Pantomime - a Yuletide Must! 

Oh no it isn't? Oh yes it is!

I've never understood those people who refuse to go to the panto.  Surely it's one of the most family-friendly, happy attractions of Christmas? If you're anything like me and have a borderline morbid fear of being pushed into the spotlight by an over zealous Buttons, you may think the panto is the very last place you'd want to be. And while I did, as a horribly shy 5-year-old, get very uncomfortable when that character did speak to me from the stage, I like to think I've grown out of it. I've learned that the thrill of the panto is that you can join in, shout, sing, jump up, do all the hand signals and rude noises to the songs and, along with everyone else, willingly lose all your dignity, precisely because everyone in the theatre is doing it too! Yes, panto is about joining in - after all, just who does stand out and become the butt of all the jokes? Right, it's the bloke on the end of Row C who thought, if he just kept his head down, he wouldn't have to do anything daft.

I should make a confession here. I am a born-again panto-goer. I went years, actually more than a decade, without going anywhere near a panto. The last one I'd seen was in 1976 when our Sunday School took a trip to Wolverhampton to see Don Maclean (the Crackerjack! man, not the Starry-starry Night chap) in Goldilocks. A recent quick check of the programme revealed that a young Su Pollard also appeared. And it did depress me just a tad to discover that the 'Paul & Barry Harman' I had belly-laughed at are, in fact, now the Chucklebrothers. Imagine pre-dating the Chucklebrothers!

Anyway, after that panto I hit the awkward phase where the last thing you want to be seen doing is joining in (even though you have to wear almost identical clothes to your peers and so look like everyone else anyway). And the only thing that drew me back was when a family friend informed us she was appearing in panto at Nottingham. And, oh, how glad I am that she did. Because everything I thought I remembered, feared even, about the panto was wrong. It wasn't embarrassing, boring or silly - okay, it was silly - but it was a delight. And since then we've made sure to visit the panto every year. Sometimes we've even pulled in two in one season.

But be warned, if you have a strong aversion to Take That songs and jokes about Simon Cowell, then you might have to grit your teeth a bit. And it will be noisy. You simply cannot over-estimate the decibel level of  800 over-excited little ones.  Unless you're on the front row - in which case you'll probably get soaked with waterpistols at the start of the second half -  you're sure to have a wriggly child sitting in front frantically waving some sparkly, flashing piece of plastic that they've persuaded their grandma to buy in the lobby. But to see kids take in the full wonder of the panto is worth the admission alone. Probably the most charming thing I have ever witnessed was a panto at Mansfield a few years ago. Buttons had engaged with his young audience - most of whom were from primary school groups. Every time Buttons stepped on to the stage, he greeted the audience and they greeted him back. But then, as he beckoned them towards him in a conspiratorial manner, instantly and en masse, two thousand little bodies leaned forwards to listen. It was perfect.  And sweet and I have to confess my mum and I exchanged teary-eyed smiles.

Panto must be a complex business, of course. Nowadays kids expect high-tech light shows, 3D sections even. But the old-fashioned trick of blinding the audience with a flash before the fairy godmother or the evil villain appear onstage still works.  Of course, back in the 1970s we had none of this high-tech palaver. Yes, it's true I am a panto veteran. I was cast in an important supporting role in a local production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Granted it was Dale School Juniors' annual panto and my official role was 'Bossy Neighbour', but I was understudy to the lead character's love interest. Okay, I was informed that should the original 'Jill' be too ill to go onstage, I would not be required to perform her solo of 'Yesterday'. I thought that was a bit mean, after all they'd only heard me sing it once …  But it was panto nonetheless with proper slapstick and a magical growing beanstalk (a teacher behind the wings pulling slowly on a long rope did the trick). And I did get to do a comic scene with a pantomime cow and the brokers' men. Although whether it was truly comedic remains to be seen.

Sadly, I don't remember any of my lines. Which is a pity because, since school panto is about encouraging children to join in, we were roped in to help 'write' it. I'm not convinced that any of our attempts at humour actually made it into the final script, but I do still remember rather of lot of puns based around beans (Jack and the Beanstalk = magic beans). I do remember that the beans were played by my schoolmates - we had Green Bean, Broad Bean, Baked Bean, Runner Bean (wearing a racing vest as I recall), Jumping Bean (an acrobat) and … wait for it … you guessed it … Human Bean!

Oh, come on! Panto jokes aren't meant to be sophisticated! Because, while panto's fab, there are a lot of things it's not. It's not, of course, high art (although some pretty high-art-type actors thrill at appearing in it). It's not realistic ('fairytales', people!). And it's certainly not for people who insist on taking themselves at all seriously (after all it's hard to maintain decorum when called to blow a raspberry to order).

But what panto is, and this is the whole point, is fabulous, innocent fun. It's songs with daft lyrics. It's sketches with sausages. It's 'oh-yes-he-is' and 'he's behind you'. It's magical transformations. It's fairy godmothers and ugly sisters. It's boo-ing and cheering. It's peculiarly British. And, especially if you haven't been for a few years,  it's well time you did!