Culture secretary warns panto season – one of the jewels of the queer calendar – is under threat from coronavirus
Britain’s culture secretary has warned that pantomime – a world of drag queens, tinsel and wine-soaked audiences shouting “look behind you!” – is under threat due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After months of uncertainty, the government on Sunday (July 5) announced a £1.57 billion support package to help protect the futures of theatres, galleries, museums and other cultural venues blighted by lockdown.
However culture secretary Oliver Dowden told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Monday morning (July 6) that “slow and baby steps” will be taken and the relaxation of social distancing guidelines, such as on planes, has only been taken in “exceptionally limited circumstances”.
He admitted that while hopes remain gingerly high for eventual theatre reopenings, pantomime is unlikely to return for the holidays.
The secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport later told BBC Breakfast: “I would love to be able to announce that pantos can return, but I have to say it will be quite challenging to be able to get to that point.
“Because if you think about a panto, and we all love going to the panto for the joy of it, but it also supports local theatres, you’ve got granny through to grandchild all packed in together, you know how kids are encouraged to shout and scream at panto season, there’s lots of sort of interaction.”
Dowden stressed he is working with Public Health England officials to assess the risks of opening drama spaces, although, he conceded his department has “to be realistic about the challenges of getting us back to that point any time soon”.
The news struck a chord with pantomime fans, eager to get a dose of the perky performances after months of dread and paranoia.
Deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, Angela Ryner, dealt a broadside against the government’s mishap-riddled coronavirus response, which she described as a “pantomime” in itself.
“The pantomime is ongoing given some of the shocking advice currently coming out of No10 on a variety of pressing and urgent issues facing the country,” she tweeted.
The pantomime is ongoing given some of the shocking advice currently coming out of No10 on a variety of pressing and urgent issues facing the country 😩 https://t.co/noabvZa1PA
— 🌈 Angela Rayner 🌈 (@AngelaRayner) July 6, 2020
Dowden’s comments also drew criticism from New York Times European culture editor Matthew Anderson, who skewered the culture secretary for mentioning the British tradition.
Numerous Twitter users sought to remind the journalist just how important pantomime is, especially for young people and queer performers.
As somebody else has noted, pantomime is one of the most popular theatrical forms in Britain and a gateway to live performance for much of the public. It also goes a long way to keeping the finances of provincial theatres ticking over. This is just snobbery. https://t.co/Y9ln6xeqW7
— Lord WarGit, a Tom Nook subsidiary (@WarGit) July 6, 2020
The first pantomime I ever saw was Aladdin with John Inman as Widow Twankey. He was the Dame's Dame, the perfect product of a theatrical tradition that spans the decades & entrances audiences so much that they return year after year. Pantomime is an art-form. It deserves respect. pic.twitter.com/cUuxtxF3ji
— Sammy 🏳️🌈 (@sammystritch) July 6, 2020
how can you be the NYT's european culture editor and not understand basic UK theatre economics https://t.co/EaeDk5iEkg
— Chris Smith (@retrocoldplay) July 6, 2020
Matt, I'm hoping you're making a political joke here.
Panto season is vital for the UK theatre industry:
– Brings in audiences who wouldn't normally experience theatre
– Provides an opportunity for young actors
– Gives drag artists a space to perform https://t.co/ak9KY4YqWw
— David Chipakupaku 🏴🇿🇲 (@David_Chippa) July 6, 2020
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Oh look a NYT journo who doesn’t know what he is talking about. There’s a thing. He could be a pantomime character of his very own.
Pantos to theatres is like Christmas shopping to shops. The difference between viability and insolvency. https://t.co/WXcvH9c0JE
— Simon James George (@SJGeorge6) July 6, 2020
Pantomimes have long been a cornerstone of queer culture and as a crucial pathway for young queer actors and drag performers to break into the industry, with many theatre groups staging slapstick comedy sets to raise money for LGBT+ charities.