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Once upon a time (in the late 1500s) Italian ‘commedia’ improv acts toured Europe and pantomimes are thought to have developed from these. They were filled with masks, stories of underdogs and of course, lots of jokes.
In the early to mid-18th century, theatre boomed in Britain and a performer, John Rich, created a new show similar to the ‘commedia’ acts, combining a story with a harlequinade (a comic theatre genre, with clown-like main characters and slapstick jokes) and hey presto panto was born! Pantomimes were criticised though; it was feared this new, garish show would lead to a decline in serious, highbrow theatre…
An actormanager, David Garrick, wanted to cash in on the success of panto without encouraging critics, so he came along and changed the course of panto forever. He limited pantos to the Christmas season, when fun and frivolity were acceptable, and so a British festive tradition was born.
At the end of the 18th century, a clown character more like clowns we see today (hair, nose, smile and more slapstick than you can handle) began to make its mark in theatre. This clown formed the basis for the Buttons and Dame characters on stages today.
Stories were often adapted from English folk tales, like Cinderella and Robin Hood, but still featured the harlequinade aspect quite heavily. Over time, the stories have become the more prominent element of the panto with the harlequinade and clowns taking more of a back seat which are the basis of the shows we see today.
Thanks to the British institution that is pantomime, Christmas has become a time for entertainment! If you fancy some festive fun, then Durham has you covered. There’s the Comedians and Carols alternative Christmas show on the 7th December at the Gala Theatre, or come and see Christmas Characters on the 12th-13th December, as street performers set out to entertain audiences across the city centre.
If you’re after something more traditional, don’t miss the live, outdoor performance of the Nativity story on 10th December, or a children’s introduction to theatre with the Elf’s Toys running throughout December.