No sacred cows

Panto should be about escapism, not saving the planet

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

If you were hoping to escape the bilge that’s been pumped out by supposedly neutral organs of the state during this general election campaign — the BBC, schools, the NHS — I don’t recommend going to see a pantomime. Gramsci’s long march through the institutions has finally reached the last redoubt of political incorrectness. Say goodbye to bum-pinching, boob-squeezing and irreverent, smutty gags about holier-than-thou political figures; say hello to anti-austerity scripts, racially sensitive casting and three-hour lectures on climate change.

You think I’m making it up? Oh no I’m not! A new version of Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lighthouse Theatre in Poole written by former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan is being billed as a ‘planet-saving panto’. The heroine is called ‘Greta Thunberg’ — Duncan hasn’t even bothered to change her name — and the villain is a giant made out of plastic who works for a gas-guzzling corporation. The Dame (played by Duncan) lives in a carbon-neutral cottage and the beanstalk is composed of recycled materials — presumably so when the plucky little climate change activist chops it down in the final scene she can’t be accused of ‘deforestation’.

At least Duncan has preserved his panto’s original title. That’s more than can be said for the production of Peter Pan currently at Theatre503 in Battersea. The feminist authors decided it was sexist to call the play after its male protagonist so have re-named it Wendy’s Awfully Big Adventure and insisted on an all-female cast. Still, even that sounds more fun than the version of Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith. ‘This is not a panto to leave traditional assumptions intact,’ gushes a review in the Guardian. ‘One ugly sister turns out to be quite sweet, and falls in love — heteronormativity be damned! — with a female Buttons.’ At the end, when Cinders marries Prince Charming, she persuades him to redistribute his wealth to the victims of Tory cuts. According to the Telegraph reviewer, it is ‘a panto so busy virtue-signalling it forgets to be funny’. Not so much Cinderella as Corbynella.

I appeared on Good Morning Britain on Tuesday to debate this sorry state of affairs with Peter Duncan and he seemed to think my objection was to his ‘politicisation’ of Jack and the Beanstalk. But I don’t give a stuff about the inclusion of topical jokes about subjects like climate change. It’s the relentless one-sidedness of those gags that sticks in my craw, the same reason I’ve stopped listening to ‘comedy’ on Radio 4. The creators of these PC pantos don’t bother to conceal their anti-Tory, anti-Trump, anti-Brexit bias. To give just one example, the villainous landlord in the Christmas panto at the Lyric two years ago was called ‘Squire Boris Nigel Theresa Donald Fleshcreep Rees-Mogg’. When this money-grubbing capitalist evicts the poor refugees, he says: ‘I hereby VOTE LEAVE on your contract.’

When I accused Duncan of having a left-wing agenda he looked genuinely astonished. He doesn’t think of Greta Thunberg’s climate change alarmism as being parti pris. On the contrary, he believes it’s a matter of uncontested scientific fact that unless we decarbonise by 2030 — which just happens to be a previous Labour party pledge that didn’t quite make the manifesto — it will be too late to save the planet from certain doom. For him, the impossibility of achieving this target without overhauling free-market capitalism is an unfortunate side-effect — regrettable, but can’t be helped — rather than the entire point of the ‘climate emergency’ movement. He is one of many useful idiots who’ve been brow-beaten into thinking that unless we embrace a ‘green new deal’, which is the latest euphemism for socialism, the human species will become extinct.

I remember a time, not so long ago, when panto was a blessed relief from this kind of tub-thumping agitprop. The writers didn’t eschew politics, but lampooned hand-wringing do-gooders on both sides of the aisle. Panto is part of the great satirical tradition in the British theatre, embodying the same anarchic, out-of-school spirit that animated Oliver Goldsmith and W.S. Gilbert. What’s so lamentable about the new breed of inclusive, inoffensive pantos is that this tradition has been hijacked by those intent on ‘educating’ and ‘improving’ the masses. For the poor schoolchildren forced to sit through these civics lessons it must be like being back in the classroom.

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