What is a modern pantomime script?

WHAT IS A MODERN PANTOMIME SCRIPT?
Pantomime is in the British DNA. Everyone’s got an idea of what pantomime is – and so do their Mum’s and Dads, as did their Mums and Dads before them – and so on and so on and so on!

And yet pantomime, which seems to have such timeless traditions, has totally transformed itself over the years – and that’s its amazing strength. It’s always evolving, always changing. Embracing the rituals we all know and love – yet also moving on and finding new ways to engage a modern audience.

And of course we always are a modern audience – with hindsight we’ll probably look a bit old fashioned – but for now, 2017 is just about as up to date as it’s possible to be!

So what do the producers and audiences of 2017 really want? Two seemingly contradictory things. Nearly everyone wants a ‘traditional’ pantomime script, but they also want a ‘modern’ pantomime script.

There’s a sense that maybe the art form has been treading water for a few years and that it’s time for a shift. As Noda’s Licensing Manager, Dale Freeman, observes, “People are asking what the modern titles are.” They’re looking for something a bit different. They don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but they do want a sense of renewal.

The amateur world is able to blaze a trail here. Being less risk averse than the big commercial panto producers – and amateur producers are quite possibly reading far more panto scripts than many of their professional counterparts, who often have a formula in place and stick with it year after year. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – the brilliant York Theatre Royal panto starring Berwick Kaler, being a case in point.

But if you go to see the York panto, it is genuinely funny – and this is where amateur companies are also becoming more discerning. People are getting bored with the tired old mechanism for generating audience response simply being “Whenever I come on, I’ll shout ‘Hiya kids!’, and you all shout – Hiya Buttons/Wishee/Simon…!” They want a bit more bang for their buck.

And it’s not surprising – in the cinema, we go to see ‘Shrek’ and ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Madagascar’ and we realise that there is some really good, well thought out family entertainment out there. But it’s clever, it’s based on situation and character and it’s not pretend funny; it actually is funny – and it’s funny for both adults and children on different levels.

And this is the challenge that pantomime and panto script writing is facing. We’ve got to tell these much loved stories in imaginative ways. We love the old routines, but we’ve also got to re-invent them and find ways to incorporate them into the story. We’ve got to come up with new twists and turns and create snappy, fast moving dialogue to help us do so. We’ve got to use verse in new and witty ways, or engineer show stopping ridiculous moments where total anarchy reigns – we’ve got to deliver more than just “Oh, yes it is!”, “It’s behind you!” and “Hiya kids!”!!

Many of the older generation of pantomime scripts were born out of the commercial panto world, where the script requirement was for an efficient, general purpose vehicle. These pantos needed scripts which were ‘star friendly’ and where the whole show could be rehearsed very quickly – often in just a week plus tech. They worked if the stars brought the magic and the originality, but they didn’t supply a great deal themselves.

So, here’s an interesting thought. One of the biggest recent theatrical megahits has been the comedy, “One Man, Two Guvnors”. It got five star reviews in the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, The Daily Express and the Sun. Written by Richard Bean; it’s a re-working of Carlo Goldoni’s farce, “The Servant of Two Masters”, which dates back to 1743. Goldoni is very close to Commedia dell’arte, where we find so many of pantomime’s roots and Richard Bean is a wonderfully witty, acerbic, modern writer.

It’s paralysing funny and it owes its success both to its eighteenth century origins – and to its brilliant contemporary treatment. It’s not a pantomime, but it is absolutely what modern pantomime should aspire to be. It’s bang up to date and yet imbued with all the richness of the past.

So let’s get present, past and future fusing together and creating wonderful family entertainment. The desire to laugh, cry and hear stories is timeless, but the moment we put something on stage, it is also of its time – and we therefore have a duty to keep it up to date and sparkling new.

But never fear, however far modern pantomime evolves over the next one hundred years and whatever amazing technological feats are then possible – our great, great grandchildren will still hear those magic words, “You shall go to the ball!”

Ben Crocker

"The wittiest and most original writer working in pantomime today."
AS Magazine

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