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Encore: Among Santa And Mistletoe, A British Christmas Includes Comedy


Most British Christmas traditions are the same as American ones. Last year in England, I found one big exception. For many people in the UK, this season is not complete without a visit to a pantomime. They're known as pantos, silly comedy musicals put on by theaters all over the UK this time of year. Strangely enough, the highest-paid pantomime performer in the world is American. Last December, I took a train to the English town of Southend-on-Sea to meet him in his dressing room before a matinee.

DAVID HASSELHOFF: I'm David Hasselhoff, alias Michael Knight, or The Guy from "Baywatch," or The Hoff.

SHAPIRO: Yes, David Hasselhoff, star of 1980s and '90s American television. I asked him what it takes to become the most successful pantomime performer in the world.

HASSELHOFF: Sell out, baby, sell out.

SHAPIRO: He means sell tickets, I think.


SHAPIRO: Most pantomimes tell familiar stories to audiences full of children. "Aladdin," "Cinderella" and "Jack And The Beanstalk" are all popular. Here in Southend-on-Sea, Hasselhoff is playing Captain Hook in a panto of "Peter Pan." He introduces himself to the audience as Hoff The Hook.


SHAPIRO: As he takes the stage singing this classic 1960s pop song.


HASSELHOFF: (As Captain Hook, singing) I - I'm hooked on a feeling.

SHAPIRO: Captain Hook, hooked on a feeling. At this point, I'm sitting in the audience laughing so hard that tears are streaming down my face. At other points, I felt like I was watching contestants about to get kicked off a reality TV show. And there you have pantomime.

CHRISTOPHER BIGGINS: If you take yourself seriously, you're done for.

SHAPIRO: Christopher Biggins co-stars in this production. He has been doing panto for 40 years, always playing the Dame. Every panto has a female character played by a male actor in drag.

BIGGINS: This year, I got 10 costume changes.

SHAPIRO: Literally 10 - in one scene, he takes the stage dressed as Pamela Anderson, Hasselhoff's "Baywatch" co-star.


BIGGINS: (As Pamela Anderson) You hate my outfit?

HASSELHOFF: (As Captain Hook) Yes.

BIGGINS: (As Pamela Anderson) I - I got it for a ridiculous figure.

SHAPIRO: A decade ago, Sir Ian McKellen played a Dame role in a pantomime at London's Old Vic Theatre, and that points to the genre's long, proud history.


SHAPIRO: Back in London, two archivists are taking us deep into the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. They pull out costumes and marionettes from pantomimes that go back centuries. Cathy Haill and her colleague Simon Sladen explain that every panto has lines the audience knows by heart. It's a call-and-response that gets the children to join in.

So you have spent years studying pantomime exclusively?

SIMON SLADEN: Oh, yes, I have is the way you have to answer that question, absolutely yes.

SHAPIRO: Is oh, yes, I have a line from pantomime?

SLADEN: Absolutely.


SLADEN: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I had no idea.

SLADEN: Now, let's put that behind us, which is another one.

HAILL: That's another one.

SHAPIRO: This is another line from pantomime?

SLADEN: This is another line.

HAILL: Kids grow up knowing this, so if Simon comes on as the character and says I wonder where the demon could be and I'm like this, the audience, without being asked, would go...

HAILL AND SLADEN: (In unison) He's behind you.

SHAPIRO: Sladen says it's almost like church, where everyone knows exactly what to say without remembering exactly how they learned it. The world's largest producer of pantomime shows is called QDOS Entertainment. The company mounts about two dozen productions a year in the UK, all at Christmas time. Nick Thomas owns QDOS.

NICK THOMAS: It has grown in the past five years. Year on year attendances have gone up for the past three years by about 5 percent. And that is the only genre in the regional theater year book that that can be said of.

SHAPIRO: So for all its silliness, pantomime is keeping some theaters alive. At the matinee of "Peter Pan" the audience was full of excited shouting kids. Ten-year-old Oscar Graver came to see the show with his mother and his grandmother.

OSCAR: I've been here three times now. I think it's really good because every one age can come here.

SHAPIRO: Oscar's grandmother says she attended pantomimes with her parents as a child. She raised her daughter on the shows. And now, one more generation is joining in the tradition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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