All the Joys of Fairyland
by Richard Holdsworth
Richard Holdsworth recalls his childhood pantomime memories
Flimsy gauze curtains obscured an alluring half-darkness that lurked across the Grand Theatre’s deep stage. Then, in an emerging glow, the lithe Faery Queen appeared. After a hushed shadowy pause, the spotlight lit up her allure. She waved her pretty wand and held out a slender hand to greet the approaching handsome Aladdin. She called to him in a beauteous voice,
“And now, Aladdin, let me take you by the hand, And I will show you all the joys of Fairyland.”
The flimsy curtains parted as silvery mists poured across the great stage, inviting us to a shady, dim grotto that glowed with obscure red, green, and mauve hues. We gasped and willingly entered an enchanted Wonderland. We had no idea it would be the last time our family would watch a pantomime together.
“My favourite Dame had been Norman Wisdom as Widow Twanky, for he would make us laugh loudly, then with one glance, he silenced us into sadness.”
To get to the pantomime, my parents, older sister, and I had donned our Sunday best clothing and caught the mid-morning bus to Leeds. We took the mid-morning bus to give us plenty of time to arrive early for the afternoon performance and secure good seats. We didn’t have to linger long at our isolated bus stop on the windy moor, but I was impatient to get there and wanted to be out of the cold, so the wait seemed endless. I was glad to get to the top deck of the warm, cigarette-smoky bus. Dressed up for our annual family treat like many other families in pantomime season, it was obvious to the friendly bus conductor where we were going. He didn’t even ask but said, “They say that Arthur Askey gives the performance of his life.” He clipped our tickets in his little pinging chrome box. “He plays both Little Tich and Mrs. Sinbad.” He chatted on as I tried to imagine the famous comedian Arthur Askey acting in the part of Mrs Sinbad, and I daydreamed of other pantomimes I had seen.
“Then my father looked at us with raised eyebrows as if surprised at the cost of tickets and sucked air in through his teeth.”
Pantomimes are pageants that are loose adaptations of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and fables. They are filled with catchy songs, pretty chorus girls, cross-dressing and buffoonery. Traditional pantomimes are performed between Christmas and Easter. They often star a male comedian in the part of a Dame. My favourite Dame had been Norman Wisdom as Widow Twanky, for he would make us laugh loudly, then with one glance, he silenced us into sadness. Whatever she was called, the Dame always wore black boots and a calf-length frock, with her hair parted in the middle and tied in a bun at the back. She was sometimes named Betsy Prig or Mrs. Gamp, and she cared for her wayward son, the principal boy. A slim actress played him and was variously named Prince Charming, or Dick Whittington, or Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” I wondered if Arthur Askey would be a better Dame than Norman Wisdom.
The bus conductor handed the tickets to my father and took the ticket money. The conductor checked the amount then fished about in his leather satchel for change. As his fingers rifled through the coins, I enjoyed how they jangled and shook with different rattles, clinks, and tinkles depending on their size and how many there were. He seemed to have a good catch! After fishing around and hauling out the right amount, he gave the change to my father, who carefully counted it. Then my father looked at us with raised eyebrows as if surprised at the cost of tickets and sucked air in through his teeth. He got his cigarettes out of his pocket. I glanced away, sensing a gibe from my mother about how much he paid for cigarettes. From my top-deck window, I zoned out and watched the drizzle fall on buildings that got closer and closer together as we rattled toward the city; I longed for the pantomime to begin. The Grand had the biggest revolving stage outside London. My sister suddenly giggled and shrieked, “Hey! Remember last year when Widder Twankey were washin’ out ‘er rags in ‘er tub?”
“Aye,” I spurted out as if I knew more than she, “An’ ‘er suds was spilt all ower’t stage!”
“An’ ‘er landlord come up behind ‘er,” exclaimed my sister, “an’ says as ‘ow she ‘asn’t paid ‘er rent in weeks an’ ‘e’s goin’ to chuck ‘er out onto’t street.”
Enthusiastically, I added, “An’ we all booed ‘im. But Widder Twankey didn’t seem to even notice him or hear us.” Mum joined in our howling laughter.
We all knew how it ended but couldn’t calm down enough to say it until my father added, “And just like nothing at all had even happened, Widow Twankey turned and, as if by accident, swiped the landlord with a soggy rag.” My father imitated the Dame’s pained expression and exaggerated voice, “Oh, landlord, there you are… the roof needs fixin’!” We guffawed at my father’s acting until he said flatly, “It happens every year. Every pantomime has a scene like that.” He lit his cigarette. Mum stopped laughing. “I mean,” he continued with a nervous grin, realising that he had taken all the fun out of it, “It wouldn’t be a pantomime without it.” We quietened and with a forced laugh, my father said to Mum, “Bus fares have gone up steeply. Anyone would think I was buying the bus!” No one responded. And the rest of the ride was subdued.
