Every year, my Grandad likes to tell the same story. The story about how once upon a time, he took his three-year-old granddaughter to the panto and how this little girl came away from the theatre in absolute silence. My next words came the following morning: "that really was a lovely story."
The pantomime in question was Cinderella and, naturally, I had watched the Disney incarnation of this folk tale as many times as the VHS could handle. Nevertheless, there was evidently something utterly enchanting about seeing the story played out on stage which had my three-year-old self hooked.
For many other young children, the situation is probably similar. Those who go as part of their Christmas celebrations are entranced by the costumes and the stories and, most importantly, the magic. As children grow up, the appeal of the pantomime evolves; it is participatory and informal in a way that most theatre is not. Frequent shouts of 'he's behind you', 'oh no it isn't' and 'oh yes it is' allow children to interact with the characters onstage. This is surely an essential part of keeping even the most restless child focused on the performance. For the adults too, there is a wealth of double entendre and a pantomime dame to make the trip appealing, not to mention the fact that many are also upholding a longstanding family tradition by introducing their children to the pantomime.
Theatres and pantomime companies rotate through the same list of classic tales. The likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Wizard of Oz and Aladdin, for example, are likely to appear in the same theatres more than once every few years, and it is not uncommon for more than one theatre within a region to put on the same pantomime over the Christmas season. Obviously, then, for the parents the story itself is less important than the experience of the pantomime. Children and adults alike are drawn by the cult-like nature which the pantomime has developed. Websites allow visitors to compare upcoming pantomimes by region, and there are various theatrical companies dedicated to the performing of pantomimes.
It is also becoming more and more common for pantomimes to be marketed using the promise of an appearance by a TV personality. Maybe this is what has kept pantomimes popular; the ability to secure a big name heightens the appeal of an already-enticing British tradition.
This situation is not replicated outside of Britain. In the US, for example, pantomimes may sometimes be performed but don't have a similar following or status. For some reason, the combination of humour and spectacle as a staple part of Christmas festivities hasn't made it on the other side of the Atlantic. Though in Cambridge, the pantomime spirit is kept very much alive – freshers have been reliably informed that The Emperor's New Clothes is not to be missed. It’s a Great Cambridge Tradition.