Friday, 20 December 2013

20/12/13 - Pantomime

One of the key elements of Christmas when I was growing up was the school pantomime. Every year, the week before we broke up for the festive holidays, the upper sixth would perform a pantomime of their own creation – written, acted and staged by members of the sixth form, under the watchful, slightly nervous eye of the English department – which was basically an excuse to make a lot of noise and mess and say racy, scurrilous things about the staff. Each year the benchmark of cheekiness was raised, and there were always rumours (never true) about who’d got into the most trouble afterwards. ‘Umm, I heard that John Jones got expelled for calling Mr Majzlik a bummer.’
Everyone involved in the pantomime was, for one day at least, a campus hero. It was always something to look forward to as it would always be absolute chaos. We couldn’t wait to be the big kids who got to put on the show. It was something everybody wanted to do.

Inevitably, of course, our time came. That’s how time works. Aged seventeen or eighteen, we found ourselves being briefed by the English teachers: no swearing, no violence, nothing unsuitable for an audience of children as young as eleven, no misbehaviour of any kind, for goodness’ sake set a good example. A chorus of ‘yes miss, of course miss’ sang back, but we were already hatching malevolent treasons, stratagems and spoils. We knew what the deal was with the annual Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School pantomime, and we knew that ours had to be more outrageous, more shocking, more naughty than any that had come before it.
We set about divvying up the responsibilities – what the rough plot would be, who’d play who, who’d design and build the sets, who’d be in charge of costumes, who’d control the music and lighting, who’d write the thing and so on and so on. I had the task of writing one of the scenes, although I cannot now recall a single word of what I wrote. But then, I was staggeringly drunk. We all were.

That was the crux of it, you see. When we were younger, we just assumed that the big kids on stage were being mischievous and daring. It never occurred to us that they were smashed out of their minds on Tesco Value vodka. But cometh the hour, cometh the spirits – we had little choice but to get kidney-pulping shitfaced. How else could we have got up in front of the entire school and faculty and done the things we did…?

The writing process was a brilliantly clandestine one. In fact, we wrote two entirely separate scripts for Austin in Wonderland (for ‘twas the title; as you can imagine, it was a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland and Austin Powers) – one script to submit to the teachers for approval, and another containing the terrible, shocking things we were actually planning to do. Much of it would be lost to the collective memories of a cast who were too jiggered to recall the affair and a staff body who presumably still cringe when they remember what happened that day, but thankfully some bright spark had the wherewithal to video it, and that crackly videotape has now been lovingly transferred onto DVD for the sake of posterity. Lest we forget. When I’m old and grey, I could show my grandchildren the production I was involved with that featured full frontal nudity, a Stephen Hawking impersonator and a live horse. I could do that, but I won’t.

What’s all this, you say? Full frontal nudity? Yes indeed, my good friend Clive (surname deliberately excluded, he’s a teacher himself now, poacher turned gamekeeper [his name isn’t even Clive, it’s Chris]) was playing the role of ‘The Naked Chef’, an entity that Jamie Oliver had recently debuted and we were hilariously lampooning. His role in the play was to bake the Queen of Hearts’ tarts. He was totally naked. Well, he was wearing an apron but it was really very small; when he turned around, the whole school saw his bum. When he crouched down to retrieve the tarts from the cardboard prop oven, his brown eye winked at every one of them. And when he stood up and swished back around to face the audience, the apron juuuuuuust didn’t swing around quick enough. It was magical.

A Stephen Hawking impersonator? Yeah, that happened too. I’m at pains to point out that really we were subverting the expectations of the audience rather than mocking motor neurone disease. It was all very post-modern.
…at least, that’s what I tell myself. The reality of it was that there was a spoddy boy in our year, Peter, who was exceptionally nerdish but also rather a good sport. He was like a walking talking Hawking, all NHS specs and slack jaw. So we put him in a wheelchair and rolled him out onto the stage whilst playing Radiohead’s ‘Fitter Happier’. The audience was, possibly for the only point throughout the pantomime, entirely silent. That is, save for a single child, somewhere deep within the darkness, who quietly breathed this timeless and cutting analysis of the scene: ‘Oh my god. That’s awful.’
I can only hope that their god has forgiven us.