“You go on and get the seats,” my father said, going outside for a cigarette.
After we got off the bus, we briskly walked through the drizzle from the City Hall bus stop to the Alhambra Theatre. The Grand had the biggest revolving stage outside London, and it would take us from scenes of “Heavenly City” to “The Green outside the “Old Bull and Bush’”: from “A Secret Cave in a Distant Mountain” to “The Royal Ball, just before midnight.” As we queued in the sleet, we knew the magical stage, and Fairyland waited behind the maroon doors.
My father paid for our tickets through the wire grill of the box office. “I can remember when it only cost sixpence,” he said, counting his change as we entered the bright foyer. “You go on and get the seats,” my father said, going outside for a cigarette. On our way to find our seats, we passed open doors to the Stalls. I glimpsed at the plush, red seats and heard the murmurings of well-dressed posh folk. Then, we began our long climb to the sparse “Gods.” The “Gods” were in the top-most Gallery, so high that the audience seemingly sat among the Gods.
First, we climbed the wide staircase and passed the prosperous bar, where I stared at the uniformed waiters. On the stairs, thick, patterned carpets stretched as far as the Dress Circle with its private Boxes; then, soft stair treads led to the Upper Circle. We kept climbing the bare steps to the Balcony, where we rested near the sign, “Snack Bar – open at Interval.” Then the stairs narrowed as we wound up to the Upper Balcony before we continued to the sparse Gallery.
In the Gallery, we were free to choose which wooden bench we would share. This was why we had come early. We hurried all the way down to the best benches behind the brass rail that separated us from the Upper Balcony. I ducked under the rail and ventured through the Upper Balcony seats to the balcony edge, from which I gazed at the distant Circles below me and beyond them to the Stalls. Not far above me, the chandelier glistened, and I saw the ceiling’s dusty cornices and lofty carvings. In the Stalls, families were moving to their seats. They were so far away that I barely heard them as they clumped down their tilted seats and sat chatting; some bought ice-creams. I glimpsed into the Boxes. I was always amazed how wealthy families could sometimes resist the magical beginning and wander in late to their Boxes. A dropped program occasionally fluttered between levels, and as I watched, someone waved to a friend across the distant, curving rows.
I read the banner on the safety curtain, “For Thyne Own Safety.” Eventually, it slowly rose. Seats were filling fast, and a growing murmur filled the Grand. I hurried back to my seat, glanced at the program, and read, ‘Mrs. Sinbad, (Who’d sinbadder days…) Arthur Askey’ Mum pointed to the Emperor’s name, “A baritone,” she said, “Your Dad and I were courting when we last saw him. It was in the Desert Song at Scarborough.” Rolling drums brought us, as one entity, to our feet. We sang “God Save Our Gracious Queen.” The lights dimmed, and silence settled. In the grotto spotlight, the Fairy Queen waved her wand to cast her spell on us,
“And now, Aladdin, let me take you by the hand,
And I will show you all the joys of Fairyland.”
As he rubbed the lamp, an awesome genie loomed from beneath the stage and granted three wishes to Aladdin.
Aladdin was caught in a typically complex plot. He had been adopted by Mrs. Sinbad, who had found him on her doorstep. Mrs. Sinbad had a hard life, “Oh, and I do worry,” she said, “and the worry makes me ill. I went to the doctor, and he said, ‘Are you listless?’” She patted her hair, “I told him that if I was all that listless, I wouldn’t even be there!” We chuckled. She blew her nose noisily on the hem of her skirt before saying, “My favourite Biblical quotation is, ‘And it came to pass.’ I’m just glad it didn’t come to stay!” I hoped I would remember all the gags as she told us how Aladdin should have been out caring for the sheep. But he spent all his time mooning over the Fair Princess Isabella, who was promised to the Wicked Baron Blight.
We hissed Wicked Baron Blight, who was so jealous of Aladdin that he wanted to buy the cottage where Aladdin lived, just to burn it down. “Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning; Red sky at night, shepherd’s cottage alight,” he sneered. We hissed and booed and shouted, “Shame!”
“Abracadabra!” we bellowed when ragged Little Tich urged us to remind Aladdin of the magic word he needed.”
To stave off the bailiff, Mrs. Sinbad decided to sell her faithful old horse, Dobbin. But Aladdin had already swapped Dobbin for a rusty, old lamp. “I shall shine this lamp and give it to the Fair Princess Isabella; it will be a token of my love.” As he rubbed the lamp, an awesome genie loomed from beneath the stage and granted three wishes to Aladdin. Although Aladdin had the powers to do anything, somehow, he became locked in a cave forever and a day because he had forgotten the password he needed to get out.
