The Winchelsea Pantomime

By Peter Etherden

1953 was the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Six months later the Twelfth Royal Eltham Boy Scouts and Wolf Cubs joined with other local troops for Jack and the Beanstalk at the Eltham Little Theatre. The tradition probably went back to the Gang Shows of the 1920s and 1930s. This was my first stage performance. Nowadays as I adopt the role of a Journeyman Tenor around Kent and Sussex …Boxing Day Carol Concert at St Mary’s, Funerals in Playden & Staplehurst, Tsunami Disaster Appeal in Battle and Candlemass at Wittersham since Christmas…I look back with some nostalgia on that cute little eight-year old amidst the host of golden daffodils on the (outer) London stage. Was that really the same ‘me’ that I meet in the mirror each morning?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a pantomime is ‘a theatrical entertainment involving music, topical jokes and slapstick comedy’. For good measure the Chambers Dictionary adds ‘showy scenery’ and ‘star attractions of the day’ and remarks that pantomimes are ‘centred loosely on a nursery story’ and that ‘formerly the pantomime ended with a transformation scene and a harlequinade’. The 1921 New Teachers & Pupils Cyclopaedia published out of Des Moines in Iowa goes further. ‘The art of presenting pantomimic entertainments,’ it declares, ‘reached its greatest perfection in Ancient Rome in the time of Augustus’. The Christian Gospels tell of a decree going out from Caesar Augustus ‘that all the world should be taxed’ which gives us our Christmas connection…after all, traipsing around the countryside on a donkey in the ninth month of pregnancy is unusual behaviour and some explanation is needed for a sensible woman like Mary overnighting in a Nazareth stable at Christmas. Should you want to know more about the first century world of Jesus’ apostles and disciples, then According to Mary Magdalen by the Swedish writer Marianne Fredriksson is worth borrowing from Rye Library.

However all is not sweetness and light where pantomimes are concerned. Here is the Holst Publishing Company of Des Moines again. ‘The pantomimic exhibitions were characterized as licentious by the early Christian writers and for some time fell into disuse, but they were later revived in a more refined and cultured form and applied to Christmas and other entertainments.’ Nor was this some isolated condemnation, as the English discovered when Oliver Cromwell felt the need to humour the Puritans by closing down the theatres (along with the Royal Prerogative which sends our boys to war) in the middle of the seventeenth century. The best read on this period of English history is The New World, the second volume of Sir Winston’s Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. Churchill deserved his Nobel Prize in Literature but be warned of his politics. For every reference to an ‘English extremist’ like Tom Paine there are eight references to such personal heroes as ‘perhaps the greatest man that Ireland has produced’, Edmund Burke. But we digress. Let us return to the little town of Win-Chen-See.

Winchelsea Singers’ performance of Aladdin in their local Village Hall on Saturday 29th January 2005 probably had a little more slapstick then the author Stephen Challacombe intended. There were excellent performances by Pam Peters as the Sultana and Graham Alexander as her Sultan. Wendy Weedon charmed the audience with her Princess Sahirah … ‘an air-headed lass with little thought of anything but clothes and money’ perhaps but the lead singing role in the pantomime with four solo songs to deliver. Heather Scott’s erotic shimmers in her role as the Genie of the Lamp were something to behold as well and her rendering of the Beverly Sisters 1950s hit Sisters with the Genie of the Ring, Yvonne Bellhouse had the audience singing along in the aisles.

Wanda Bosher played the lead acting role of Aladdin and did a first rate job keeping the action moving between songs. I am not sure where this tradition for female leads comes from. Paula Byrne, in her biography of Mary Darcy, makes mention of the highly popular ‘breeches roles’ required of actresses on the Georgian stage in the late eighteenth century. ‘In an age when women wore full-length dresses all the time, the actress who cross-dressed in boys’ clothing – as Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Viola, and in dozens of similar roles in eighteenth century comedies – provided a unique spectacle: the public exhibition of a female leg’. Mary Robinson-Darcy it seems had long shapely legs as well as writing best-selling Gothic novels.

