I used to be in pantomime but it’s all ‘behind me’ now.

Any reader fortunate enough to have grown up in Renfrewshire in the early 1990s may have witnessed my star turn in Hansel & Gretel at Paisley Arts Centre.

A scanned photo of an actor posing backstage in pantomime costume, The costume consists of a black suit, black hat and black gloves, all of which have been covered in a white liquid, perhaps paint.

The author in pantomime mode in nineties Paisley.

It was a role I took with some reluctance, to be honest (but an actor out of work in panto season is doomed, just as few theatres can afford to go ‘dark’ during the season of high bum-to-seat ratio). In the event, it proved to be one of the most enjoyable jobs of my brief acting life.

I appeared as the witch’s henchman, half of a double-act with my old chum Kevan Mackenzie (who popped up last month in the BBC crime drama Shetland) and we had a ball, performing two to three shows a day to packed, enthusiastic houses. Happy days.

A natter with Baxter

A black and white archive photo of actor Stanley Baxter dressed as a pantomime dame. He is wearing a chequered dress and a ridiculous piece of headwear which features of a minature washing line with tiny garmets hanging from it.

Stanley Baxter playing Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the King’s Theatre in 1985. (© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensed via Scran)

Even further back in the mists of my chequered career, I was an eager young journalist interviewing Stanley Baxter, one of the great megastars of Scottish panto. We met, if I recall correctly, in the green room of the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh.

Baxter (larger than life in three-piece tweed suit and highly polished shoes) regaled me with tales of elaborate costumes, quick changes and buses affy which ye cannae shove yer granny. Happy days indeed.

Changes at King’s

A drawing of the exterior of a large and grand theatre. There is an ornate metal and glass shelter over the main entrance, where a large sign reads "pantomime". Above, the facade has columns and ornate stonework, and a large letters arranged verticlaly to spell "King's".

A drawing of the exterior of King’s Theatre dating from 1945. Note the pantomime signs! (© The King’s Theatre Trust. Zoom in on Canmore)

Baxter retired from the stage in 1990, while the King’s Theatre is now about one-third into a major refurbishment.

The raked stage is being levelled, allowing dancers to pirouette without fear of spinning off into the front row of the stalls, the concrete fire escapes have been replaced with modern staircases and accessible lifts, and the bars, toilets and dressing rooms are all being made spick, span and regulation-compliant.

But the show must go on, and this year’s Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre – the King’s sister venue. But that’s far from your only option…

A plethora of pantos

A black and white photo of Elain Smith and a co-star mid-scene during a pantomime. One appears to have some sort of medieval costume featuring a metal helmet, a large wig and a comedy moustache. Elaine C Smith is wearing a fur-lined dress, large glasses and extravagant headwear.

Elaine C Smith engaged in typical pantomime action in 1985. (© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensed via Scran).

Elsewhere, you can see the stalwart Elaine C. Smith in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the King’s in Glasgow. Boy George stars in in Peter Pan at the OVO Hydro, also in Glasgow.

Meanwhile, Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Palace in Kilmarnock and Sleeping Beauty arrives at His Majesty’s in Aberdeen. The Little Mermaid at the Adam Smith Centre, Kirkcaldy features Greg Powrie, another of my Paisley co-stars.

There’ll be at least a dozen more greasepaint-and-groaners-heavy entertainments throughout the enchanted land of Scotia. It’s the perfect place for it!

At home in Scotland

A vintage photograpah of the lavish interior of a Victorian theatre. The stalls are flanked by royal boxes and there is an orchestra pit in front of the stage. Classical paintings adorn the walls around the stage and chandeliers hang from the high ceiling.

The interior of the Empire Theatre – now the Festival Theatre – on Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, in around 1910. (© HES, Scottish Colorfoto Collection. Zoom in on Canmore)

The pantomime genre seems to have grown out of ‘dumb shows’ that were popular in Britain in the mid-1700s. They in turn drew on the Italian commedia dell’arte, with its farcical plots and stock characters, such as the mischievous harlequin and the miserly pantalone.

But the performance style we know today has its roots in the variety shows that were the backbone of the light entertainment industry before the advent of television.

The cover of a pantomime annula, or programme, from 1904. The top of the page features a logo for The Edinburgh Grand Theatre which includes an illutstration of the city skyline, including the castle. The rest of the page is filed with a picture of actress May Marton with long curly hair along with "Cinderella" in stylised writing.

