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He's behind you!

The tradition of pantomime goes all the way back to 16th-century Italy and, since that time, the characters – and jokes – have changed very little.

The tradition of pantomime goes all the way back to 16th-century Italy and, since that time, the characters – and jokes – have changed very little

Christmas, for many, would not be Christmas without the spectacle of the traditional pantomime. A topsy-turvy world of ambiguity, absurdity and eccentricity, pantomime is a festive institution, and its fun and frivolity continues to delight and fascinate modern audiences of all ages.

Pantomime has become a quintessentially British tradition, yet the origins of pantomime developed from a popular form of street theatre in 16th century Italy, known as Commedia dell'arte, or 'comedy of the artists'. Commedia dell'arte stories often used satire to explore topical issues and ideas, and the masked style and anarchic energy of Commedia characters played a significant role in shaping theatrical, visual and musical history over the centuries, influencing the work of many renowned playwrights, composers and artists including Shakespeare, Stravinsky and Picasso.

The entertainment value of Commedia-style characters first began to be realised in British theatre by John Rich, the renowned actor-manager of Lincoln's Inn Theatre and the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Fascinated by the dynamism and joviality of Commedia dell'arte, Rich created the famous Harlequin character and developed the pantomime traditions of slapstick, chases and transformations of characters and scenery that became known as harlequinades and define traditional pantomime performances today.

The harlequinades dominated pantomime until the 1870s, and the evolution of Victorian pantomime saw well-known stories such as Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Aladdin and Robinson Crusoe become popular, featuring principal boys and pantomime dames as the stars of the shows. The most elaborate pantomimes in Victorian London were performed at Drury Lane Theatre, and as these pantomimes were limited to the festive season, it was here that pantomime first became associated with Christmas.

From men dressing up as women to animals being played by humans, much of the allure of the pantomime lies in the transgressions of linguistic, cultural and social boundaries, which combine curious European and British traditions. From the satirical plots of Commedia dell'arte to the chase of the harlequinade, there is a timeless appeal in stories where hope triumphs over adversity, and, in the spirit of Christmas, amusement will always be found in transformation, merriment and surprise.