“Abracadabra!” we bellowed when ragged Little Tich urged us to remind Aladdin of the magic word he needed. “Abracadabra!” But the cave was soundproof, so Little Tich unfurled a song sheet and taught us to sing a verse of the Vera Lynn classic “We’ll Meet Again.” Aladdin sang the chorus as a solo. But he didn’t really sing; he spoke in a husky monotone, blinking back the tears and dreaming of Isabella, who appeared at the far side of the stage at a high castle window in the glow of pink lighting. Aladdin spoke to his vision of Isabella,
“Keep smiling through,
Just like you always do.
And I know we’ll meet again,
Some sunny day.”
I sighed as the curtain descended for the interval.
At the interval, the massive fire curtain- for our own safety- cut us off from the changing scenery. My father rushed out for a cigarette by the lavatories, where I was the first one in. We stretched our legs a little and then went back to our bench to eat Mum’s bacon-and-egg pie and Bakewell tart, which we washed down with tea from a flask. My father had given me a shilling to buy ice creams, but a shilling was not enough, so when he got back, he had to share Mum’s Choc-Ice Treat. He called the interval ice cream treat our annual feast of plenty. He seemed refreshed by his cigarette and grinned when Mum said, “Did you enjoy sucking on your dummy?”.
Unabashed, he said, as if an expert, “The lass who plays Aladdin has a well-trained voice,” he said, “but her tone is not a patch on Vera Lynn’s.”
“You think that no one’s a patch on Vera Lynn,” Mum said.
“Did I tell you?” he went on, “that my father was in Manchester when George Robey was Widow Twankey, and Ada Reeve was the first Aladdin to perform a song in a dramatic monotone. It must have been in…”
“1904,” said Mum, “and the song was ‘Goodbye, Dolly Gray. You tell us every year.”
“Hmm!” he went, as Mum stared ahead, trying not to smirk. At the beginning of the second half, Little Tich taught us to sing,
I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,
An onion patch, an onion patch.
I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,
And all I do is cry all day.
As we sang, Little Tich pointed a long stick at the song sheet, or he leaned over the edge of the stage. I wondered how his shoes remained anchored to the stage as he leaned over until almost horizontal. The final chorus struck up, and the whole company sang their finale. We applauded ever more loudly as the individual actors bowed.
“Boo hoo!” the girls sang softly.
“Boo hoo!” the boys shouted.
“And all I do is cry all day,” sang the Mums and Dads.
“Boo hoo!” bellowed the boys.
“Boo hoo,” echoed the girls,
“And all we do is cry all day,” we all sang.
When the curtain rose, we cheered Dobbin, the horse, as he rescued Aladdin from the cave; we sighed for the poor Isabella as her wedding to the Baron approached. But we were relieved when the Baron repented his wicked ways and let her go to the deliriously happy Aladdin, who had become wealthy. Little Tich and Idle Jack celebrated their wealth by tap dancing in plaid top hats and tails.
The final chorus struck up, and the whole company sang their finale. We applauded ever more loudly as the individual actors bowed. The thrill of Mrs. Sinbad’s entrance was surpassed only by the sheer bliss of Aladdin’s appearance with Isabella. The curtain fell. “More!” we shouted, “Encore!… More!” The curtain rose. We cheered and cheered, and then the last curtain call was over, and the clapping petered out. We gathered our bags and coats and meandered down the crowded stairs into the thin, rosy light of a city dusk.
“we filled hot water bottles and went to bed, leaving my father to smoke his “final gasper of the day”
Beneath the flashing Grand Theatre sign, a queue was forming for the evening performance. We walked the length of bustling Briggate and trudged along shadowy Kirkgate. At the bus stop, we waited in twilight until the bus swayed around the corner and rumbled to a halt beside us. On the top deck in our seats, we were hushed with pleasant reveries as the bus trundled from the crowded city lights into the vast darkness of Wharfedale. After we got off the bus, our weary trek from the main road up to Poole Bank was the last instalment of our trip before we arrived home. In the parlour, we left our coats on while my father stoked the fires and riddled life into the embers that he had smothered with ash before we departed. New coals on the embers ignited smokey flames. As the fire got going, we felt warmer, so we took off our coats and tucked into Mum’s pre-prepared hot pot that she heated up in the oven. Then, although it was still early, we realised that all the city stimulation had exhausted us. So, we filled hot water bottles and went to bed, leaving my father to smoke his ‘final gasper of the day’, as he called his bedtime cigarette.
Snuggled under my heavy bed covers, safe and calm in my own world, I glided toward sleep in private darkness. I sighed and smiled, wrapped in lingering magic. At breakfast the next morning, my father said, “I’ve been doing my sums. You know, it cost me a pretty penny for yesterday’s little outing.” Then he announced, “I think the children are getting too old for pantomimes.” In the shocked silence that followed, Mum sniffed and, trembly, said, “I’ll make us a fresh pot of tea.” Then, she picked up his cigarettes and waved the box in his face, scornfully hissing, “Light another pricey dummy!”
NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23