It's behind you! A history of Cambridge panto

David Ralfe 15 November 2007

When the writers of this year’s ADC/Footlights Pantomime created a plot revolving around a faux-Marxist revolution, I doubt they were worried about appearing clichéd – it’s hardly Cinderella. But when David Mitchell (Peep Show’s ‘Mark Corrigan’) and Matthew Holness (creator and star of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) wrote the Cambridge panto in 1995, they went one better: their revolution was led by Snow White’s dwarves.

After a day in the Manuscripts Room, I know that trawling through the Footlights archives is the best fun you can have in the UL. (Beat that for an accolade.) Nothing much has changed since those Cambridge theatre legends trod the ADC boards – for instance, casting your mates. David Baddiel wrote the panto in 1985 with his friend Nick (now an archeologist, thank you Google). Nick directed the panto and – quelle surprise! – was obliging enough to cast Baddiel in the lead role, ‘Robin Hood’. (Though why you’d want to put David Baddiel in green tights is beyond me.)

Surprisingly however, Stephen Fry hasn’t always played genteel old men. In Snow Queen (1980) he played a hard-nosed pantomime cop. Not really. He played ‘Montmorency Fotherington-Fitzwell, Ninth Earl of Doubtful’, alongside Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, the year the Footlights tour-show won the Perrier award.

It seems David Mitchell has always played socially-awkward ineffectual types. In a role he must unashamedly have written for himself, in Snow White he played a Jester called ‘Martin’ who doesn’t understand jokes. When informed what happened to the Irish tap-dancer (fell in the sink, broken ankle – badoom!) he stutters, “Where does he go after that? Particularly in Ireland with all their economic problems. That’s not a joke, it’s tragic.” ‘Martin the Jester’, or Peep Show’s pedantic ‘Mark Corrigan’?

There are also traces of Matthew Holness’s most famous creation: Garth Marenghi, horror writer. The gratuitous death within the first ten pages of a dwarf named ‘Pervy’ could only have come from Holness’s darkplace. Holness played ‘Captain Tankerton-Near-Whitstable’: think Mike from Spaced killing a badger and you’re nearly there. Oh, and Act Two opens with a song by fifteen dwarves who all die before the last verse. It’s a shame the audience never saw Holness and Mitchell’s stage directions: “ensuing conversation is laced with sexual tension – fantastic”, “No I am not writing from personal experience. I really am not, honestly” and “they enter in an indescribably dramatic way, maybe even abseiling over the audience’s heads.” How wearily the techies must have rolled their eyes …

But it seems no Footlight can escape crap panto song lyrics. When Emma Thompson played ‘Aladdin’ in 1978, she suffered the indignity of singing, “Once I was a meanie, but now I’m alpha-plus / Get yourself a genie, they’re quite ingenious.” Oh dear. The ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ in Baddiel’s Robin Hood is a little wittier: “A weekend in the country is quite a lot of fun / If you’re pillaging a village or ravishing a nun.”

There’s one more thing about panto that never changes. Boys in drag look very, very silly. Imagine my surprise as I idly flicked through the photo archive, to find a picture of Griff Rhys-Jones playing panto-dame ‘Gertie Crusoe’, “a publican of ill-repute” in Robinson Crusoe (1975). And if you browse photos from the early 1990s, you’re in for a big surprise. Imagine fresh-faced fresher David Mitchell, performing in Cinderella (1993) while his Peep Show co-star Robert Webb plays the ‘Prince’. A million miles from ‘Mark Corrigan’ this time, Mitchell’s wearing a blonde wig, red lipstick and fake tits, looking… well… a bit of a tit. Will Jack Gordon-Brown fill the panto-dame’s brassiere anything like as well…?

David Ralfe