Christmas Books: Look Behind you! It’s Panto time

Christmas Book Scenes are back!  During December I like to post entries which are more Christmas in Books than Clothes in Books, and kind readers say it puts them in a seasonal mood.

And this week it is Panto time, starting with a murder story set in a theatre…

Who Killed Dick Whittington?  by E & MA Radford

published 1947

[Extract from book]

Miss Norma de Grey was a Dick Whittington worth seeing. Tall and slim and graceful, in scalloped leather jerkin, full, brown tights and thigh boots of soft kid, topped withal by the wee, jaunty cap with feathers, and carrying, of course, the stick with, tied to it, the bundle covered with the spotted red handkerchief, she stood bowing to the applause which came upon her like an avalanche over the footlights. It died away, to be succeeded by an even greater burst as, following his master into the view of the audience, came the Cat, Tommy, faithful friend and pet.

comments: I do like to do a seasonal entry on pantomimes – this book is set most definitely at panto time, ie after Christmas, but isn’t, honestly, otherwise very seasonal. But panto is enough… American readers – catch up on the British panto thing in this explanatory entry. (Though really I conclude that the whole thing is not comprehensible outside the UK)

The theatrical background is particularly fascinating in this one, and wholly convincing. This is the back end of the profession, touring companies, no money and no stars. There is an exact description of how a cat costume is made and worn, and, frankly, too much detail about what goes on with the sweaty actor during the show. And it is taken for granted that some of the women will work for a bit, then become a kept woman, then return when they are cast loose again. You’d feel the authors really knew their stuff about the lives and the finances of the actors.

‘My mother was playing leading lady… doing six plays a week with a ‘laughable farce’ thrown in, for 35 shillings a week… I played kids’ parts at a shilling a night, anything from Poor Joe in Bleak House to East Lynne. I sold chocolates between the acts, used to make 3 shillings a week that way…’

[Special notes: There is a blog entry on a Chrissie Poulson book featuring a performance of East Lynne.

Pedants’ corner: the child in Bleak House is Jo with no e.

35 shillings a week would be approximately be worth £135 now, so still not much.]

Unfortunately, as well as their theatrical expertise, the authors also know their stuff about all kinds of chemistry and forensic research – I wish there had been less of that and more of the theatre background. To me, the story lit up whenever the sleuths visited a theatre or an agents’ office. But of course others may prefer the scientific investigations… there is insurance fraud to deal with, but how could that compare with principal boys, principal girls, and a cat snuggling up to your legs?

Clothes play a big part in the story, in many different ways – from who got a mink coat from whom, to how much a silk dress weighs if it is burned to ash.

There is some judicious use of stage jargon, and the ‘polari’ slang used by actors, sailors and the gay community. ‘Nanty polari – the mozzie’s just comin’ cross the greengage’. But to reassure, there aren’t any other sentences as impenetrable as that one: It seems to mean ‘Stop talking, the ?woman [subject of the conversation] is coming across the stage’.

The real fascination is that Pantomime Cat – who gets equal billing, the Pantomime is called Dick Whittington and his cat.

I have had reason before to visit the wonderful site on the history of pantomimes, called, of course, It’s Behind You – see this entry, which combines Robinson Crusoe, JM Coetzee, Primo Levi, Norman Wisdom, the Beatles, and panto in one paragraph. It’s Behind You has a gallery of pictures of panto animals which you just have to gawp at, and of course that’s where the pics come from – my heartfelt thanks.

And heartfelt thanks also to the Dean St Press, who do us all a favour by finding and reprinting these classic detective stories.

Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers investigated The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat in 1949, intriguingly – it’s quite a niche topic, and here are two books within two years of each other. So next up we will have an entry on the Blyton version…

Elly Griffiths and Noel Streatfeild (two of my favourite writers) have featured pantomimes in their books – for those and many other entries, see this list of blogposts. (The divine Wintle’s Wonders, the connoisseur's Noel Streatfeild book, is full of suburban panto with troupes of little dancing girls, just like this book)

Main picture shows Sybil Arundale – 1879-1965 - playing Dick Whittington, from the panto website. I had not heard of her but she was obviously a real trouper, much like the actresses in the book, playing in silent films, music halls, Shakespeare, Ibsen and revues in her time.

The poster is from the National Library of Ireland, and although the date is 30 years earlier, everything else is the same, down to the names of the characters in the panto.


  1. Our local amateur panto featured a troupe of tiny dancing girls trained by Angela Raggett, of the Angela Raggett school of dance. She was a retired pantomime fairy. We preferred ours to the Haslemere Thespians' effort, which was much more professional. My mother painted the scenery, but as Catholics we couldn't participate.

    1. It's a whole past world isn't it? I am sorry to say that at one time in my life I would have thought all my ambitions answered if I could have been a child in a panto dance troupe. It was the only place where I parted company from Petrova Fossil, who hated it. I played a rabbit in a church hall production of Wind in the Willows, and got a couple of lines BECAUSE I was so bad at singing (bribe to stop me putting off the others) - the only time my musical inability has worked to my advantage

  2. Panto's fascinating, Moira. and although I didn't grow up with it, I know it's an integral part of the holiday season for people who did. What I really like about it is how dedicated the panto artists are to what they do. They take a lot of pride in it, and I like that.

    1. Thanks Margot - it really is a sub-culture of its own, and still going strong in the UK.

  3. Your comment about the singing really rang a bell. For one Christmas concert in my school, I got to wear a beautiful blue and silver silk costume and dance around the stage while the choir did their stuff. It was only later I learned that it was because of my horrendous voice, not because I was cute.

    1. Oh yes, me exactly. Looking back I can see that other people were sorry for me and worried I would be tremendously hurt by the insult, but all I saw was a much nicer costume, including rabbit hat, than anyone else had....

  4. Christine Harding6 December 2022 at 16:24

    Love the post and the comments. As a child I had ballet lessons, and we did a panto every year, sometimes with the local drama group. I got to wear make-up, and glitzy, glittery costumes which were terribly uncomfortable and scratched like mad, but it was worth it. One year I was one of the fairy queen’s little attendants in Mother Goose, with wings and a crown made from wire coat hangers covered in gold tinsel! So I’ve downloaded the book.

    1. What a starry childhood you had! The fascination is always there, surviving the huge disparity between how glamorous and sophisticated the panto seems to a child, and the probable reality - whether it's a big commercial production or a village hall. As someone or other said 'might as well try to take the glamour out of sex as out of...' in that case smoking I think, but panto would fit!


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