Pantomime Blossoms in Cardiff Castle

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Dick Whittington at the Oxford Playhouse

Right then, hands up: who’s been to a pantomime this year?

For those who’ve never had to sit in a British theatre among a deafening audience of 6 year-olds, dodging penny sweets being hurled from the stage, while gamely shouting ‘He’s behind you!’ to Snow-White, or Aladdin, or Little Red Riding Hood, some explanation is needed.  And my goodness, have I tried to explain this particular loud, brash, clunkily scripted, outrageously overacted, joyfully strewn with terrible puns and altogether much-loved piece of our Christmas tradition to bemused visitors from other countries down the years… never with the slightest success, unfortunately. You just have to be there, really.

Or not.

Robinson Crusoe 2

… and none more surprising than appearing in a pantomime.

But it only struck me recently (slow, that’s me) what an odd collection of stories makes up the pantomime repertoire. Fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, national legends like Robin Hood and Dick Whittington, all well and good… but – Robinson Crusoe? How did Daniel Defoe’s novel about shipwreck, isolation and the survival of the human spirit transmute into a raucous children’s entertainment, complete with slapstick, word play and (presumably – I haven’t seen it) pantomime dame and villain?

 

CARDIFF CASTLE

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Cardiff Castle: transformed into a Gothic fairy tale by the 3rd Marquess of Bute

Now, I have a hunch that the answer lies in Cardiff Castle. (Oh, no it doesn’t, I hear you say. Oh yes it does, say I. Oh no it – hey, that’s quite enough.) In the mid 19th Century, the fabulously rich 3rd Marquess of Bute restored a section of this Norman ruin into a glorious expression of the Gothic Revival movement. Every wall, ceiling, door, window, fireplace and stairwell is beautifully painted, carved, moulded, decorated with marble, stone and plaster sculptures, furnished with fine wrought iron handles, knobs and railings, giving an overall impression of warmth and delight in craftsmanship. IMG_1508Above all it feels a very happy place, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the day nursery designed for the marquess’s four children. Half-way up the walls, an enormous frieze of hand-painted tiles shows dozens of storybook characters in one continuous, colourful narrative. And yes, you’ve guessed, the stories chosen are all (with the puzzling exception of Lady Godiva) ones that form classic pantomimes: Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, St George and the Dragon, Robinson Crusoe.

THE BLOSSOMING OF PANTOMIME

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Robinson Crusoe on the trail of the Good Fairy. Er…

I doubt that this was an intentional homage to the genre on the part of the marquess: rather, the (7-league) boot is on the other foot. This mixture of tales from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, the Arabian Nights, folk legend and early novelist Daniel Defoe, is what constituted English mid-19th century children’s literature, just at the time when pantomime – around since Roman times – blossomed into the form we know today. (The Victorian playwrights and theatre managers probably balked at including Lady Godiva in their repertoire.)

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Zzzz… A peripatetic Sleeping Beauty

So pantomimes are all drawn from 19th century children’s stories – well, duh. There needs no Puss-in-Boots, come from the grave, my lord, to tell us this. But seeing the evidence so beautifully painted here made me grasp the point in a way I hadn’t before. What lucky children – as our slightly sardonic guide never ceased reminding us – to be brought up in such delightful surroundings.

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No pantomime – as yet – about Lady Godiva

Lucky or not (and the Bute family had its fair share of tragedy but that’s another story), we are all the richer for this stunning artistic heritage. Go and see Cardiff Castle if you can – the nursery is just one of a feast of glorious rooms open to the public.

 

 

 

(From an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog)

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Leading your characters into temptation

On the subject of food (can you tell it’s a favourite with me?), there’s another role it can play in books, very different from the nurturing, life-enhancing way I looked at last month. Just the opposite, in fact. And while this works as a literary and moral device, it can be pretty cruel to your characters.

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And so it begins…

To begin at the beginning… How does the serpent corrupt Eve in the Garden of Eden? With a crisp, juicy apple, thus setting in motion 2,000 years of imagery in which the poor apple takes the brunt of all the evil in the world. Interestingly the idea of fruit being a catalyst for trouble isn’t just a Judeo-Christian one: think of the six pomegranate seeds swallowed by Persephone when kidnapped by Hades, which bind her to the Underworld for half the year. Or the golden apple thrown by Eris, Greek goddess of discord, into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which reappears at the judgement of Paris, only for him to assign it to the wrong goddess and kickstart the Trojan War.

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Golden Apple of Discord

With such powerful religious and classical antecedents, no wonder the idea of Forbidden Fruit took such hold on the western imagination, a vein of wicked temptation running from the Garden of Earthly Delights of mediaeval literature to the yearning for apricots that betrays the Duchess of Malfi to the clandestine plum pudding Edmund Gosse nibbles, in Father and Son.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This last example is especially poignant, since it comes from a memoir, not fiction. A member of the puritan Plymouth Brethren, Gosse’s father believed the pleasures associated with celebrating Christmas – singing, dancing, fine clothes and feasting – to be the work of the devil. Aghast that his little son should be so deprived, the maids feed him a slice of the plum pudding they’ve secretly made for themselves; his father, discovering the crime, ‘flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the [dust heap], and then raked it deep down into the mass.’

