In the land of stereotype, the British are known for their quiet reserve, their inability to express emotion and the stiffest upper lips in the world. And yet there are some events that can turn a group of British people into a highly emotional baying mob, making more noise than a stampeding herd of elephants - and in public! FA Cup finals and Take That concerts can have this effect, though only to a comparatively limited extent. If you really want to hear the British public raise the roof, the best of all possible venues is the traditional Christmas pantomime1. Those born and raised in other lands tend to find that their first visit to a pantomime is a very strange experience indeed, as generations of tradition have conditioned the British public to know exactly how to respond to panto promptings.
Almost uniquely in modern Western theatre, the audience for British pantomime is an integral part of the action, explicitly acknowledged by almost all of the characters and with particular functions to perform. In Shakespeare's day, audiences would happily cheer the heroes, heckle the villains and throw rotten fruit at the actors if they became bored with proceedings. Such rowdy audience involvement has now mostly died away, so that audiences merely watch, observe and (hopefully) applaud. In conventional theatre at least, the pantomime is almost the last stronghold of audience participation.
Almost? There are a few other notable shows that involve the audience directly in the action. The Rocky Horror Show now involves a lot of audience responses which developed after the release of the cult hit film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Also in musical theatre, the show Return to the Forbidden Planet requires the audience to help reverse the spaceship's polarity during an emergency, and the cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood polls the audience on the outcome of the story (since Charles Dickens died so inconveniently before finishing the tale). In pantomime, however, the audience is involved in the show from beginning to end as the genre almost entirely dispenses with the fourth wall2. Sometimes a pre-show announcement will be made encouraging the audience to shout, boo, cheer and laugh as much as they like, but this is not really necessary - the panto audience is generally well aware that unlike most visits to the theatre, they are not only allowed to make a noise, they are strongly encouraged to do so3.
The origins of most of the participative routines in pantomime have been lost, as the form has developed and changed a great deal since the Harlequinades of the 18th Century. Wherever they came from, the routines are now so much a part of panto tradition that audiences would feel short-changed if they were absent.
One of the most vital facets of pantomime audience participation is the interaction with the villain. Ideally, he or she should be greeted with a barrage of booing and hissing from everyone in the audience every time they appear on stage, and the villain will generally have a struggle to make their first lines heard over the noise. The lucky man or woman playing the villain will judge the success of their performance by the volume of the booing and hissing, and may well refer in character to loving it - 'ahhh, music to my ears' is a common retort when the noise continues for an appreciable period of time.
Like Bond villains, the evil characters in pantomime are fond of soliloquising, explaining their evil schemes in detail. This is partly so that younger members of the audience can follow the story, and partly to cover set changes - the villain tends to rant in a scene that takes place in front of a cloth while frantic activity happens on the rest of the stage to get ready for the next scene.
Do You Want To Be in My Gang?
One of the essential characters in the panto pantheon is the audience friend. The best known of these is Buttons in Cinderella. This is the character who interacts with the audience most, and who tends to have an entirely comic function. If there is any water, wallpaper paste, gunge or shaving foam on stage, the audience friend will probably end up covered in it. They are also likely to be desperately in love with the beautiful princess, who will see the character as a very good friend and nothing more. The audience will almost always form the audience friend's gang, which is expressed through a call and response taught on their first appearance. This can be as simple as 'Hiya gang!', which demands the response 'Hiya, Buttons!' (or Muddles, or Wishee, or whoever) or marginally more complex, particularly in Peter Pan, where the pirate Smee can indulge in some not-so-subtle wordplay on the theme of his name - 'It's me!'/'It's Smee!'
After booing and hissing the villain, this interaction with the audience friend is generally the first bit of audience participation in the show, and sets the pattern for most of what will follow - the actors are in control, or at least they hope they are, setting the rules and prompting the audience about when and how to join in.
Oh No You're Not!
At least once during any pantomime, some of the characters will argue with the audience. One of them, usually the villain, will claim something to be true or good, and the other characters, joined by the audience, will shout their disagreement. For example, Cinderella could include the following:
Prince Charming: I thought there was another woman living here, a maid of some sort.
Ugly Sisters: Oh no there isn't!
Audience (probably plus Buttons): Oh yes there is!
Ugly Sisters: Oh no there isn't!
Audience: Oh yes there is!