David Garrick, the great Shakespearean actor, and Mrs. Mary Robinson’s mentor, was also a very innovative theatre director. His adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, for instance, omitted the first three acts of Shakespeare’s original and began the action with a penitent Leontes washed up on the coast of Bohemia in company with his courtiers. Hermione is the most important female part in the original but in the Garrick adaptation, Florizel & Perdita, the focus is on the young lovers, the prince Florizel and the shepherdess Perdita (‘the lost one’). The Prince and the Shepherdess (really a Princess) are married in the end and live happily ever after. Now if that isn’t a pantomime plot then I don’t know what is – the theme for the Winchelsea Players’ next pantomime, perhaps?

But for this year’s pantomime the cast of the Winchelsea Pantomime treated the audience to enough songs to boggle the local imagination. The accompanist, Elspeth Wrenn was so exhausted after her two-night pianoforte marathon that Rye Singers were a pirate short at their rehearsal of The Pirate of Penzance the following Wednesday. I counted twenty-two songs and hardly a line went by without it being the cue for a song.

As for the topical jokes Winchelsea has the tradition that Henry Dormer steps out from the audience late on in the second half of the Winchelsea Pantomime and meets up on stage with one of the cast…in this case, the Grand Vizier of Win-Chen-See, Knightly Chetwood…for the Chetwood-Dormer comedy double act, with its up-to-date review of local and national events over the past year. This act might have been taken straight from some Edwardian music hall, brought back to life by J.B. Priestley in Lost Empires. You could picture Nicholas Parsons seated in the wings ready to bring down his gavel and end the act as he once did on television before moving up (without hesitation or deviation and with remarkably little repetition) to BBC Radio Four.

Over the years Cinderella has emerged as England’s most popular pantomime with Aladdin now in second place…at least it is if you count some of the other thousand and one stories in the authorised Baghdad version of Scheherazade like Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Back in the days of J.B.Priestley’s lost empires our school atlas world was pink, a worthy oriental gentleman was a term of respect and not abuse and everyone was either English or Foreign.

Our country’s battles against Hitler and the Japanese in the 1940s did much to cure popular ignorance, but before this one legacy of those far-off days was that everywhere east of Suez along Marco Polo’s silk route got lumped together in the popular imagination as Overseas…and came replete with a common culture of magic carpets, despotic sultans, kow-towing chinamen and exotic oriental settings. This habit lives on in pantomime, allowing the Winchelsea Pantomime to serve up such wonderful characters (played by David Jefferies) as Widow Twanky, ‘the very over-the-top mother of Aladdin and Wishy-Washy and hard-up proprietor of a Chinese laundry’ according to the programme.

You will no longer find the Eltham Little Theatre. It got itself a makeover and a change of name back in the 1980s. Nowadays it takes its name from one of Eltham’s two favourite sons…Bob Hope. Can you guess the other? Here is a clue. He starred on television in Up Pompeii. Still not there? Eltham’s other favourite son is Frankie Howard…one of the most celebrated pantomime dames of all times.

                    The Winchelsea Pantomime Quiz

Here are the titles of the twenty-two songs from the Winchelsea Singers’ 2005 Pantomime Aladdin. The next time you play Trivial Pursuit give your family extra points…points mean prizes…for correctly identifying the original play, film or musical these songs come from. Start by giving yourself a pat on the back for working out the correct answers in the first place. Anyone clever enough to download the 22 songs as MP3 files off the internet and send us the compact disk with all the songs on it will be mentioned in dispatches and get themselves a free twelve month subscription to Rye’s Own into the bargain. If you have any trouble with Song Number Twelve, then you should have bought a ticket to the Rye Singers performance at the Rye Community Centre on Friday 25th February or Saturday 26th February.

1. Summer Holiday

2. I Had A Dream

3. Any Dream Will Do

4. Food Glorious Food

5. Money, Money, Money

6. When I Fall In Love (it will be for ever)

7. I’m Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage

8. It’s Almost Like Being In Love

9. A Few Of My Favourite Things

10. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

11. Getting To Know You

12. A Policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One

13. Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend

14. Just A Song At Twilight

15. Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two (Got To Rob A Sultan Or Two)

16. Sisters

17. Always Look On The Bright Side

18. Some Enchanted Evening

19. Play With Fire

20. I Remember It Well

21. I’m Reviewing The Situation

22. Love Changes Everything

March 2005 Issue of “Rye’s Own”

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