Christmas Panto: Dancing lipsticks and 30 yds of Marabou

 Christmas Book Scenes!  Christmas in Books rather than Clothes in Books, and this week special panto entries, which do of course feature costumes...


Cinderella Goes to the Morgue by Nancy Spain

published 1950



Unkind critics often wondered what Vivienne Gresham did in the summer months, when she was not able to appear in scarlet and white (‘Hooray, hooray, the Prince will hunt today’), or rose pink (‘This is the night of the Ball, and that little lady is most-beautiful-of-all’)


Moving on from this week’s Dick Whittington (and cat) posts, this time the pantomime is Cinderella.

Staunch blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam recommended this book:

Just came across another festive Christmas-set whodunit with plenty of children involved in it (although not wholly, but definitely a key part of the action - including an excruciating Christmas dinner for the so-called "Tottenham Tots"), Nancy Spain's "Cinderella Goes to the Morgue". Loads of travesti in that: it's set around a pantomime so there's loads of fancy dress for you to find images of - including plenty of detail where one of the sleuths shops for materials for and makes herself a Powder Puff costume - and a SURFEIT of theatricals, a department store, and some of the most ludicrously farcical scenarios I've ever come across in a whodunit - I think I need to read more Nancy Spain to see if all her books are this splendidly unhinged.

Well! Obviously had to get hold of that to do a Xmas entry. Daniel’s is such a brilliant description that I could almost leave it at that – but obviously am not going to, not when there’s pictures to find and the joy of this to quote:

‘We’re rehearsing the Ballet of “My Lady’s Boudoir”, and these two girls are supposed to come on dressed as lipsticks. They wear kind of gold head-dresses, see, on the night? The Fairy Godmother has changed them into lipsticks, with a wave of her wand,’ he concluded wearily, chewing at his cigar. Miriam, who was more than familiar with all the lunacies of British Pantomime, nodded enthusiastically and said she quite saw. ‘And these two lipsticks do a little dance,’ said Hampton Court gloomily; ‘to show themselves off. It’s just before the ballroom Transformation Scene and quite important.’


In his description, Daniel is referencing previous discussion  on why there are so few children in Xmas crime books - see Tuesday Night Club: The Curious Case of the Missing Children (   The Tottenham Tots are a joy:

Madam Cariocola of Tottenham turned Tots out of her dancing school like day-old chicks from an incubator. This Christmas there were no less than two hundred and twenty-eight Tots appearing in provincial pantomimes in Liverpool, Dungeness, Blackpool, Newchester, Stafford, Derby and Birmingham … It is really impossible to give the full details of Madame Cariocola’s enterprise.

They are reminiscent of one of my favourite Noel Streatfeild book, Wintle’s Wonders, also known as Dancing Shoes. It is much featured on the blog, and in a mention earlier this week I described it as the choice of really hardline Streatfeild fans.  And then recently we had the Tossington Tots in Gladys Mitchell’s Pageant of Murder, published in 1965.

The book is remarkable for creating a world – Spain spent her life as a journalist and writer, and I wonder how she knew so much about the way panto works – you wouldn’t be in any doubt if you read this that she really knows her stuff. One good point is that although Cinderella is the first word of the title, she makes it clear that the role and actress are completely unimportant compared with the other stars of the show. (On p222 we have Natasha ‘at last’ remembering that Miss Betty Byng plays her, the only time her name appears in the body of the book)


This is a huge production, and it is clear that it should be a sold-out moneyspinner, and that it is a key event in the large northern town where the book is set. There are wonderful descriptions of people’s costumes, and – like Daniel – I loved the scenes regarding the dancer dressed up as a powder puff. I was enthralled by the drapers/haberdashers shop – a wonderful piece of description – as Natasha buys THIRTY YARDS of marabou to make the costume. (Spain herself not someone you could imagine in marabou). And then a look at the question of coupons - clothes rationing still going then - it ended in March 1949.

