Panto Potted History

  • Origins


In Ancient Greece, groups who ‘imitate all’ featured themes of comedy and tragedy in musical performances with a narrative. Around about the 16th century the Commedia dell’arte was the name given to groups of professional artists who travelled around Italy and France who told and improvised stories, often varying them for each night. The first key figure, Grimaldi, shone in this period and many of the roles which are present in all present day pantos originate from this time.

  • England

Pantomimes were originally performed in between opera shows and developed into separate shows in the 17th century. The British versions were heavily influenced by Harlequinades, a form of theatre developed from the Commedia dell’arte featuring slapstick comedy, dance and music. John Rich was one of the earliest panto impresarios, placing a greater emphasis on comedy in the productions. His main rival was Colley Cibber, and both looked to use special effects to try and outdo the other. It is thought that either the Lincoln’s Inn Field Theatre or the Drury Lane Theatre were the first to show pantomimes, in the form that is most consistent with the conventions of modern shows.

  • Father of Panto

Augustine Harris, the Manager of the Drury Lane Theatre in the 1870’s, is considered to be the father of ‘modern pantomime’ due to his introduction of stars and celebrities into his productions. He combined this with increasingly advanced effects and costumes and raised the standard for the genre around the country; some towns often put on more than one panto to try and keep up with the competition.

  • 20th Century Panto


The new ‘King’ of Pantomime was Francis Laidler, who operated the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford in the 1930’s. His shows were reprised around the country however stories that were popular then (Humpty Dumpty and Red Riding Hood) are hardly used by production companies nowadays. The 50’s and 60’s saw Derek Salberg at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre become the pre-eminent Panto producer with many lavish and spectacular shows.

  • 20th Modern Day Panto


Pantomimes are shown around the UK, and are either given the glitzy treatment by companies who run shows in different cities or put on by small theatrical companies. Traditionally shown at Christmas they are always family-orientated and often feature the presence of a well-known celebrity from the world of entertainment. The continuing success of Panto relies on its attraction as a genre that can entertain all ages of the family – from child to grown up – for an affordable price. Many pantos are based on fairytales and stories that have been made popular on film in recent decades and so retain relevance for generations, both young and old, thus enhancing their popularity.


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