.
More recently, I spoke to one of our most distinguished pantomime dames; Christopher Biggins. He has all the qualities of the perfect dame larger than life, likes people, can laugh at himself, friendly, funny and looks extraordinary in a frock. You cant fake it.
All over the county, this winter, theatres will be presenting their Christmas pantomimes, an undemanding confection of music, song, slapstick, family fun and a few naughty double entendres.
After 37 years of writing pantos, I like to think I am attuned to the slightest hint of cheekiness but there is always the one that got away.
It wasnt until the first read through of our Snow White script that we noticed the other meaning of the heroines line, addressed to the huntsman ordered to kill her: Oh Hans, Ive never been this far in the forest before.
The gale of laughter that greeted it told us this was one that had got away.
Most of them are deliberate such as the throwaway line in Cinderella that the Princes balls get bigger every year.
Its all in the mind, of course.

I say, I say, I say...

Ugly sister: Oh, no, my foot doesnt fit the crystal slipper
Buttons: Your foot wouldnt fit the Crystal Palace

Ugly sister: Im all hot and bothered
Buttons: You may be hot but youll never be bothered.

Dame: (tearfully) My husband went down the garden to pick some runner beans and never came back.
Prince: Thats terrible, what did you do?
Dame: I opened a tin of peas.

Dame: I went to the doctor because I keep seeing things. One minute its Mickey Mouse, the next its Donald Duck. And the doctor said: How long have you been having these Disney spells?

Lord Chamberlain: I hear eggs are going up again.
Dame: Thatll surprise a few chickens.

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