It’s Behind You! — Holiday Pantomimes in England

silhouette of Cinderella wearing her glass slipperPantomimes? What are they? Usually we think of the word pantomime or mime as meaning acting without words. But at Christmas time in England (and the rest of the United Kingdom) pantomime, or panto as it’s often called, is definitely not silent!

The holiday panto began way back in the 1800s. These plays are often based on fairy tales or folk tales, such as Cinderella, Aladdin, and Humpty Dumpty, but they also include comedy, songs, slapstick, women playing men’s parts and men playing women’s parts, hilarious traditions, and a whole lot of silliness.

One of the traditions is in the title of this post. There’s usually a ghost or some other “thing” that pops up during the production, and kids – and adults – take great delight in yelling “It’s behind you!” This warning is repeated whenever the ghost appears, and creates great fun for the audience (and likely for the players, as well).

There’s always a Dame – an old woman played by a man in as silly a manner as possible. The Principal Boy, on the other hand, is always played by a young woman. The story of the fairy tale is sometimes only loosely followed, as comedians do their routines, singers burst into songs that have little to do with the script – but it’s all a part of the tradition of the panto, and is all great fun.

Pantos are performed throughout England and the rest of the United Kingdom – there were even pantos in Windsor Castle! When Queen Elizabeth, the present Queen of England, was young, she and her sister, Princess Margaret, often performed in private family pantos. Here’s a link to some photos of them at that time.

For more information about pantos, there’s a super site, originally compiled by a junior school in Kent, England, called Project Britain, that has a page about pantomimes (and has pages about nearly everything else you might want to know about Britain, as well).

A site called “It’s Behind You!” has loads of history, information about the stock characters, information about current and former panto stars, and a Kid Zone, too.

If you want to know what’s playing around Britain this season, you can check The Big Panto Guide for pantos in every county,  or you can look at the Visit London site for pantos in the city of London.

You may not be able to attend a panto in England this holiday season, so why not put on your own? Get a group of kids together, pick a fairy tale, choose a girl to be the Principal Boy character, a boy who’s good at being funny to be the Dame, plan for a ghost scene, and treat your friends and family to a pantomime!

“Look out! It’s behind you!”

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The Starborn Revue will be back on January 8 — no post on Wednesday, December 25 or Wednesday, January 1. Happy Holidays!

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  1. The British have such a wicked sense of humor. I’ve heard about their holiday pantomimes for years. Such a great tradition. Enjoyed the video and info. Great holiday activity for kids.

    1. No problem — they’re great photos! (Too bad they’re not a video, wouldn’t that be amazing?)

  2. This is a lovely post, although older, it still applies. I love school pantos and our kids usually have one as part of the school Christmas program. Lat year the performers were from the West End in Schools and it was great. not sure about this year…

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