15 December 2014 09:17

A Lancaster historian has undertaken a definitive study of one of England’s most popular theatrical forms.

Slapstick comedy, gender role reversal and the royal who made it all respectable – Jeffrey Richards, a Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University, explains the enduring popularity of the British pantomime in his new book, The Golden Age of Pantomime.

Professor Richards argues that the secret of the Victorian pantomime’s success was its universal appeal and continual evolution. Everyone went to the pantomime, from Queen Victoria to the humblest of her subjects, and it constantly evolved to reflect current attitudes and the latest issues. Controversially, the Hoxton Theatre panto created a scene in which the ghosts of sailors were shown, alluding to a dispute concerning transatlantic sailing safety.

Having carefully studied the primary sources, performance reviews and theatre programmes, Professor Richards concludes that pantomime in 1900 was nothing like it had been in 1800 but that modern day performances are recognisably the descendant of their predecessors in 1900.

Although pantomime is part of England’s cultural heritage, it received limited academic attention until recently. In 2012 Professor Richards and Professor Kate Newey, of the University of Exeter, conducted a major research project on the history and practice of pantomime, entitled ‘A Cultural History of English Pantomime, 1837-1901’. The project represents one of the first exhaustive studies of pantomime, and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Speaking about the significance of his research, Professor Richards said: “The book is a result of three years' systematic and intensive primary research in the original Victorian sources. It is the first study to be rooted in that evidence rather than in the usual recycled anecdotes of most popular histories of pantomime.”

Listen to Professor Richards on BBC Radio 3 on the programme, ‘Pantomime: Professor Jeffrey Richards; Bryony Lavery; EO Wilson’.