Dressing up like a woman was a big part of my childhood.
Every year, at Christmas, my family would wrap-up warm and brave the dark Northern Irish winter. We’d cover ourselves in scarfs and woolly hats (not balaclavas!) and we’d fight our way (against the crowds of shoppers, not paramilitaries!) into the centre of Belfast and to the Grand Opera House.
We were treating ourselves to two hilarious hours in the company of Dame May McFettridge. May is a gap toothed, makeup slapped, battleaxe of a woman, and she has been the star of the Belfast Pantomime for over 25 years.
I love Pantomime.
I mean, I REALLY love Panto.
Perhaps it’s because, for me, the silliness inside was juxtaposed against the backdrop of 1990’s Belfast on the outside.
Perhaps it’s because it simply refuses to take itself seriously. A quality I try to emulate.
Either way, I can point the finger of admiration at one person. A 65 year old gruff Béal Feirstian man, in a dress, John “May McFettridge” Linehan, who is solely responsible for indoctrinating me, and most of my generation, into the magic of Panto.
Panto itself is solely responsible for the greatest cultural divide between my American wife and I.
“Shall we go to the Panto this Christmas, darling?”
“What’s a Panto?”
“What?! Call yourself a fan of the arts?! It’s a camp and loose fairy tale re-telling where a woman plays the leading man, a man plays the leading woman, there is a treacherous villain and a hilarious matriarch, both played by men in drag. There are terrible dad jokes, covers of pop songs, dance routines, dirty innuendo and over the top audience participation.
What’s Panto?! Pah! You Americans really have no culture, do you? Next you’ll be telling me you’ve never heard of Eurovision!”
Having both profusely apologised for that outburst AND successfully converted her to the camp side many years ago, my relationship with Panto moved to the next level this past weekend. I had the pleasure of taking my son and daughter to the Oxford Playhouse for their rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk.
My daughter (20 months old) would be experiencing it for the first time.
As a kid, I stood on my chair screaming “HE’S BEHIND YOU” and flew across the aisles chasing the packets of sweets being propelling from the stage.
As a parent, I found I spent nearly the whole show sitting sideways and staring in delighted astonishment at my kids.
My daughter, who I feared might be slightly too young, was transfixed. She shifted in her seat to follow the action around the stage. She gawked at the appearance of the fairy in the eaves and moo’d at the arrival of the two-manned cow. She clapped with every song and when the interval curtains fell she shouted “More, More!”.
By the closing number, a full cast rendition of Tina Turner’s Proud Mary, she was standing on her chair throwing her head back and forth and swinging her arms out to the side.
She’s 20 months, I didn’t know she had any other dance moves than ‘The Spin Around and Fall Over’!
We are all so flooded with excellent forms of entertainment nowadays. My son is a dab hand at touchscreen iPad games, my daughter, already a book worm. As a family we love a good movie and Netflix has provided us with hours of frivolous TV shows.
Yet, none of these are a patch on the buzz of a live audience with song and dance on stage.
My recollections of the childhood emotions of Panto are so vivid. Bolt upright on the edge of my seat watching the dancers, I felt so connected with them. Their smiles and energy filled my soul and daydreams of joining them on stage instantly lift my spirits, even at 33.
Watching my daughter’s eyes reflecting the lights, I could see the exact same thing. I could feel the neurons firing, sense the heart beat quickening, I could tell she was utterly swept away by the mystic of the music and the dance and the…cows.
The sheer magic of Pantomime had claimed another disciple.
Next year, I think we’ll need to make a panto pilgrimage to the Grand Opera House and introduce her to the fairy Godmother of all pantomime, May McFettridge.