What’s the most popular panto this winter? Amanda Cornwallis takes a look at the top three and their origins
At the turn of the century Snow White ruled supreme alongside Cinderella as the two most popular pantomimes. This year both ladies of the stage have been usurped by the cheeky thinking-on-his feet-urchin better known as Aladdin as the most popular character this Christmas in professional pantoland with 54 professional productions listed by the website www.its-behind-you.com.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is in third on 44 with Cinders in a close second on 48 – although these three are by far the most popular titles in the seasonal family genre. In fourth place is Jack and the Beanstalk (32) who is never completely out of favour with another perennial Peter Pan in fifth on 25.
Beauty and the Beast comes in at sixth with 22 productions across the country with Sleeping Beauty on 20 in seventh holding off the challenge of Dick Whittington, Gloucester’s favourite fortune hunter on 14 in eighth position.
Making up the top ten is the Wizard of Oz and Robin Hood with just four apiece – although of course Robin always shares his production with the Babes In The Wood.
Mother Goose (3) and Puss-in-Boots (just one pantomime) seem out of favour, as does Hansel and Gretal with only two productions that tell their gingerbread story. Treasure Island also registers only one show – normally a panto that does well, Finding Santa, Jack Frost and Little Red Riding Hood are also headlined for one outing this year.
Aladdin is a strange mixture of Far East and Middle East set as it is in China despite it being a sort of Arabian folk tale. As such it’s a hybrid with aspects of the culture of Syria and Iraq blended into the back streets of a Beijing complete with a Chinese laundry where Aladdin’s brother Wishy Washy works. There’s also Aladdin’s mother Widow Twankey and of course Princess Jasmine whom Aladdin is destined to marry along plus the evil Abanazar who is desperate to discover the secrets of the magic lamp. Aladdin is the classic rags to riches story of the son of a poor washerwoman who overcomes the odds to clinch an unlikely rich wife.
This season Aladdin is played by Anthony Costa of the boy band Blue at the Kings Theatre in Portsmouth, while in Cardiff Arabian Nights is another take on the stories that includes one about the boy with the magic carpet and his eye on a magic lantern. There are also another 50 productions to choose from across the country with a variety of settings and styles.
In reality Aladdin was not originally a teenager from Syria or Iraq but was from China. Due to the lack of geographic knowledge of storytellers in Medieval Arabia there quickly developed a fusion that made China very Arabic.
The story has been constantly changed, reimagined and updated over the centuries which the authors of pantomimes in particular taking liberties with the names, details and settings of the story.
The rags to riches story emerges originally as a Middle Eastern folk tale although from the beginning it blends elements of the Far East with more homegrown cultural references.
Although the story has always been thought of as Chinese in its various retellings it has moved progressively westwards with a distinct flavour of Baghdad and modern day Syria and Iraq. It was included in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) in the 18th century by Antoine Galland as stories from the East became fashionable as the British and French empires opened up trade routes to the east.
It first became a pantomime in Britain in 1788 by John O’Keefe for the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and with its magic carpets, Genies, lamps and cast of comedy characters has been in the top ten ever since.
The story’s strange blend of China, Syria, Arabia and Iraq has allowed constant changes to be made to leading characters and the plot. Despite its Chinese origins there’s no hint of Buddism or Confucianism with most of the characters Muslim in name.
One possibility is it originated in China and travelled across the continent with Mongolians and blended into the cultural of Turkestan and filtered down into the Middle East from there.
Cinderella may have been over-taken by the Syrian-come-Beijing-come-Baghdad laundry worker but her origins are just as mysterious.
Sometimes referred to as the story of The Little Glass Slipper, Cinderella emerges from central Europe as a folk story in the 16th century although certainly dates back into the mists of time as a story of good triumphing over evil with a persecuted heroine at its core.
In older versions of the story she exacts terrible revenge upon her step-sisters but the Brother’s Grimm cleaned up some of the sharper aspects of the narrative and when pantomime took the story to its heart the main motifs of the story had been settled. The glass slipper, the hunt for its wearer, the impoverished father and his selfish and cruel daughters and the final scene when the once put-upon Cinders marries the Prince.
Also thought to have come from central Europe is Snow White or Schneewittchen tends to be thought of as distinctly German – mainly due to a version of the fairy story being published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.
Like Cinderella the story has distinct features all of which have been retained by panto versions. There’s the magic mirror, the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, the wicked queen and of course seven dwarfs.
All pantomimes have certain standards that give them a universal appeal, meaning the various stories have a similar feel with an evil villain who is roundly hissed, a romance, a pantomime dame and of course a happy ending.