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Omnibus - 'The Story of Pantomime' (1976)

Omnibus - 'The Story of Pantomime'

'The Story of Pantomime' is an episode in the arts documentary series Omnibus.  It was produced by the BBC and first broadcast on Thursday 23 December 1976 (BBC1, 10:15-11:20pm).

With special thanks to Tony Staveacre, the producer of 'The Story of Pantomime', for this image from the programme.  It shows ZoŽ as Columbine, a comic servant, in an extract from a Commedia dell'Arte performance.


'The Story of Pantomime' explores the origins and development of this popular theatrical entertainment, from the sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell'Arte onwards.  As part of a group of actors participating in the documentary, ZoŽ helps to bring the history of pantomime to life.  This is the first time, I believe, that she appeared on TV as herself, as well as in-character.

Below, the producer, Tony Staveacre, has kindly shared with us his memories of making 'The Story of Pantomime'.  ZoŽ's performance in the programme, he notes, is 'brilliant'.

THE STORY OF PANTOMIME was broadcast on BBC-1 on December 23rd 1976. It was part of the weekly arts strand called 'Omnibus'. We thought it would be fun to delve into the history of pantomime, and illustrate the changes that had taken place over the centuries, from Commedia dell' Arte through to the post-WW2 'Variety' model. I persuaded Ken Campbell to take charge of this. He was a theatrical firebrand who created his own unashamedly low-brow brand of touring theatre (The Ken Campbell Road Show), as well as running repertory companies, and inventing The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. For the tv show, he created a company made up of his own alumni (Chris Langham, Bob Hoskins, Dave Rapaport), and some new recruits from posh theatre. I can't remember whether it was Ken or I who thought Zoe would be an ideal 'ingenue' for our team. She was just making a name for herself in the theatre and had recently joined the RSC. So we had to negotiate with RSC management to give her some days off for the filming. We spent a week filming at Lamda's studio theatre. It was a sort of panto workshop; I had researched some flimsy scripts and illustrations of 'panto thru the ages' and out of those scraps Ken and the company invented a series of colourful comic scenes. On the Saturday we presented the fruits of our researches to a family audience, and filmed the show. It was great fun. Zoe slotted into the company like a duck to water, although I sensed that improvisatory comedy was a new thing for her. Ken was a very demanding director of actors: he had a very clear notion of how comedy should be played. Zoe quickly got the message, she was brilliant. Actually, I think Ken rather fancied her. At the end of the 'live' show, Ken got the kids in the audience to devise their own short panto, in which Zoe was elected by the children to play a fairy, labelled 'Tinkerbell OK'.
Tony Staveacre


Participants include:

ZoŽ Wanamaker, Ken Campbell, Bob Hoskins, Jimmy Jewel, David Rappaport, Andy Andrews, Jeni Barnett, Eddie Davies, Chris Langham, Duncan Faber


Producer: Tony Staveacre


ZoŽ has appeared in two pantomimes, both of which were performed before 'The Story of Pantomime' was broadcast: Dick Whittington (1971) and Jack and the Beanstalk (1973).  She therefore had first-hand experience of the genre to draw on when taking part in the documentary.

Several years after 'The Story of Pantomime' was broadcast, Zoe took part in a documentary called All the World's a Stage - 'The Vices of Mankind' (1984), which is focused on another aspect of theatrical history, seventeenth-century French stagecraft.

Press coverage

Shortly before the 'The Story of Pantomime' was broadcast, the Guardian described it as an 'ambitious effort' to explore the history of pantomime.

The Radio Times praised the programme's innovation: 'We saw a versatile cast being put through their paces by an inventive director who admitted: "We got all this from the pictures"; and they recaptured the mime and buffoonery of Pantaloon's ludicrous wooing of Columbine much as it must have been performed over 200 years ago.'


Unfortunately, 'The Story of Pantomime' is not available to the general public on DVD or in any other format.  Members of academic institutions may be able to watch the programme via Spoken Word Services, a Scottish charity.

Related links

BFI Film & TV database: 'The Story of Pantomime' programme details

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