Pantomime as community

This week I am getting back to normal, after having been involved in a most wonderful local event. It was a pantomime: in early March moreover!

A pantomime in March is pretty unusual, and this was the first time I had been involved in this particular event. In fact I hadn’t been involved in thespian-type activities for longer than I can remember. Which means certainly 10 years, maybe 15. (those of you, like me, whose age is closer to 60 than 20 will identify with the syndrome whereby one always underestimates how long it is since you last saw such-and-such a person, or did such-and-such a thing, by at least 50%)

The famous Hotwells Panto always happens in March; years ago they very sensibly decided that the traditional period around Christmas is very crowded, whereas people’s diaries are less full in the first months of the New Year. I said it was famous; and that’s true if you live in or around Bristol (the one in England, that is) and take an interest in theatre. I hesitated to say “amateur theatre”, because this production was very professionally run in many ways. Nobody got paid, so in that sense it was certainly amateur. But then I have just remembered that the French word “amateur” simply means “lover of”. Everyone involved in this production certainly qualified in that sense.

I very nearly missed being involved. On 4 January I was walking the beautiful streets of Clifton – “handsomest suburb in Europe” as Betjeman called it, and I will not disagree with him on any matter, least of all this one. I happened to see a poster which read: “Hotwells Panto; Robin Hood; read-through and casting 4 January.” That very evening, in fact, but what struck me was that they were being very previous. Casting now for next Christmas, which is when pantos normally happen? So I went home and Googled it (“like you do”) and got loads of hits, including a half-page article from the “Independent” (a national paper in the UK, in case you’re reading this from anywhere else). The article claimed that the Hotwells Panto was the hot theatre ticket in Bristol, even above the city’s famous Bristol Old Vic. So I naturally had to go along to the read-through and see for myself. Now, two months later, and with the run having finished last Saturday, I can report that what I found was most impressive in many ways:

Longevity: this Panto has been running for nearly 30 years and it seems the vast majority of those involved have been involved for the vast majority of those years.

Commitment: there were, I believe, about 100 people involved, including cast, crew and those making costumes, scenery, props etc. The cast ranged from children of primary-school age to “seniors” like myself, although we were short of performers in their twenties. Any takers?

Local popularity: it’s very much seen as a community event, so all the seats for all four nights were sold out within days, as that article in the “Independent” had predicted. A total of well over 1000 seats went in double-quick time and as far as I know the show is not advertised.

Accessibility: despite that core of long-term involvees (is that a word? It is now), there is no clique culture. Despite being a total stranger off the street, so to speak, I was offered a great part. (see below)

Tradition: this Panto has developed its own traditions but it also sticks to the “traditional Panto” format, unlike many professional pantomimes that rely increasingly on hiring celebrities and recycling lots of smutty jokes. (This one had lots of witty double-entendres but that’s different from gratuitous use of four-letter words; this is supposed to be a family show, after all)

Quality: given top marks by a friend who came to help with makeup, then saw the show. This was her first exposure to the Hotwells Panto and she said it compared very favourably with many professional pantos to which she’d taken her children over the years.

Topicality: this is a major feature of Panto, whether amateur or professional. This year the theme was, of course, the credit crunch or recession or whatever you like to call it. That being the case, I was delighted to be offered the part of Baron Hardup: very much in line with the zeitgeist.

Creativity: in so many ways. For example, in a wonderful spoof on the TV show “Strictly Come Dancing”, all the male dancers were dummies, made and dressed by members of the “Ambras” – the female chorus of local legend and named after a nearby street. One dummy was Barack Obama, one was John Sargeant, referring to the British broadcaster’s recent “career” as a ballroom dancer. (

Originality: anyone who liked Monty Python will recall the phrase “Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition”. I certainly didn’t expect a troop of Vikings to appear in the middle of “Robin Hood”, and neither did the audience. But appear they did, with great impact and to the delight of the audience.

Laid-back production & direction (apart from the occasional but inevitable tantrum!) by Gill Loats and Amanda Webb. Not content with directing this one, they also direct the Southville Panto and Gill is also a producer with the professional “Show of Strength” theatre company in the city.

A witty script produced by a team of writers, in a process developed over the years. The claim is that it’s written by locals for locals, and that is certainly true. One of the local issues that surfaced this year was the City Council’s controversial plan to bring in parking permits. The superbly villainous Sherriff of Nottingham, relating his taxation plans, says: “and I’m even going to tax them for parking their horses outside their own houses”. Then he adds with an evil grin: “of course there will first be a period of full consultation ……. dream on!” A good script needs people capable of delivering it, and the cast was full of such people. It’s well-known that a successful panto needs good people in the role of the villain and the Dame; this production had them. These and others were people who could have succeeded on the professional stage if they had chosen to.

To end on a serious note: we were all handed a questionnaire asking us for our feedback for a local research project investigating whether theatrical and similar events, such as this one, promote community adhesion. It seems clear to me that they do. Twenty years ago we lived in a village so small it had neither a school nor a village shop. However there was a real community spirit and, yes, there was a flourishing panto. Then we needed a larger house, so we moved to another village, similar in many ways but it wasn’t until we got there that we found much less of a sense of community … and, guess what, no panto. Did a panto help to create a community spirit or vice versa? Which was cause and which was effect? You tell me.

I feel privileged to have been part of such a great local institution as the Hotwells Panto, and especially to have been made so welcome, being a newcomer. If you want to know more, here’s the piece that appeared in the local paper, the Bristol Evening Post, last week. Granted, local papers are rarely negative about amateur shows, but even so, it’s worth a read:

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