All the usual theatrical characters are here – hard-nosed impresario, hard-faced older woman actress (‘rose-red cutie half as old as time’), young men in elaborate clothes (‘flannel trousers and a lemon-coloured slipover’), wild women looking for love, men looking for a good time. Spain is very insistent on the vulgarity and coarseness of almost everyone, and at times this becomes exhausting. She has two series characters, Miriam and Natasha who are exempt for this and are maybe not as attractive to the reader as Spain seems to find them – they are terrible snobs, and quite bitchy. There are some entertainingly dreadful social events, particularly a dinner party in the big house, as well as the lunch for the child performers and their parents. 

Mind you, the touring troupes in Cinderella would horrify Mrs Wintle and her matron/partner Pursey. (Picture of children from US National Archives, showing a school lunch programme.)

There are excellent clothes – ‘wearing a squirrel coat with a brightly checked suit and a very dressy hat.’

…’dressed in black with white ruffles at throat and wrist


…’a fine big Robin Hood hat with a pheasant’s feather, and the leopard skin waistcoat that matched her bag’

The murder plot was less enthralling - half way through you wonder how she is going to fill the remaining 172 pages, and it would be a better book if half as long. Various people die, various unsuspected relationships – family and romantic – are dug up, someone did it…  Nancy Spain says it herself:

The reader would find these lists as exasperating as Bowes had found them, compiling them. They showed the whereabouts on each important occasion, with several cross-checks, of the entire Cinderella Company.

Well, yes, and there’s quite a lot that could have benefited from such a stern line. But don’t read if for the forgettable murder scheme, read it for the amazingly created milieu, and because, as Daniel unimprovably says, it is ‘splendidly unhinged’.


Pantos always a favourite topic on the blog – even though we feel we have to explain them to US readers – and you can see a selection here. I am particularly fond of my look at the Robinson Crusoe pantomime.  


Nancy Spain is a very interesting character, with quite the story – I touched on it in this blogpost – she was extremely famous in her day, and her paths crossed with Evelyn Waugh and Margery Allingham. (A question on which is the stranger of those stories). She also has a chapter in the Curtis-Evans-edited book Murder in the Closet - I contributed a chapter on Josephine Tey and I am contractually obliged (by myself) to add that the book was EDGAR-NOMINATED.

Mos of the pictures are from a wonderful website dedicated to panto and called (of course) It’s Behind You  - productions of Cinderella going back to 1927.


And thank you as always to Daniel.



  1. Tried to read the one set in the school and was put off by Miriam and Natash - as well as being snobs, they are constantly wondering where the next drink is coming from. Tho there is a spot-on description of an arty bedsit with folkweave bedspread and picture of swans.

  2. Just the title is so great, Moira! And it sounds as though she really knows how to transport her readers. I'll be honest; I hadn't heard of a Cinderella panto, but why not? And I love the writing style.

    1. As Chrissie says below, Cinderella is one of the classics here! It is a great title, although tbh Cinderella herself does not go to the morgue for any reason! I think Spain just liked the title, and who can blame her?

  3. 'A leopard skin waistcoat that matched her bag!' Fabulous! I can see why you enjoyed this, Moira! And Margot, so interesting that you hadn't heard of a Cinderella panto, because here in the UK, for me Cinderella is THE panto and what I think of first when she's mentioned. Chrissie

    1. I know, I would love to have a leopardskin waistcoat and matching bag (well - wouldn't we all?). I have my reservations about Spain, but definitely worth a try.

  4. Moira, you are leading me astray! Having already bought Who Killed Dick Whittington? (which I enjoyed very much indeed), I have now acquired Dancing Shoes, and Cinderella Goes to the Morgue. Dancing tots, panto, marabou, and an old-fashioned drapers/haberdashers shop, to say nothing of rationing, coupons etc! How could I resist? By the way, was Nancy Spain the somewhat acerbic lady who appeared on a TV programme called What's My Line many yaers ago?

    1. Yes that is she, she was very well-known in her day - TV and newspapers and a big personality, and as you say, sharp-tongued. Well worth looking up on Wiki.
      Sorry about the books! I think we all know that reading each others blogs makes them pile up...


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