The pantomime season is upon us and, this year as every year, grown men in droves will be pulling up their tights, adjusting their inflated cleavage and slapping on enough make-up to keep Max Factor in business for another twelve months. Oh yes they will! I hear you cry. But for how much longer? There are a number of worrying trends developing in Pantoland and the prognosis for the future of this traditional Christmas treat isn't good.

Where Have All the Women Gone?

Not long ago no self-respecting pantomime impresario would dream of casting a man as a leading man. Oh no they wouldn't! Instead, come December, the nation would be brimming with flat-chested Anita Harris clones playing everyone from Peter Pan to Aladdin.

In recent years though, the big budget "star" vehicles have, disturbingly, started to cast men as men. Sid "Ricky" Owen as Dick Whittington and Darren Day as Prince Charming are just two of the latest destroyers of tradition. At least Bonnie Langford (in Eastbourne's Aladdin this year) can still be relied upon to turn out as a bloke.

Bonnie gets the thumbs up too from Panto expert Roger Foss, associate editor of What's On in London magazine. According to Foss, Langford is one of a rare breed indeed - the proper panto artist. Most of the celebrities who appear today are hired for their cachet as pop singers, former footballers or soap stars and have neither the training nor love of panto as an art form.

What's more, says Foss, they're expensive, which pushes production costs up while usually cheapening everything else. The result is low-quality performances and plots designed more around celebrity party pieces than compelling drama. "Pantomime is a dying form," Foss laments. "Standards have fallen because producers have to pay out so much for TV stars who often aren't very good on stage. That leaves less to spend on other aspects of the production."

Parents Beware

The traditional pantomime - a comic morality play based on a fairy tale and performed at Christmas time - is also in danger from the twin modern threats of PC caution and commercial zeal. Foss believes both are insidious and spreading quick.

"At some theatres, political correctness has taken over," he says. "They seem to think men dressed as women is demeaning, which is criminal in theatrical terms. The point is that pantomime is topsy-turvydom, the world turned upside down once a year." PC sensibilities also tend to make the jokes so watered down as to be outright unfunny rather than merely corny.

Meanwhile, increasing commercialism means that pantos, like films, are cashing in on the merchandising game. "Parents are now not only paying for the tickets and forking out for the ice cream at the interval, but also being pestered for the fairy's tiara or the demon's mask, sold in the foyer at often hugely inflated prices."

All of this conspires to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many erstwhile panto proponents, both young and old. And, despite their good intentions, theatregoing parents might be doing their children more harm than good with the annual Christmas outing. "People often talk about Pantomime as being an essential way of introducing children to theatre, but as it is, it can have a negative effect and put them off for good."

Foss advises parents to do their research to find a high quality production before buying tickets. And there is another reason for parents to choose carefully. The last few years has seen the rapid growth of the "adult" panto. While many of these are easily identified by their raunchy titles, others masquerade behind less rude titles, such as the Manchester Green Room's, Snow White and the 7 Dubious Stereotypes.

It Wasn't Always Like This!

Pantomime is as British as the Queen Mother, fish and chips and Carry On films. And, like all great British traditions, most foreigners find it completely unfathomable. Truth be told, it's easy to misunderstand the term pantomime which, in most other parts of the world, refers to the silent art of mime, or conveying ideas without words. The classic art of English Pantomime is an altogether different kettle of fish.

Originally, panto dates from the 17th and 18th-century harlequinade, a mix of dance, music and slapstick comedy. During the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century, the English panto became more closely associated with the Christmas tradition and considered a treat for children in particular. Even then, the form was solidly built around a plot and strong characters.

The shift towards the boisterous, audience-involving, star-headed spectacle of today began in the 20th century. "The big change in pantomime in Britain came after the First World War when variety and music hall artists began to inhabit the form and inject their own personality, skills and theatricality into it," notes Foss.

The celebritification of panto gathered pace right through to the 1960s when the likes of Cilla Black and Cliff Richard, the Britney Spears and Robbie Williams of their day, could be seen treading the boards in tights and skirts respectively.

The 1970s, 80s and 90s could not be described as great decades for the panto. Whereas once major pantos featured on the annual calendar of major West End venues such the London Palladium. Now the capital, and certainly the West End, is all but bereft of the form.

All is not lost though. There are still plenty of regional producing theatres and dedicated performers ready to don bug wigs and hooped skirts up and down the land. And so, for your delightful delectation, here are Foss's picks for Christmas this year.

Best Panto Stars of 2001:

  • Bonnie Langford - in Aladdin
  • Brian Conley - "always good value"
  • Danny La Rue - "he's in his mid-70s but still looks a million dollars"
  • Peter John - in Jack and the Beanstalk
  • John Inman - "one of the greatest ever"
  • Clive Rowe - "one of the first black panto dames"

    Best Theatres for Pantos Year on Year:

  • Palace Theatre, Watford
  • Greenwich Theatre
  • Wimbledon Theatre
  • Hackney Empire
  • Richmond Theatre
  • Theatre Royal, Brighton

    ANNUAL PANTO SPECIAL!! To find out this year's Top Pantos, find out where the stars are playing and search for a panto in your area, please visit the 2001 Pantomime Chart page.