The Great British Pantomime Tradition

Pantomime, or ‘Panto’, is an essential part of the Christmas experience for a British child.

What are these strange shows, and where do they come from? We investigate this strange tradition:

What Is Pantomime?


Panto is a musical show put on at Christmas for children that follows several key tropes and themes.

They’re usually loosley based on well known fairly tales or childrens stories such as Alladin, Cinderella and Puss In Boots.

They’re a riotous mix of slapstick, humour and music. Kids love them, especially as a key part of the experience is audience participation, as we’ll see later.

They are both very silly and wonderfully British. They are also very popular with over 3 million pantomime tickets sold a year

Indeed such is their popularity many regional theatres are kept in business solely by pantomime – a sure fire money spinner, especially at Christmas.

Panto History

The Great British Pantomime Tradition 1

Pantomine can trace its roots back to Roman times. The word is derived from the Greek for all (pan) and mimos (dancer) (Source).

It described a a production solo male dancer would tell (all) a story via dance, accompanied by singers and musicians.

Modern panto, though, dates back 500 years to Italian Commedia dell’arte, a form of travelling theatre popular in Italy and France.

Common characters would appear in every production, whatever story was being told. This, as we will see, is a key feature of modern panto.

Here in Britain, it evolved under 18th-century impresarios John Rich and David Garrick but itwasn’t until the 19th century that the dame character truly arrived, thanks to clown of renown Joseph

Grimaldi. It was at this point that performances started to be based around European fairy tales and children’s stories, a tradition that remains to this day.

And the standard cast of characters, which as we’ve said is a common feature on modern panto, started to crystalise. Here are some of the main ones…


Pantomime horse

Most pantos have a standard cast of characters, whatever the story of the show.

Here’s who you might expect to see in a typical production:

Principal Boy

Traditionally the hero of the story (although modern day shows often have the Principal Girl share this distinction) the Principal Boy is also usually played by a young woman – just to make things more complicated.

Principal Girl

In the past the Principal Girl was the love interest of the Principal Boy, but in more enlightened times she’s usually the joint hero of the story with the Principal Boy.

Panto Dame

An older woman – played in drag by a man – the Dame is the main source of humour and slapstick in a panto.

Often played in a very camp style with double entendres, garish frocks and false eyelashes the panto dame, often called Widow Twanky, is great fun.


Every good panto needs a villain.

His (it is usually a man) role is to thwart the hero in his or her quest. Whilst being thoroughly evil at the same time.

It is normal (almost mandatory) to boo and hiss when they come on stage.

Pantomime Horse

A common animal character is the panto horse played by two people in a one piece costume, one as the front leg and head, the other bent down as the back legs and torso.


Whenever a hero is sad, or has anything bad happen to them, the audience goes ‘awwww’


Sweets (candy) is thrown to expectant children in the audience – usually by the dame.

Shout Outs

Large groups of children (schoolsscout troops etc) in the audience are welcomed by one of the characters.

Audience Participation

As we said before a key part of the pantomime experience is audience participation.

Kids will leave the theatre hoarse from shouting, cheering and booing heroes and villains.

Indeed there are several traditional set ups and exchanges that appear in most productions. Here are some of them.

He’s Behind You

One of the hero’s, often the same, asks the audience to shout out if they see the villain or dangerous animal (a crocodile is popular).

Of course these baddies appear at which the audience shouts ‘he’s behind you!’ By the time the hero turns round the baddie has usually gone.

The hero shouts ‘oh no he isn’t’! To which the response ‘oh yes he is’ is required’.

This happens several times until the villain is finally sighted (usually).

Boo Hiss

The audience will boo and hiss whenever the villain appears.

Guest Stars

pantomime poster

One more recent panto tradition is for guest stars to join the cast.

There’s many a soap opera star, former TV show hostand even some real stars who join the cast of the local panto, supposedly to give it a bit more glamour.

We’re not sure if it’s true, but ‘doing panto’ is a nice retirement earner for many a faded star or 15 minute wonder looking to cash in whist people remember who they are…

The pantomime, then, is a great British tradition that’s still going strong.

Indeed it’s a great night out for all the family (oh yes it is!).