IT IS panto time again. Oh, yes, it is — and having been a critic for more than 30 years, and averaging about ten regional shows per Christmas, I find the maths alarming. I’ve seen more Cinderellas than you could shake a magic wand at; and I have two of those on the list so far this year, along with one Peter Pan, one Christmas Carol, one Jack and the Beanstalk, and one Sleeping Beauty. No Aladdins; so I shan’t, alas, be visiting Widow Twankey’s laundry in Old Peking.
They will be more than light relief in the current political climate. In panto, the good and the bad are clearly defined. If there’s a golden pyrotechnic whooshing up on stage right, it’s a cue for the gently admonishing Good Fairy, who will put everything right. If there’s an emerald green pyrotechnic whooshing up on stage left, it’s our licence to boo the nasty King Rat or the wicked Abanazar, aka Avabanana.
We might be scared out of our wits, but it’s all very kindly, and everything works out in the end. We know the heroes, we know the villains, and we can rest assured that the Giant will be toppled, and justice and decency prevail for the Simple Simons and hard-working Jacks of this world. I have a Pinocchio on the list this year, too, and can’t help reflecting how universally helpful it would be if the noses of politicians seeking election were a visible indicator of whether they were telling the truth.
Better late than never
MAKING the nativity story distinctive is a challenge amid all the lavishness of the secular offering, but you can find it referenced in some rather unusual settings. I’m invited to preview the Christmas offering at Tissington Hall, a sprawling 16th-century mansion in Derbyshire, in the easy company of the estate’s owner, Sir Richard Fitzherbert.
They don’t go in for big-budget stuff because the entrance money goes wholly towards ongoing upkeep (just having the windows cleaned here costs £750). Instead, they raid the attics and glory-holes to find whatever suits the theme. This year’s theme, “Star of Wonder”, is inspired by Christmas carols, and begins with “Silent night”, in a reminder of the First World War Christmas truce in no man’s land.
Upstairs, the long corridor trodden by generations of household staff becomes a country lane for “In the bleak midwinter”. There’s “O holy night” in a shuttered room, with a nativity beneath suspended stars. A previous theme here was Narnia, when visitors stepped through racks of fur coats — from a deceased aunt of Sir Richard’s — in a giant wardrobe, to emerge into a kingdom of snow. David Walker (who designs the event) recalls the occasion when he waited to accompany an elderly woman on crutches via a more accessible route.
“I asked her, ‘Would you like to come this way if it will be easier?’ And she said, ‘Like hell I would! I’ve wanted to do this since I was six years old.’”
Other people’s lives
STORYTELLING is a feature of my month. I find myself sitting, one busy Saturday in late November, at a solitary table in the basement of Botti di Mama, an Italian restaurant in Nottingham. For two periods of time during the day, I am “Bryan”: when anyone on the literary trail of The Unfortunates descends the stairs and sits at my table, I read them a delicious chapter from this 1969 experimental novel by B. S. Johnson.
It’s an internal monologue of a man who has been sent to report on a football match here. The 27 chapters — snapshots of life and landmarks in my home city — can be read in any order, and I’m one of more than 100 Bryans in “But I Know This City!”, a mass community reading of the novel. As I make sardonic comments on the meal in front of me — the peas (“at least not tinned”); the thin oxtail soup (“not the gourmet meal I had intended”); the imitation silver cutlery (“patently fake, in no way convincing”) — my fellow Bryans are reading in locations as various as St Mary’s, city pubs, the railway station, and even someone’s car. The power of pure reading proves magnetic.
ADVENT is magnetic, too, drawing us willingly into the story. I go with friends to “Music and Silence” in a country church I’ve never been to before. It’s a dark night, and the tall hedges of the narrow lanes we’re driving down yield no clue about the landscape behind them. The church is illuminated, and light pours from within through the stained glass. There’s a damp-hay fragrance on the air. I can tell from the twinkling lights below and beyond the church that we are on the top of a hill.
We’re early. We open the latch and, in the centre of the church, a small group of singers are rehearsing, a cappella, a version of “I saw three ships”. It’s so arresting, so beautiful, that we stop in our tracks. And, suddenly and surely, we’re in Advent, and I realise how much that rootedness in the Church’s year matters to me; how stabilising and upholding, how joyous and profound is that cycle and dynamic of the seasons — especially rich for a singer.
My friend Dorothy exults in all that, too. We talk about it in the car on the way home, and she mails me John Meade Falkner’s poem “After Trinity”, which captures the expectation of Advent after the long, placid, “passionless” Sundays after Trinity:
Kneel with the listening earth,
Behind the Advent trumpets
They are singing Emmanuel’s birth.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.