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Idolatrous Confectionary

I find this scene heartbreaking to read. As Gosse himself writes, ‘The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface’ – all arising from a fear that what is enjoyable to the senses must by definition be sinful. Here is the exact opposite of the ‘speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy,’ that cheers the table of the hard-up Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Oliver TwistIndeed, while Dickens makes brilliant metaphorical use of natural phenomena (the fog in Bleak House, for instance, confusing and entrapping as the legal system; or the predatory Carker’s white teeth in Dombey and Son) he is the last writer to endow an apple, a pudding, or anything else with evil characteristics. There’s nothing like a poverty-stricken childhood to teach you the true value of food. It is hunger, not greed, that prompts Oliver to ask for more (Oliver Twist). Pip quakes in terror that his theft of a pie will be discovered; yet he stole not for himself, but to feed a starving runaway convict (Great Expectations).

Great Expectations

Once food is seen for what it is – nourishing, tasty, a source of pleasure and celebration with friends – treating any part of it as somehow inherently wicked becomes both impossible and heartless.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeNot for some of the great children’s writers though. It’s hard on Edmund, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that while his sister Lucy can safely be treated to tea and toast by a faun, he unwittingly seals his pact with the White Witch by accepting the treats she offers. (‘He had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food,’ says Mr Beaver.) The drink – ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ – is enchanted, of course, so no ordinary food; yet there’s a sense in which Edmund is being punished for enjoying it so much.

The Magician's nephew

And in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis actually recreates the Garden of Eden, with poor Digory being tempted by the Witch to eat the apple from the Tree of Life (‘A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit’) rather than bring it, as instructed, to Aslan.

Do modern children’s books put their heroes through this kind of Food As Temptation ordeal? My impression is no, and a good thing too. Far better for the smells and tastes of delicious things to be celebrated, so encouraging a healthy relationship with eating, rather than treated as a test for your characters to fail, as some of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do, or the ever-hungry Dick in The Faraway Tree. Surely in our more secular age we can dispense with this biblical sense of guilt surrounding food. 

Not as simple as that. The popular culture young readers are growing into lays a heavy burden of blame on delectable goodies, from Salman Rushdie’s famous Naughty But Nice advertising slogan for cream cakes to Slimming World’s use of the term ‘syns’ for treats (short for ‘synergy’, I know, but that fools nobody).

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Naughty… but nice

We may no longer believe literally in the idea of Forbidden Fruit; but we are a long way from being free of its power. Cake, anyone?

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

How to make your children intelligent

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Daisy, jumping irrelevantly

The Times recently ran a front-page story on the demise of the nursery rhyme: schools are teaching these rhymes less and less apparently, as they are ‘no longer relevant.’

This did make me laugh. At which stage in our history, exactly, was a cow jumping over a moon relevant? Or four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? The wonderful thing about children is that they don’t give half a pound of tuppenny rice for relevance;

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Blackbirds: no longer baked in pies

what they can recognise – which, sadly, some education experts apparently can’t – is the magic of strange words and bizarre ideas woven together to stretch both their vocabulary and their imaginations. It doesn’t matter that the rhymes make no sense, or refer to a piece of long-forgotten history. My 22 month old grand-daughter has no idea that Rock a Bye Baby may refer to the ousting of James II by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; what she loves is the excitement of ‘when the bough breaks’ in the middle of a lullaby. Or that Ring a Ring a Roses is thought to refer to symptoms of the plague; what matters is that the words rhyme in a satisfying way, you pretend to sneeze and then fall down.

 

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Neglectful parenting

Other rhymes are even more absurd, and impossible to analyse for a hidden meaning, as in Hey diddle diddle and Sing a Song of Sixpence mentioned above. Or how about this one, a favourite of my own children:

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This working practice has no place in today’s society

 

 

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Ninety-nine times as high as the moon.
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she wielded a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Where are you going to up so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky!’
‘May I go with you?’ ‘Aye, by and by.’

 

How wonderful is that image? It literally sends the imagination soaring, all the way to the moon and far, far beyond, through a night sky latticed with cobwebs…

To demand that nursery rhymes be ‘relevant’ when you could offer children such riches feels mean and restricting. And worse. Nursery rhymes are not so different from fairy tales, both in their literary heritage and in their ability to create strange, fantastical worlds. Consider, then, Albert Einstein’s famous advice to parents:
‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

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Albert Einstein: clearly read a lot of fairy tales

And – as I know Einstein would have added, had it crossed his mind that it might be necessary – please, please don’t try to make them relevant. Not like a hand-puppet board book, This Little Piggy, recently given to my granddaughter. This version, while using charming finger puppets, has ‘updated’ the classic rhyme for our more sensitive (?) era, destroying meaning and rhythm in one fell swoop:

 

This little piggy went to market. (Original line, good. From here things go downhill.)
This little piggy stayed home. (Preposition?)
This little piggy had cookies. (What?? Where’s the roast beef?)
This little piggy had fun. (No, he didn’t. He had NONE. Everyone knows this. Line altered presumably to spare children’s distress for a piggy who had nothing to eat. I have news for the publishers: children don’t care. It’s life. They can cope with that.)
This little piggy sang wee wee wee all the way home. (No, he didn’t. He CRIED wee wee wee. He was squealing. That’s what pigs do.)

Which brings me to the many, many books and recordings of nursery rhymes on the market, and a heartfelt plea: your children matter. Don’t give them rubbish. Buy them a book of the stature of The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes by the incomparable Raymond Briggs: a beautifully illustrated collection, including lesser known rhymes such as Charley Barley, Butter and Eggs as well as Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.

 

IMG_0115And for listening, you can’t do better than Tim Hart’s brilliant folk arrangements Tim Hart and Friends: My Very FavouriteNursery Rhyme Record.

 

(article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk)