July 8, 2020

Culture wars are for losers. (Oh yes they are.) And the ones that are actually happening are often fought by people who don’t seem all that interested in culture.

A few weeks ago, for instance, the headlines told us that an episode of Fawlty Towers was being removed from circulation for its use of racist language. It was. But briefly and from only one platform, UKTV, during which time it remained freely available from Britbox, Netflix and iTunes. After a few days, it returned to UKTV, uncut and affixed with a brief warning about the script’s use of racial slurs that would be unquotable on this page. Predictably, the noise around the story prevented the discussion of the much more urgent and subtle question upon which it turned — how should broadcasters manage the consequences of our new and perhaps perverse expectation that the popular culture of five decades ago should be instantly and eternally accessible?

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In the 1920s, movies that were more than six years old were customarily dumped in a bath of hydrogen peroxide, melted down with other plastic trash — gap-toothed combs, discarded Xylonite dentures — and recycled as waterproof paint. Now we confer immortality on every moving image, and expect it to be preserved, archived and streaming on our phones. Our grandparents were never made uneasy by the culture of the past: they’d already forgotten it. We, however, have abolished cultural amnesia. Puzzling out that paradox, however, takes more journalistic effort than cutting and pasting one of John Cleese’s angry tweets.

This week, though, British comedy provided the field for a much more interesting and enjoyable battle — one that might even suggest a way of resolving these skirmishes. On Monday, Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary with the Rank Charm School manners, provided a deus ex machina ending for a drama that had been rumbling since the moment, a fortnight previously, when a widely-anticipated rescue package for the arts sector failed to appear. The empty space was filled with energetic campaigning by playwrights, directors and actors, worried by the not-unreasonable suspicion that Boris Johnson was about to do to the theatres what Margaret Thatcher did to the mines.

But on Monday morning, Dowden waved his magic wand and promised the imminent arrival of £1.57 billion — some of it in actual money. Then the examination of the detail began. In his round of media interviews, Dowden was asked if the Christmas pantomime season might yet be saved. His answer was a rueful one. It looked difficult, thanks to the epidemiological challenge posed by a noisy inter-generational entertainment involving shouting, singing, and the violent agitation of soap bubbles and wallpaper paste.

It was a realistic answer and it made me sad. It also made the European arts correspondent of the New York Times sad. But not for the same reason. Matt Anderson was disgusted. He tweeted his disgust in block capitals, which made him seem even angrier than John Cleese. And when others pointed out to him that the financial stability of many British theatres was guaranteed by a successful pantomime season, he went the full Abanazar. “If that’s the most important art form for the health of the sector,” he declared, “there’s something wrong with the system.” He might as well have said it under a green light and then flounced off with a peal of diabolical laughter. Theatrical Twitter raised its handbag to its chest and told him that his snobbery was showing.

I may have hissed a little myself. Pantomime produces no disgust in me. It gives me a delicious form of historical vertigo. When I watch a pair of comics perform the wallpaper routine, or the plate-smashing sketch, or some business in a dark forest with a luminous ghost, I know I am in touch with the deep history of British culture; that I’m watching choreography and gags that were first worked out over a century ago. It also makes me part of an audience that is being sounded out on the length of its cultural memory. At the Manchester Opera House in 1992 I saw the celebrated dame Gordon Peters manoeuvre 2,000 people into hooting out the second line of You Made Me Love You — a song from 1913. (“I didn’t want to do it!” they chorused, as if Pavlov had conditioned them.) I’ve also seen those echoes fail: at the Catford Broadway in 2008, I was the only person in the stalls who knew that “Hi-de-Hi” should always be followed by “Ho-de-ho!”

Pantomime emerged from the Harlequinade, an Anglicised 18th-century version of the Italian commedia dell’arte. Thanks to the 1737 Licensing Act, which permitted only the two Royal Theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, to feature plays with dialogue, the Harlequinade concentrated on song and wordless slapstick — executed most effectively by its Clown character, a figure of misrule who sat on babies, prodded people with red hot pokers, and sometimes abseiled up the set on a rope of sausages.

