Family-friendly morality tales: Pantomime veteran Jon Monie on the good guys and the bad guys of festive theatre

Emma Clegg considers pantomime’s characters, wonders why it is such a festive family addiction, and asks panto veteran Jon Monie how it has changed over the years and whether it’s the villains that are the most crucial factor.

The pantomime is a timeless family tradition. Whether it’s Peter Pan, Cinderella or Aladdin, you know you will encounter the flamboyant cross-dressing dame, the innocent poverty-stricken girl, the scowling villain, the handsome prince, and the sparkling fairy godmother in some narrative form, and if you’re lucky the pantomime horse or cow. They are familiar characters and stories; there are no surprises, just an explosive, entertaining over-the-top performance that feels part of a long-established canon.

This theatrical form has, however, gone on a journey – the roots of pantomime lie in a style of classical theatre called Commedia Dell ‘Arte, popular in Italy throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, where characters appeared, representing recognisable social stereotypes, such as the clown, the servant, and the lovers. The troupes would typically perform – including dance, music, tumbling and acrobatics – in a town’s main square or at court and would play out conventional plot lines, with much of it was improvised so that the actors could make the drama colourful with relevant local news or scandals. By the early 18th century, Commedia characters including Harlequin, Scaramouche, Pantaloon, Pierrot, Punch and Columbine began to appear on the London stage, with performances set to music.

Under the direction of actor manager David Garrick (1717–1779) Harlequin started to speak, and had new stories written based on old English folk stories like Dick Whittington and Robin Hood. After 1843, before which the use of spoken word was restricted, the format developed again, using witty puns, word play and audience participation, along with fairy-tale characters, magical animals, principal boys and pantomime dames. Other stories derived from European, Middle Eastern and Asian folk tales and legends – Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin and Cinderella all have their origins here. Then in the 1860s Music Hall performers started to be cast in pantomimes, bringing with them a celebrity status that pulled in new audiences. That device has remained a winning one and over the years Bath has seen stars such as Jimmy Mac, Frankie Howerd, Arthur English, Jon Pertwee, Melvyn Hayes, Eric Sykes, Derek Nimmo, Terry Scott, June Whitfield, and Danny La Rue treading the boards.

The strongest pantomime stories are those where the central character goes on an emotional journey…

Above: Jon Monie as Smee and Paul Nicholas as Captain Hook in Peter Pan in 2018. Photograph by Freia Turland

Panto veteran Jon Monie is appearing in the Bath Theatre Royal pantomime for the 19th time this year as Buttons in Cinderella (he keeps count because of the posters going all the way up his stairs). He now writes the pantomime scripts for UK Productions who are responsible for the productions in Bath, producing completely new versions from start to finish. Jon says his mantra when writing is, “Keep it traditional, keep it within budget, and ensure there are jokes for every age group. With Cinderella I knew what set and costumes they had, so I didn’t try and rewrite the rule book, but I went for lots of new jokes and I tried to make Cinderella more feisty – I think the female principal girl can be a bit underwritten and I had a bit of fun with the prince and Dandini and introduced a few set pieces that hadn’t been done in Bath for a long time.”

Some pantomimes have lost their relevance over the years and others have been newly introduced. Jon explains, “There are a small core of titles which are eternally popular, and others fall by the wayside. So some titles such as Mother Goose, Babes in the Wood or Robinson Crusoe have fallen out of favour, because if children don’t know the stories they don’t want to go and see them. So Beauty and the Beast has now become really popular as a pantomime but that’s the Disney effect. The story goes back to the 1700s but it was only when Disney made it an animated film that it became well known. So there is an increase in stories like The Little Mermaid, Shrek or Frozen, which seem to be pushing out some of the more traditional ones.”

So this brings things a bit more up to date, but what is it about the traditional pantomime that has seen it survive into our modern era, where it’s phones and tech and AI, rather than fairy godmothers and evil pirates, that dominate our culture?

The stars and the characters are key, but it is the driving moral of the stories that we love, following a simple narrative arc with a calm beginning, a middle where tension, conflict and the momentum of the story build to a peak, and the finale where the conflict is resolved. This is where the forces of good and evil come into play. The narrative of any story is about change and transformation and pantomime does it quite literally in black and white. In Jon Monie’s words, “I think the strongest pantomime stories are those where the central character goes on an emotional journey, and has some moment of inner revelation.”

Above: Jon Monie as Idle Jack, R Colson as the Alderman and Chris Harris as Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington in 2011. Photograph by Freia Turland

It is the villain that controls this arc – the villain and the hero are foils for each other, but it’s the villain, the force of antagonism, who controls the drama. The comforting part for the audience is that the villain follows a script that we know ends with his selfish plans being foiled and the hero achieving his dreams. Without him (or her) the hero wouldn’t seem so morally superior, we wouldn’t understand the dangers and challenges faced by the characters and there would be nobody to hate, or to defend. Aladdin needs his Abbanazar, Cinderella needs her Ugly Sisters, Peter Pan needs Captain Hook – these villains carry us on a journey where we know the ending, but want to work through it by enjoying the spectacle, clapping and singing and shouting “He’s behind you!” And seeing the hero of the pantomime face so many challenges, the observers – including a host of small people, either wide-eyed with wonder or jumping up and down in their seats on a chocolate high – develop empathy.

Jon talks about these opposing forces: “Villains and goodies both have a huge part to play. I love the fact that the villains should always come on from Stage Left, never from Stage Right – that goes back to the medieval plays where Stage Left is seen as hell and Stage Right as heaven. So you have good on one side and evil on the other.
“The villains are the most fun to play, but without that morality contest which runs through a lot of pantomimes, it would lose its depth and intrigue. You need to see the central character having to wrestle between good and bad and make the right choices. Obviously nothing bad ever happens to these people but jealousy, betrayal and envy are universal emotions and feelings that we are all susceptible to and it’s fun to play them out in a comedic, over the top way.”

You need to see the central character having to wrestle between good and bad and make the right choices

Cinderella, this year’s Theatre Royal Bath production, is said to be the most popular pantomime of all. Jon explains why: “Cinderella exists in almost every culture around the world, so most children know it. And it has just got everything – it’s got a wonderful romance, it’s got a story of adventure and self-discovery, it’s got the villains with the Ugly Sisters who are the most glamorous of all the baddies, and you have Buttons who is eternally loveable. So it ticks a lot of the panto boxes.

“People forget that the sisters are the villains, because they get so many of the laughs with the costumes and the make-up and the banter between the two of them, and they get all the best lines. They are fun to write for and they are fun to play. All baddies get laughs but nobody gets killer lines like the Ugly Sisters.”

Jon worked for years with actor, director and writer Chris Harris, who he says was a huge influence on him: “Chris taught me that pantomime should always be larger than life and twice as real. The larger than life bit is the easy bit, but the twice as real is the crucial part. The story is nonsense really but you still have to take it seriously as an actor and play the truth of the scene otherwise the children will see through you.”

Check out just how twice as real it is this festive season.

Cinderella runs from 16 December to 9 January 2022 at Theatre Royal Bath. Daily shows at 2pm and 7pm or 1pm and 5pm;

Want to test your knowledge of past villains and good guys (mostly fairies) who always save the day? Take our who-what-where quiz here!