For many of us a trip to the panto was the first time we ever stepped into a theatre. An outing we have never forgotten. 

The lights dim, the curtain opens and the funs starts. The music, the costumes, the noise, the laughs. 

And if you were one of the lucky children to be invited up on the stage. Well, that was the icing on the Christmas cake. 

The fascinating story of the history of the pantomime at the Theatre Royal is told so well in the latest edition of Aspects of Norwich by Michael Blackwell who wrote a book about the first 250 years of the theatre back in 2007. 

He explains how the first pantomime we know much about – The intrigues of Harlequin and Columbine – opened in 1768 at the newly built Theatre Royal adjacent to the Assembly House. 

“The early pantomimes always had the same hero and heroine (Harlequin and Columbine) involved in the same basic plot their escape from Pantaloon and Clown who want to prevent their marriage,” writes Michael. 

The plays were called pantomimes because, with the exception of a brief spoken opening, the fast-moving action and slapstick routines were all performed without words. 

Harlequin and Columbine were characters in every panto at the Theatre Royal from its opening in 1768 until 1880. 

In his article in the new issue of the Norwich Society booklet we can, thanks to Michael, get a close-up look at what actually happened in these shows which captured the imagination of the public. 

The harlequinade was full of slapstick scenes involving pies, banana skins, stalking ghosts and animals. 

Always played with great energy the stunts became more and more daring. In an attempt to attract audiences during the 1780s, the Theatre Royal advertised: 

 1. Harlequin’s Leap through a Hogshead on fire 8 feet high: 

 2. Mr Follett Jr’s leap into a hat box 6 feet high: 

 3. Harlequin’s escape down his own throat and his flight across the stage from balcony to balcony. 

And Michael goes on: “In 1792 audiences were enticed with the promise that Mr Quantrell would rise from the stage to the top of the gallery and descend head foremost over the pit to the back of the stage. 

“Watching a silent movie of the Keystone Cops is probably the best way to get an idea of the style and tempo of the harlequinade,” he says. 

Moving on, the Theatre Royal playbill for the 1852 pantomime asks the question. How do Harlequin and Columbine escape this time? 

They are trapped in the “mines of darkness in the mineral kingdom” before their “brilliant magical metamorphoses’ into “hive of a thousand sweets in the palace of a million pleasures.” 

During the early 1800s, influenced by the surge of patriotism during the Napoleonic Wars, themes became more anglicised and the characters we love today began to take over. 

You will have to get yourself a copy of the booklet to follow Michael on his journey through the world of panto until we arrive at the Theatre Royal in 2022/3 for Jack and the Beanstalk where our much-loved Richard (Dame Trott) Gauntlett is joined, not by the stars of the music halls, but from popular TV programmes. 

Other stories in this brilliant booklet feature ones about growing up in Norwich of the 20s, how we have looked after our river, The Jewish Community in Modern Norwich, Heavenly Gardens and the history of Norwich’s School of Art. 

 Aspects of Norwich, Autumn 2022, by the Norwich Society is on sale in Jarrold and City Books at…just £5.