A look back at the history of pantomime in Tameside – Quest Media Network
St Mary’s Church, Newton, Hyde. Distribution of the pantomime ‘Babes In The Wood’ on stage in the parish hall.
Susan Essex and Jill Morris of the Tameside Local Studies and Archive Center take a fascinating look at the history of panto in our region…
How it all began ?
Pantomime, so popular with children of all ages, has its origins in 16th-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, a type of street theater that combines song, dance and slapstick comedy.
This type of entertainment found its way to London and in the 18th century pantomimes performed in the theater began to evolve using classical stories set to music but without dialogue.
In 1843 Parliament passed the Theaters Act. This Act removed censorship by the Lord Chamberlain of all but the riskiest theatrical performances, thus allowing greater freedom of expression.
All the extras we associate with pantomimes today could now be added, producing works characterized by wit and puns.
These complemented the growing popularity of the fairy tale as the focal point of the performance. Public taste for stories, such as Mother Goose, was replaced by a growing interest in tales such as Aladdin and Sinbad, from the newly translated One Thousand and One Nights. Pantomime had been reinvigorated, as evidenced by the performances staged at this time in the North West region.
St Thomas Church, actors in the pantomime ‘Mother Goose’
Greasepaint and the spotlights!
Most modern pantomimes follow a successful formula taking a well-known story like Aladdin or Sleeping Beauty and modeling it after the pantomime model.
This includes a boy lead (usually a woman dressed as a man), love interest, girl lead, villain, good fairy, pantomime lady (a man dressed as a woman), sometimes a pantomime animal, lots of comedy slapstick and a song with the participating audience. Certain rituals are still performed, such as booing and whistling at the villain by the audience.
The musical score usually includes popular songs sung by the characters in the story. A must are the double meanings aimed at adult audiences.
The holiday season has long been associated with these comedic performances.
From the beginning of the 19th century, people from all over society began to mark the Christmas period with a trip to the theatre. Pantomimes began opening on Boxing Day, and it wasn’t long before such shows were considered a staple of the season.
Soon Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a pantomime!
Theater Royal, Hyde. One of Hyde’s entertainment centres. Official inauguration on November 3, 1902.
The Christmas pantomime at Ashton-under-Lyne: “A most laughable affair”
By the 1850s, the tradition of Christmas pantomime was alive and well in Ashton-under-Lyne.
Round trips were organized in Manchester in order to take advantage of the latter’s theaters staging their performances for the season.
Omnibuses organized by private companies ferried Ashton residents from a pick-up point to arrive in time for the pantomime, before returning attendees home often via a public house. An advertisement advertises such an expedition, departing from the Old Square and Commercial Hotel every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evening at 5.15pm and returning to Ashton via ‘Mrs Whitehead’s, Guidebridge’. Return fares were about one shilling per person.
Alternative means of transport have also been made available to theatergoers in the Tameside area.
Trains were regularly running after 11pm from Manchester to Ashton, as performances were timed to ensure attendees could catch late services.
For those further afield, the railway companies would run half-day trips between cities such as Liverpool and Leeds and Manchester. These journeys were made attractive through the issuance of cheap tickets on fixed trains.
Pantomimes have also been staged in Ashton itself, targeting those who cannot afford these Christmas outings. These were most often performed in public houses at the behest of their owners, who engaged locals with a theatrical bent in the planning, acting, and staging of the performance.
Members of the public would pay a nominal sum for the privilege, usually no more than a few cents. These more informal pieces were advertised in local newspapers and in shop windows around town. A police officer would be present “to maintain order”.
Local theatres: “An ornament for the city”
The 19th century witnessed a rapid expansion in theater building, particularly with regard to areas outside of London.
Growing urbanization and a booming economy inspired many provincial towns to build their own, often ostentatious, playhouses.
While touring companies brought their productions to these venues, the high demand for Christmas pantomime meant that such shows could be produced in-house, providing a spectacle suited to local residents.
For theater owners and directors, the pantomime played a key role in the calendar, its guaranteed success guaranteeing the losses accumulated during the year.
‘…great preparations are being made in the cotton metropolis, especially in the theatres, the pantomimes of which are said to be equal, if not superior, to those of previous years.’ – ASHTON WEEKLY REPORTER (DECEMBER 29, 1860)
In Ashton-under-Lyne, the community has long been served by the Theater Royal, itself the site of regular pantomime performances.
