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Panto: Beanstalks, 'dames' and magic lamps
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Each year around Christmas something strange happens in Britain. Tap-dancing cows and giant hydraulic beanstalks start appearing, as do middle-aged men in wigs and fake foam breasts.
To outsiders it must all look distinctly odd. To the British, however, it's a perfectly natural part of the festive season. It's called pantomime, and Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without it.
Other European countries have pantomimes too, but nothing quite like those in Britain. Colourful, extravagant theatrical spectacles based on popular legends and fairy tales with lots of singing, dancing and slapstick comedy, they are as integral a part of the British yuletide as roast turkey and mince pies.
"The pantomime is one of the only three indigenous theatre forms in Britain, along with mummers plays (traditional folk plays) and Punch and Judy shows," says actor Finetime Fontayne, who has worked in pantomimes for almost 20 years. "It's a central feature of our culture, the one time of the year when all the family go to the theatre together."
There is a stock repertoire of stories -- Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Snow White are all favourites -- and though the presentation will vary among theatres, certain elements are always present.
There will, for instance, always be a "dame" -- a man playing a larger-than-life woman -- while the male lead, or "principal boy," will usually be played by a female.
Audience participation is fundamental, with every show featuring such time- honoured routines as the audience shouting "He's behind you!" as the villain creeps up behind the hero, and a back-and-forth "Oh yes I am! Oh no you're not!" exchange between the audience and one of the characters.
And of course there's always a happy ending, with good invariably triumphing over evil.
"These are essentially moral stories," says actor Nigel Ellacott, one of Britain's foremost pantomime "ugly sisters" (with partner Peter Robbins). "They are not just entertainment. They have a message -- that if you are good then good things will happen to you. There's an almost religious undertone."
The British Christmas pantomime -- or "panto" as it is fondly called -- has a long history. The word pantomime derives from the ancient Greek "pantomimos," meaning a play performed with mute gestures and a musical accompaniment.
Its roots lie in the morality plays that used to be performed on village greens in the Middle Ages. To this day, pantomime villains customarily make their entrance from stage left and heroes from stage right, echoing medieval stage placements of heaven and hell.
To these plays were fused the acrobatic slapstick of the Commedia dell'Arte -- a form of theatrical entertainment developed in Italy in the 16th century -- and the traditions of British music hall to create the modern pantomime.
"Pantomime is an art form," Ellacott says. "A lot of people look on it as somehow a bit tacky and second rate, but it's not. It has an illustrious tradition and requires a lot more skill in terms of timing and physicality than a lot of people give it credit for."
Fontayne agrees: "It's deeply rooted in our culture. Things like the cross-dressing and audience participation tap into that long tradition of the stage as a place of subversion and misrule.
"The fact that pantomimes are always held in winter is also connected to the ancient idea of the winter solstice as a time when strange things happen and the world goes topsy-turvy."
Babes in Africa
The pantomime season usually kicks off around mid-December and runs through January, filling professional and amateur theatres across Britain.
E&B Productions, one of the country's foremost pantomime producers, have 27 shows this season, including Goldilocks and the Three Bears with former boxer Frank Bruno, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with Britt Ekland.
They are expecting to attract a total audience of at least 2 million and make a profit of some £20 million ($29 million).
Despite its success in Britain pantomime has never quite caught on elsewhere, although there are exceptions. Each year a Hebrew pantomime plays to full houses in Haifa, Israel, while a recent production of Babes in the Wood proved hugely popular at the Rainbow Seven Arts Theatre in Harare, Zimbabwe.
In Switzerland, meanwhile, the Geneva Amateur Operatic Society's annual Christmas panto is always a sellout.
"This year we're doing Beauty and the Beast," says society chairman Danny Benjamin. "We've been rehearsing since August and have got over 100 cast and crew, including people from France, Norway, Germany and America.
"The local people have never seen anything like it, although they always seem to have a good time. They say that as soon as they see our posters going up they know Christmas has arrived."
Holiday festivities off to fast start
A History of Pantomime
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