The Edinburgh Grand Theatre’s Pantomime Annual for 1904/1905. Like a modern day programme, it gave the audience some behind the scenes insight into the year’s panto. Miss May Marton played Cinderella, with Miss Milie Engler as the Prince. (© Glasgow University Library. Licensed via Scran)

Pantomime is a characteristically British form of performance, but Scotland is often said to be its natural habitat. As early as 1808, the Edinburgh writer Walter Scott was deploring ‘the garbage of melo-drama and pantomime’.

By the 1870s, the Edinburgh actor/playwright William Lowe was drawing on Scottish folklore and writing dialogue in Scots for the comic characters. And around the same time, writers were sprinkling the scripts with local and topical references we now expect.

Two pantomime performers on stage with a prop motorbike. The scenery behind them suggests the scene is taking place at a docks or beside a river. A wooden fingerpost is pointing the direction to Paisley.

Nellie Wallace and Stanley Lupino in Aladdin at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal in 1924. The signpost for Paisley is typical of local references which are sprinkled into pantomime scripts and settings. (© Newsquest; Herald & Times. Licensed via Scran)

The name of the dame

Meanwhile, performers from the variety tradition were introducing their own brand of boisterous and bawdy humour. Increasingly, panto became a vehicle for stars from that background, who came to be seen as essential to attract the crowds.

The dame – by long tradition a male performer in exaggerated drag – emerged in the late 1800s as the linchpin of the panto. They addressed the audience directly, performing set pieces, frequently changing costume and sometimes inviting children from the audience onto the stage.

An actor dressed as a pantomime dame in dress, tights and enormous wig. They are posing on the edge of the theatre's dress circle, and the crew can be seen working on stage behind them.

Ballet dancer Wayne Sleep in drag as Goldilocks’ mother in the Edinburgh King’s Theatre’s Christmas pantomime, December 1988. (© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensed via Scran)

“Pantomime daft”

By the 1930s, pantomimes were running in Scotland for at least 20 weeks of the year, providing performers and theatres with much of their annual income. In 1956, the author E.G. Ashton noted that:

Scotland is, quite simply, pantomime daft … Audiences travel from fishing hamlets, mining villages, country towns, and even from one city to another in order to see a pantomime.”

There can be little doubt that many of Scotland’s surviving Victorian and Edwardian theatres owe their longevity to the popularity of panto. And over the decades it has proved an agile shape-shifter, adapting time-honoured tradition to changing sensibilities.

An archive photo of the interior of a theatre. The stalls, circle and royal boxes from a horseshoe shape around the stage which is framed by lavish, classical paintings and decorations.

The interior of King’s Theatre, Glasgow around 1930. (© HES, Scottish Colorfoto Collection. Zoom in on Canmore)

Enduring silliness

In recent decades, some theatres have placed a greater emphasis on storytelling, relegating the ribald wordplay, gaudy costumes and silly set-pieces in favour of meaningful plot and characters.

But others continue to embrace the full gaudy glamour of ‘trad’ panto. It’s a mark of the genre’s resilience that even today, the drag dame is still a thriving species.

A black and white archive photo of two male actors on stage in top hats, high heels and sparkly gold jackets. Each hold a black cane and appear to be midway through a comedy or dance routine.

Jimmy Logan and Harry Gordon on stage in a 1956 pantomime. (© Newsquest; Herald & Times. Licensed via Scran)

My children are teenagers now and – alas – far too cool for Cinders. As I sat down to reflect on the ghosts of pantos past I did wonder if the final curtain might be beginning to fall on this much-loved institution.

The answer is clear to me now. What do you think, boys and girls?
Audience: Oh no it isn’t!

See more in the archives

An actress poses in a typical costume for a pantomime's pricnipal boy: a shirt, jacket, tights and thigh boots. She is holding a large metal tankard and a feathered hat.

Scottish entertainer Una McLean as Principal Boy in the Babes in the Wood pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in December 1970. (© The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Licensed via Scran)

The amazing archive photos used in this blog are from Scran, our online learning service, and Canmore, online home of the National Record of the Historic Environment.

You can search hundreds of thousands of images on each site. Alternatively, take a look at our other archive blogs – the Archives archives, if you will. They cover everything from to a visual tour through Leith’s past, to a history of cycling and even Doctor Who!


About Author


Andrew Burnet

Andrew Burnet is an Interpretation Manager at Historic Environment Scotland. He manages the Official Souvenir Guide series and has taken a lead on interpretation projects at Broch of Gurness, the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall and Dundrennan Abbey, as well as a new exhibition at Arbroath Abbey to mark the 700th anniversary of the Declaration.