In 1857, for example, the public was treated to such a spectacle called “the fairy of the coral cave”. In 1891, however, this venue was replaced by a new Theater Royal, redesigned and rebuilt in grand style on Oldham Road. William Revill, who with his family was the well-known proprietor of a group of theaters in the North West, oversaw the project and continued to act as proprietor after it opened.
Elsewhere in the city, the pantomime lived at the People’s New Concert Hall on Stamford Street.
Opened in 1863, the theater was converted from the old Oddfellows Hall. Here, the Christmas season was traditionally celebrated through a “grand burlesque comic pantomime”.
The building later became known as Booth’s Theater and People’s Opera House, before closing in 1950. The circuses also regularly erected pop-up shows in the Market Square in December and January with impressive performances including a comic pantomime, such as the 1867 display. by Newsome’s Grand Circus entitled “The O’Donoghue, or the White Horse of the Lakes of Killarney”, its content betraying the Irish origins of many performers.
Advertisement for Booths Theater and Unity Hotel, Ashton-under-Lyne. ‘The popular amusement place. Open every evening. Joseph Booth, owner.
There were many opportunities for those so inclined to partake in the Christmas pantomime tradition in other parts of the borough.
Stalybridge Grand Theatre, Theater Royal and Hippodrome and Hyde Opera House, Tameside Hippodrome and others held such shows regularly well into the 20th century with casts including many famous faces. Yuletide productions have also been performed at lesser-known venues such as the People’s Hall in Stalybridge, which oversaw the “notable event” of a pantomime titled “Dame Trot and Her Wonderful Cat” in 1870.
Dramatic societies also regularly staged and ran Christmas shows. The Ashton Repertory Club spent many years in the Tameside area staging a Christmas pantomime before their final performance in 1970, performing ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ at Ashton Town Hall.
Additionally, many Sunday schools and church groups would themselves include a Christmas pageant in the schedule. Indeed, Dukinfield Unitarian Church still has a pantomime society that performs in February.
While a Christmas season full of pantomime shows in Tameside is now a thing of the past, the Hyde Festival and Guide Bridge theaters still put on shows at Christmas for modern theatergoers, keeping that festive spirit alive!
Racecourse, Hyde. Interior of the auditorium, taken from the stage.
A pantomime of Ashton: “Jolly King Cotton”
The Spread Eagle Inn – located on Stamford Street West – was a popular venue for these performances, providing space inside its Victoria concert halls.
The Spread Eagle Hotel (public house), on the corner of Stamford Street and Cavendish Street. The pub was demolished in the late 1990s and is now the site of a supermarket
In December 1856, John Grundy, the establishment’s innkeeper, announced the launch of a “new novelty for Christmas”, proclaiming his determination to “provide cheap and rational amusement to the public of Ashton and vicinity” .
Every evening at 9 p.m., the Spread Eagle was to host “a great Christmas pantomime”, a piece reputed “of singular construction and plurality of effects”.
Betraying the local flavor of these events was the title of this magnum opus: “Jolly King Cotton, Or, Joe, The Ashton Weaver; Pretty Jane of Stalybridge; and the sparkling fairy of the golden loom. The ad enthusiastically introduces the cast and characters (including Jolly King Cotton himself, Old Grindem, Joe, the Ashton Weaver, and “Pretty” Jane), while providing a brief rundown of the plot and various acts.
Ashton himself forms the backdrop to a scene that unfolds along Warrington Street near the market.
Distinguished by their ease of access and parochial subject matter, these informal pantomimes remained in high demand throughout the 19th century, providing opportunities for all levels of society to experience the excitement and thrill of the stage.
‘THE PANTOMIME AT THE SPREAD EAGLE – We are informed that the Christmas pantomime produced at this amusement place has become exceedingly popular; it is certainly a most laughable business, and will attract good audiences for some time. – ASHTON WEEKLY REPORTER (JANUARY 10, 1857)
You can find out more about Tameside’s past and find the latest on the Tameside Smile project – the digitization of thousands of the journalist’s photo files – at https://tamesidesop.wordpress.com/author/tamesidesop/