“Oh yes it is!” and “Oh yes we do!”: pantomime collections at the University of Kent

Joanna Baines is Senior Library Assistant at the Templeman Library, University of Kent, Canterbury, and this month she gets us in the festive spirit with a focus on two new exhibitions exploring the fascinating history of pantomime.

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘pantomime’? Is it a memory of childhood winter visits to the theatre? Classic phrases like ‘it’s behind you’ and ‘oh no it isn’t’? Sweets being thrown into the audience? Pantomime dames and memorable characters? Or maybe it’s the stories behind the performances, fairy tales we grow up with – such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, or Peter Pan.

The actor Joseph Grimaldi in his famous clown costume, C18, David Drummond Pantomime Collection, Special Collections & Archives, University of Kent.

Here at the University of Kent, we’re exploring all of these ideas in two exciting new exhibitions focusing exclusively on pantomime. Pantomime itself seems to fall outside of the genre of regular theatre history – it is a unique institution all on its own; a mish-mash of music, visual effects, comedy and celebrities. But the performance style we know and love today developed from its 16th century Italian origins into something far grander during the Victorian era, and it has survived (mostly intact) until today.

Our first exhibition – “Oh yes it is!” – explores the story of pantomime, right from when it started up until the present day. The University has collaborated with two local partners – The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge and the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury – to celebrate pantomime in all its glory. The reason for this is that Kent’s Special Collections & Archives have recently acquired one of the largest collections of pantomime material in the UK: the David Drummond Pantomime Collection.

The exhibition, hosted at The Beaney, will showcase some of the (many) highlights of the collection alongside some interactive story-themed areas allowing families to get in on the fun too. The Marlowe Theatre– as one of the largest, most popular producers of Christmas pantomime in the South – is providing access to some of the props used in productions, and hopefully some glimpses into how modern pantomimes are produced.

A list of wages for a production of the pantomime ‘Cinderella’, produced by Fred and Walter Melville at the Lyceum Theatre, early C20th, Special Collections & Archives, University of Kent

Meanwhile, up the Canterbury hill at the University we have curated a second exhibition exploring pantomime connections within our existing collections. “Oh yes we do!” will explore how archives can be used to find evidence of pantomime history, encouraging audiences to play detective in the gallery.

The archives of the Melville family provide a fascinating insight into behind-the-scenes life at the theatre. The Melvilles owned theatres, acted in, produced and wrote plays (including pantomimes), and our collections evidence how popular pantomime was in the early 20th century.

We also have a large collection of Victorian-era playscripts – the Pettingell Collection – which include many of the famous Theatre Royal, Drury Lane pantomimes written by the eponymous E.L. Blanchard. Highlights from these collections will be on display alongside material from the British Cartoon Archive; our hand-coloured Milbourne scrapbook, and many other items.

Hand-coloured image of characters in ‘Puss in Boots’ at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 1903, Milbourne Scrapbook, Special Collections & Archives, University of Kent

 

If you’re in the Canterbury area between December 2017 – February 2018, we do hope to see you at both exhibitions. Special Collections & Archives are also working with the University’s Centre for Popular and Comic Performance to host a free event on Wednesday 10th January called ‘Panto then and now’, which will include guest talks, a behind-the-scenes look at our archives and a Q&A session with cast and creatives. We hope to see you soon!