How to put on a panto: Keep it fluffy, with a sprinkle of fear and a few jokes for the adults

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

With a month to go until Christmas Day, Karl Broderick shares the essential ingredients that go to create the perfect pantomime.

What is it with panto, anyway?

Everything! Dating from Italy in the 1500s and commedia dell’arte, pantomime is music, physical comedy, drama, passion, danger, dancing and happy every after. Summing it up, Leigh Hunt said that not to like panto is not to like love.

Leigh Hunt? Who he?

A famous critic, doing his famous criticism back in the 1800s. Of more recent vintage, Broderick has been writing pantos for 25 years ever since he met Alan Hughes. The TV presenter, who is now his husband, plays Sammy Sausages in’s annual extravaganzas, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Don’t we start with ‘He’s behind you’?

You make a good point. Broderick says that audiences get upset if their favourite phrases aren’t in there.


Oh no they don’t!

Could you stop it? Broderick had always been interested in musicals and comedy. “I fancied myself as a writer, but I was working in advertising,” he says.

Ah, the humble roots of the pantomime hero

Now you’re getting it. Hughes was already a panto star, but one day “he got a call to say they weren’t going to do the show that year, and so I said why don’t we do our own?” With not much more than a pocketful of dreams, Broderick wrote a script, they pulled a cast together, hired a hall and hey presto! Theatrical magic.

I’m going to need a bit more to go on to do my own

Fair point. Start with a well-known tale and build. You’re looking at Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and so on. “You can tell those stories in 30 seconds,” says Broderick. “I was aware of the plot points, and I knew I needed to put funny and interesting words into people’s mouths for the next two hours.” Taking inspiration from old Laurel and Hardy films, and screwball comedies from the 1930s and 1940s, he was off.

What about a dame?

Panto has a long history of men playing women and women playing men. Traditionally the dame is a man and the principal boy is a girl. Cross-dressing on stage goes back to Shakespeare and before.

Okay, I have my story. So what next?

“Set the tone. It’s so important. One actor can be frivolous and funny, but the straight characters never steer away from the story. And you have to make sure of your moments. So when Snow White seems to die, that has to be a moment.” Broderick also makes sure to add a bit of old-fashioned fear alongside the tinsel and fluff. “I drew from childhood classics. As a kid I liked being scared. There’s no point in watering it down: it’s great. It’s like a roller coaster: being scared in a controlled environment.”

What about the audience?

They need to feel needed. Don’t we all? “Don’t give them too much to do in the first two minutes – they’re still settling in.” After that they’ll be jumping around at the drop of a hat. “I always tell my actors to play to the six-year-old who has come all dressed up. They’ll really believe you are Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk.”

What about the adults?

Panto includes jokes for kids and jokes and topical references for adults, but Broderick says never underestimate children, and make sure any innuendo is on the right side of acceptable. It’s a family show!

Sammy, Buffy and the Beanstalk is at the National Stadium, Dublin, from Tuesday, December 12th, to Sunday, January 7th