A live horse? Hell yeah, we did that.
Jessica was a friend of the animals, nobody could deny that. She was our very own Doctor Dolittle. So when we hit upon the idea of having some kind of small live creature to bring out onto the stage at a certain point in the narrative, we knew that she would provide. Something like a piglet or small dog, we were thinking, a fuzzy critter that could be carried out, provide a bit of cuteness to the scene in question, then be quietly spirited away so that the play could continue.
She arrived shortly before the pantomime was due to start with a fucking horse. A real, proper, actual horse.
Now, any sensible direction team would have said ‘that’s ridiculous, it’s too big’. But we’d been drinking heavily all morning, and the idea of a horse seemed too hilarious to pass up.
The trouble was that the access to the backstage area was via the sports changing rooms, along numerous corridors and staircases and what-have-you, a route too serpentine and convoluted to lead a whole full-size horse. So we had to sneak it through a side door into the assembly hall itself, lead it among the audience (who were mostly small children, let’s not forget, sitting cross-legged on the floor), up the five or six polished wooden steps at the side of the stage and hope for the best. Brilliantly, the preceding scene had seen two boys dressed in Men In Black get-up drilling the audience with high-powered Super Soakers, so the floor was really quite wet. The sight of a horse trying to climb a wet staircase, scrabbling for grip and nearly tumbling to the ground over and over, sent first-years screaming and running for cover. In hindsight, it’s incredible that the headmaster didn’t call a halt to the whole thing there and then.
After a good few minutes of sodden clippety-clopping, the beast made it onto the stage. But we hadn’t written any stage directions for a horse – it was a fucking horse, why would we? – so Jess then had to lead the befuddled creature back down the stairs, through the terrified audience and out into freedom, leaving a roomful of children bewildered and scared. It was priceless.

There were a number of other exciting features within the panto that, in hindsight, seem ill-advised, but were hilarious in context - the context being that we were drunk teenagers figuratively slapping our teachers in their faces in front of the entire school. There was the Backstreet Boys segue which was basically just a striptease. There was the increasingly inebriated lad playing Austin Powers, who kept forgetting the innuendo-laden insinuations of what he wanted to do to Alice that were in the script, so just resorted to boisterously describing a series of sexual acts in explicit detail, making it up as he went along. Everybody enjoyed the S Club/Steps-style pop routine by our very own home-grown troupe named Oral Fun. (They were originally called ‘Oral Six’ but our English teacher, Miss Williams, saw us rehearsing that bit and told us that under no circumstances were we allowed to use the name ‘Oral Six’. ‘Oral Fun’, however, was apparently fine. [Their routine ended with them simulating fellatio. It was pure class.]) The scene with Hannah from Neighbours – played by a girl in a t-shirt that said ‘Barbie is a slut’ – chatting to Steve Irwin was an innuendo extravaganza: he was wrestling with a vast snake that the props department had knocked up which, if I remember rightly, was called ‘the Enormous Deadly Purple-Headed Trouser Snake’. ‘Oh no,’ cried Hannah, ‘he’s spat his deadly white venom all over my chest. And hair.’
The pièce de résistance, however, was the grand finale. It was a monstrous dance routine involving the entire cast and crew – far too many people to fit on the stage at the same time. It began with the head boy & head girl (who walked out onto the stage to the tune of The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’ – a masterstroke, that) being introduced by my (now) brother-in-law who was playing the part of Jerry Springer – it was a very confusing plot – who in turn introduced everybody else, until there were over a hundred people crammed onto the stage, most of them pissed out of their brains, trying to dance in sync and failing spectacularly. Then, my friend Sam – who I chose to be my Best Man a few years ago, largely because of this very performance – who had finished off the best part of a litre of ropey vodka, just fell off the stage. It’s incredible to watch the footage back; one minute he was gurning and gyrating, having the time of his life at the front of the stage, and the next there’s just a void where he was standing and the sound of screaming. He landed on several kids, I believe.

We fled straight to the pub at that point. It would have been very, very foolish to stick around. The changing rooms were ankle-deep in empty bottles.

And that’s what Christmas is all about.

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