Ugly Sisters: Isn't! Isn't! Isn't!
Audience: Is! Is! Is!
These exchanges could theoretically go on forever, but a halt will normally be called after two or three repetitions. The reasons for starting the routine are varied - should Aladdin trust Abanazar? (oh no he shouldn't!); are the Ugly Sisters beautiful? (oh no they're not!); is the comic policeman stupid? (oh yes he is!). However inconsequential it is to the plot, this sort of exchange is absolutely essential - panto just isn't panto without it.
It's Behind You!
One of the noisiest routines in panto is the 'ghost gag', which generally serves no purpose other than getting the audience to shout very, very loudly. In this routine, a group of the good characters (always including the Dame) will be lost somewhere, often in the middle of a forest. Here they will stand or sit in a line and express their fear of ghosts, gorillas, giant spiders or some other creature that they believe might be in the vicinity. To calm their fears, they'll sing a song during which the object of their fear will appear. It is the audience's job to warn the characters of this, but they will not be heard, and someone will be chased off by the ghost/mummy/bear/whatever. The remaining characters will quiz the audience about what happened and take a look around for the scary creature, encouraging everyone to shout louder and louder if they spot it.
Established pantomime companies all have their own variation on this routine, perhaps with a particular song that is sung every year, or perhaps with a particular order of words spoken by the characters and audience. Whatever the variation, at some point, the auditorium should be echoing with loud cries of 'behind you!' and everyone should be exhausted, whether on stage or off. The routine always ends the same way, but for those who have never experienced pantomime, this Entry will remain silent on the matter.
The Song Sheet
Towards the end of the panto, some of the comic characters will invite the audience to sing a silly song with them, preferably one which has some sort of actions to go with the words. The words of the song are often lowered from the flies above the stage on a giant sheet, leading to this scene being known as the 'song sheet', even if the words are not displayed. Like the villain's speeches, this is to cover a scene change, specifically the big change for the final scene (almost always a wedding), which usually involves a change of costume for the entire cast as well as a change of set. The song may have some sort of connection to the plot of the show or may be entirely arbitrary, but the audience will be cajoled into joining in enthusiastically. Sometimes some members of the 'gang' will be invited onto stage to join in, while at other pantomimes, the audience will be divided in two and challenged to sing louder than the other half4.
It's during the song sheet that audience participation can be at its most unpredictable. If young members of the audience are invited on to stage, they will normally be interviewed by the characters and have a tendency to say the most unexpected thing. Particular care has to be taken if there are characters involved who have names that would be disastrous if mispronounced by an innocent child - Widow Twankey, for instance.
In some panto plots, the audience is needed in order to move the action along. Occasionally, they will be asked to make sure nobody steals a particular prop (which can happen in any pantomime), but in two of the most popular shows, it is the audience that saves the day.
In Aladdin, the brave hero gets trapped in a cave by his evil 'uncle' Abanazar, and has no idea what to do, even if he can manage to locate the lamp that he was sent in there to find. It is up to the audience to tell him what to do, as they know the story. As soon as he even shows a sign of asking for the audience's help, they will chorus loudly 'rub the lamp!', thus summoning the Genie and allowing first the escape from the cave and then the rest of the plot's complications to occur. In some versions of the script, they will already have told him to rub a ring which summons a less powerful (but more beautiful) spirit. In these instances, it is best not to wonder why he doesn't cotton on immediately and try rubbing the lamp as soon as he lays hands on it.
Even more importantly, in Peter Pan, the audience must save the life of the fairy Tinkerbell, who is poisoned by the dastardly Captain Hook. Peter will entreat the audience to demonstrate their belief in fairies in order to revive her. This is done by clapping as loudly as possible, and perhaps stamping their feet and shouting as well. The collective actions of the audience, standing in for all the children of the world, will bring her back to full strength.
Happily Ever After
A good audience at one of the larger pantomimes can be almost deafening - not something that is generally associated with the British public. It would seem that pantomime gives the nation a once-a-year chance to emote in public, releasing all the pent-up tension that goes into maintaining the stiff upper lip all year long. Perhaps the rowdiness of pantomime audiences can be explained as catharsis, but perhaps it is more than that. As a nation, the British are very concerned with doing the right thing. At a pantomime, you are expected to shout, boo, hiss and cheer, so once a year that is what the British public does. With gusto. Oh yes we do!