In 1843, the Theatre Regulation Act changed the rules on stage dialogue, triggering the mutation of the form. The silent clowns of the Harlequinade remained silent, but their show underwent a fusion with another popular theatrical genre — the “extravaganza”, in which myths and fairy tales were used as a frame for satirical, pun-filled comedy. Even if the story was set in Ancient Greece or medieval England, a steam train or an omnibus might move anachronistically over the stage — which explains why Widow Twankey’s laundry in Old Peking is always equipped with coin-operated washing machines. The airlock between these two styles was provided by an event that also remains a feature of modern pantomime — the transformation scene, in which, for instance, the pumpkin becomes a coach, or a magic lamp is spotted in a cave full of jewels.

These developments have produced a theatrical form of impressive sophistication and complexity. Pantomime smashes the fourth wall, bends time, space and gender, combines acrobatics, physical comedy and satire on local and national subjects. In 1993, the film director Lindsay Anderson went to the Bath Theatre Royal to see his old friend Robin Askwith, who had played one of those Maoist schoolboy revolutionaries in If…. (1968). The show was Dick Whittington. Askwith’s co-stars were June Brown from EastEnders, Ian Botham and a pair of magicians called Richard and Lara Jarmain. Anderson’s verdict: “Very Brechtian.”

And if you scoff at the idea of the British intellectual in the panto audience, this too is part of the tradition. In 1874, John Ruskin went five times to see Cinderella at Hengler’s Circus, and then to Drury Lane to catch Jack in a Box; or Harlequin Little Tom Tucker and the Three Men of Gotham who went to Sea in a Bowl. In this production, a princess disguised as Bo Peep led a flock of mechanical sheep across the stage and then caused a forest of magic mushrooms to rise up:

You see at present everywhere among us,
A mushroom, popularly called a fungus.
I do but strike my crutch and with this plunge, I
Reveal the funny figures of the Fungi.

Ruskin went straight from the theatre to write an essay contrasting the child actors who skipped through the fairyland of the Drury Lane stage and their hungry equivalents on the streets of Covent Garden. He imagined England itself subject to a transformation scene, in which its street children occupied their own Drury Lane pastoral, instead of “rolling on the heaps of black and slimy ground, mixed with brickbats and broken plates and bottles”.

The man from New York Times endured this week’s boos and hisses with grace. I hope, however, he paid no heed to the little knot of culture warriors who imagined that a political motive explained his lack of enthusiasm for watching veteran comics and X-Factor runners-up throw custard pies at each other. “People like him don’t want to be deeply connected to our history,” one insisted. “They prefer to rewrite it.”

It’s an odd charge. Rewriting history is what historians do for a living. It’s also why pantomime is still here, using 16th-century Italian performance style and stories from the Brothers Grimm and the Arabian Nights to produce topical entertainment that has always enjoyed the freedom to jettison any elements that fall from favour. (Blackface and yellowface vanished along with gags about Mafeking and ration books; the dame and the ghosts remain.) Its history usually defies those who accuse it of abandoning its traditions. Critics who complained that Julian Clary was too rude for Snow White at the Palladium probably didn’t know about all the cock puns in the Drury Lane panto seen by Ruskin in 1873. Those who grumbled about Frank Bruno’s presence at the top of 1990s panto bills had, I suspect, never heard of Daniel Mendoza, the celebrity bare-knuckle boxer who appeared in Aladdin at Covent Garden in 1778.

But why would they? Unlike sit-coms set in the aspic of UKTV, pantomime is mutable, agile, and always renegotiating its relationship with the present day. At the 2019 panto at the Palladium, Nigel Havers got the biggest laugh of the night by climbing out of a bear suit and declaring: “If Prince Andrew is in tonight … THIS is sweat.” At the 2016 Sleeping Beauty at the Hackney Empire, Gavin Spokes’s Dame Nanny Nora trolled on stage in a frock divided between the EU flag and the Union Jack and declared: “I like a bit of both.” In the 2018 Aladdin at the Catford Broadway, as Theresa May suffered another Brexit deal defeat in Parliament, Wayne Rollins’ Abanazar declared: “I will rub this magic lamp and plunge the country into chaos!” Then he paused. “On second thoughts…”

Everyone got it. And the audience, in that moment, seemed a lot less divided than the country.