Dick Whittington as played by Miss E Beaufort, early unknown, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King
Pantomime season is here, although in Victorian times you’d have heard the cry, ‘Oh, no it isn’t‘ as pantomimes traditionally started on Boxing Day. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London set the benchmark for pantos all over the country but in the 1870s the theatrical Vokes family monopolised the production, a strategy which ultimately failed as it was reported ‘they were on stage far too long‘ and were ‘sublimely indifferent as to whether the story of Cinderella be a Sanskrit myth or a Greek fable‘. The production closed early, losing money and the following year the pantomime was staged by Augustus Harris. Harris hit on the idea of incorporating music hall stars into his shows and putting on spectacular scenes often with four or five hundred people on stage. The pantomime could last for anything up to five hours and Harris’s successor introduced an interval part way through finding that this contributed to a considerable increase in the sales of refreshments.
Such spectacular productions demanded dedication from the cast and the trade paper The Era gives us a taste of the hectic preparation for a panto. ‘The pantomimes are now in excellent working order, and attracting large audiences. Refractory traps have become obedient — fairy cars no more require the palpable hand of the stage carpenter to appear with a dingy shirt-sleeve in the midst of them, bewildere ballet-girls and stupified super-numeraries are found no longer rushing on in the wrong scene and never appearing in the proper one, the stage arrangements at last develop the original intention of the designers’. The trap is the star trap mentioned in a previous post through which the performer was propelled at speed, not without risk to life and limb. Some newspapers carried a special section of pantomime accidents and we find in 1861 that in one production a member of the cast was wounded when a pistol shot was misdirected and in another there was an escape of gas and an explosion.
The introduction of music hall stars caused dismay in some quarters as they would perform their particular specialities which interrupted the story being told. Eccentric dances, acrobatics and topical songs were added to cash in on the popularity of the performer. Women from the music hall often took the part of principal boy wearing elaborate costumes and showing a shapely leg. Vesta Tilley was once engaged by Augustus Harris to play in Dick Whittington but just before rehearsals began the pantomime was changed to Beauty and the Beast and Vesta was to play the Prince. She found that that after the second scene the Prince was changed into the Beast and she would have to wear a mask until the final scene when the good fairy would change her back into the Prince again. Vesta was not happy with this and came up with a solution. She stipulated that she would not appear in the scenes in which her character was masked but would reappear for the final scene. This meant she could perform her own act in nearby variety theatres and she claims to have trebled her salary. Her role in the masked scenes was taken by John d’Auban but we don’t know how the audience felt about the substitution.
There’s so much to write about pantomime that the next blog will cover it as well. Oh, yes it will!
Thanks to ‘Recollections of Vesta Tilley’ and Westminster Reference Library