Christmas in the archives? Oh yes it is!

By Neil Sayer, archdiocesan archivist

A festive theatre trip may be the only experience of the theatre some people get. Certainly the income from the pantomime season keeps many theatres solvent for the rest of the year. Even now, with television and other distractions so readily available, traditional pantomimes by professional or amateur dramatic companies remain hugely popular. Their emphasis on spectacle, with outlandish costumes, celebrity turns, broad comedy and audience participation, appeals to young and old alike.

Nobody seems sure why pantomime became so associated with Christmas. One theory is that after an early theatrical run started on Boxing Day, the tradition became ingrained. However, there are no theories about why pantomime became part of the curriculum at St Joseph's, Upholland but it is definitely a historical quirk. St Joseph's was established at Upholland in 1883 and for over a century provided an education for boys and trained young men for the priesthood. The college archives include scripts, programmes and photographs from pantos produced from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Just as schools proudly showcase their student talents in dramatic productions from Shakespeare to Stoppard, so St Joseph's seminary not only staged serious plays but had students (and staff) letting their hair down for the annual panto.

The surviving programmes show how the college's creative talents (like all pantomime scriptwriters) chose traditional folk tales from England (Robin Hood), the Arabian Nights (Aladdin and Ali Baba) and the European tradition (Cinderella) and then wrote scripts to reflect topical concerns and deliver local gags. Soon after Sputnik went around the world, the plot of Upholland's 1958 panto centred on Jack using the beanstalk to get to the moon before the pesky Russians could.

Scripts and programmes illustrate another traditional aspect of the college panto, allowing students to be risqué, irreverent … and schoolboyish! The cast for one Shakespeare pastiche includes characters 'Tubby' and 'Ornot Tubby'.    

Even if none of the listed cast members achieved acting fame, there are familiar names nonetheless. In fact, a young John Devine, who appears elsewhere in the Pic, regularly trod the boards in the 1960s. To see the pantomime records for yourself, contact