It's Christmas and that means it's time for panto... oh yes it is!
It's lovely to see that the pantomime tradition is alive and well and still happening at Christmas time. People have been saying for yonks that the panto tradition is outdated. A newspaper lamented in 1876 that: "Every season convinces us more and more that pantomimes have had their day." But in truth, panto never dies.
Some of the happiest Christmas memories of my childhood are associated with being taken to the pantomime in Dublin, either to the Gaiety or the Olympia, and in the early days, to the Theatre Royal - alas, demolished in 1963. I will be ever grateful to my Aunty Maureen for arranging this annual treat, which seemed to open up a magical world of spectacle, of magic, of music, of story, of live audience interaction ("Oh yes he is."), of comedy, of ballet, of acrobatics, and of the gender-bending theatre tradition involving a principal boy, who was actually a girl with terrific legs, and a Dame, who was actually a man with a salty sense of humour.
I loved every pantomime, but the story of Dick Whittington and His Cat had a lasting influence. The Whittington story is very old; Samuel Pepys mentions it in his diary in 1668. Richard Whittington was a real person, born in Gloucester about 1350, and the panto tells the tale of his journey to London, where, he believed, "the streets were paved with gold". He sets out to walk to the capital, accompanied by his cat, who will prove very useful (the cat is always a great turn). He meets many obstacles - he is harassed, rejected, bullied, and has to serve as a kitchen slave to the evil Baron Fitzwarren (historically, it was a Lord Fitzwaryn). Each time Dick is disheartened and considers giving up, he hears the bells of London chiming, with the words: "Turn again, Whittington." Keep on keeping on. Never lose heart. Naturally, Whittington eventually triumphs, becomes Lord Mayor of London, marries Alice Fitzwarren, and lives happily ever after (with cat).
I remember now so clearly, sitting in the grand circle of the theatre, aged 10, and being thrilled to hear those words: "Turn again, Whittington." And then cheering loudly, with all the other children, as Dick took up his tramp's bundle and walked on.
All pantos are great. But Dick Whittington will always remain my favourite. It's an embellished version of an old folk tale, but it also captures the essence of a great narrative - it's about a journey. It's about overcoming difficulties. It's about seeking your destiny. And it's about persistence.
The most popular pantomimes have been going for centuries. Little Red Riding Hood first appeared in panto form in 1745 - when the Irish actress Peg Woffington appeared, stunningly, in breeches on the London stage, paving the way for the principal boy transvestite turn. Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, Cinderella were all pantos by the 1830s, followed in the next decades by Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose and Aladdin.
The original, rather terrifying, Babes in the Wood (based on a true story about young children perishing at the hands of a wicked uncle) was popular from its first performance in 1827 at Drury Lane. Thankfully, the ferocity of the narrative has been softened.
Beauty and the Beast has been performed in panto form since at least the 1870s. Robinson Crusoe was a panto in 1781, when the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote the script.
Pantomime (which was an invention of the London stage but had its roots in ancient Greece and Rome) certainly changes and adapts, as any genre must: clowns were once a central feature of the panto, but they faded away, and are replaced today by comical or satirical acts.
A female playing the principal boy was considered somewhat outdated by the late Sixties, but was then revived in a fabulous performance by the late Cilla Black, as Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, in 1983. The Ugly Sisters role has grown over the years - and also become more transgendered. Distinguished Shakespearean thespians like Sir Ian McKellan now relish doing a turn as the outrageous stepsisters, who have borne such names as Euthanasia and Asphyxia.
The pantomime historian Gerald Frow notes that a trend in panto has been the ever-increasing popularity of the villain. All audiences adore the villain at whom they can hiss and boo at full throttle.
There have been new pantos. The London stage introduced two pantos with Irish themes: one called Harlequin Pat or The Giant's Causeway, in 1830, which featured Brian Boru and St Patrick; another, in 1849, was called Harlequin and the Magic Fiddle and it starred Father Matthew, the temperance campaigner, and an Evil Spirit called 'Alcohol'. Neither was a hit, but maybe the Father Matthew panto could be given another try?
It's good to try new pantos, yet it's amazing how durable the old ones remain.
At Christmas 1974, a theatre list for pantomimes showing included Aladdin, Babes in the Wood, Robinson Crusoe, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty.
Not too different from the list of pantos on offer this season in Belfast.