It’s time for girls (as boys) to slap thighs and boys (as girls) to indulge in massive breast enlargement. In most countries this would be the speciality of the red-light transsexual but in Britain it’s just the normal Christmas behaviour of country folk. Pantomime fever is raging. And I’m not talking about large City productions with faded TV stars spouting old catch-phrases they hope the audience remembers. True panto land is now found in village halls and no one performs with as much panache ? and willingness to shed clothes ? as hunt supporters. It’s a way to stick two fingers to the puritans who would ban our sport and a brilliant way to raise hunt revenues.
That blend of song, dance, acting, verse, dressing up and mime first became popular in hunting society in the Twenties and Thirties when Leicestershire became the mecca of foxhunting fashion. To round off the day’s sport, the Meltonian fast set thought nothing of indulging in further exercise with a repertoire of entertainment. Participation was de rigueur, and there are still those clamouring to pile on the greasepaint, don thigh-boots and strut their stuff.
A part in the Old Berks pantomime is no pushover. Racing journalist Marcus Armytage might well have been justified in believing his appearance on the Uffington village hall stage would lend a hint of Corinthian glamour to proceedings. Not so. His one line of a duet as a Von Crapp child in The Hound of Music was so bad he was asked never to perform again.
The theatrical talents of this particular hunt must rate at the top end of the am-dram league as its most recent production, Aunt Edwina, illustrates. Penny Spink, who puts so much work into such creations and certainly would not be out of place in the West End, plays Lady Astoroid. Mark Smyly, who works tirelessly for the Lambourn Valley Housing Trust for retired stable-lads, makes a worthy opposite number as her cross-dressing husband ? styled as the eponymous Aunt Edwina. Smyly’s fine features and willowy figure enable him to adopt the female wardrobe with worrying ease. William Douglas-Home’s play is skilfully adapted by PR wizard Nick Boyd and wittily reflects the complexities involved for hunts should one of its Masters undergo a sex change.
The cast blasts out panto classics such as Green, Green Grass of Home and Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), the words being changed in time-honoured fashion to convey the story-line and have a pop at local characters. The result might not wow urban audiences but such was the success of Aunt Edwina among the breeched and booted that it transferred to Westonbirt School, where it was performed in aid of the Countryside Alliance. Here, the inclusion of tongue-in-cheek references to various Blue and Buff figures held viewers in thrall.
The Warwickshire is also renowned for its theatrical fashion. Thanks to the artistic flair of Jane Brabyn, the Shires pack has acquired a widespread reputation for staging a series of professionally produced pantomimes, including Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. When Brabyn took her final bow, however, it was time to strike out in another direction. The musical Grease was followed by renditions of Blind Date and The X Factor.
Latterly, Liz Jones, whose partner Steve Hills is the kennels’ countryman, dreamt up the lyrics for a saucy translation of The Rocky Horror Show. Billed as The Rocky Hunting Show, the story revolves around a hunting house party, all transvestites, hosted by Rupert Stuffington-Ronks (played by Keith Arnold). Obsessed by hunting, he keeps his Adonis-type huntsman, Rocky, locked up in a barn so he will not be distracted by the surrounding frolics. The guests are joined by two graduates ? Brad and Janet ? rabid antis who nevertheless quickly find themselves coerced into the ways of hunting. It ends happily when Janet succumbs to the charms of her host. The mellifluous tones of Ian McConnel and Simon Jackson (former and current hunt secretary respectively), tell the tale and the chorus boasts a posse of leggy lovelies, including MFH Barbara Hester, vet Ali Lucking and two maids in Anne Summers regalia.
Like all successful local pantos, the characters can be recognised ? and Ronks’s traits and characteristics bear more than a passing resemblance to one of this hunt’s more flamboyant subscribers (who would wholly appreciate a cast sporting suspenders, fishnets, hot pants, bustiers and very little else).
It is not uncommon for locals flocking to the Wynnstay extravaganzas to take the precaution of consuming stiff drinks beforehand to steady jangling nerves. They’re more than likely to be sent up as the butt of some inter-hunt joke, and no one is exempt from merciless teasing. Indeed, certain members of the audience have been known to arrive armed with bagfuls of doughnuts as ammunition with which to pelt their imitators, who cheerfully admit to getting away with blue murder. Perhaps this explains why race cards carry a disclaimer stating that “the entire cast repudiates any liability for any slander or libel”, and never mind the damage, loss or injury!
It was Nancie Shepherd who scripted the original musical ensembles and Christmas fairy tales which embraced unsparingly every facet of foxhunting and have had more than the odd huntsman of Sir Watkin William-Wynn’s hounds squirming in his chair. Today, skits, duets and recitals fill the programme, many of them based on broadcasts such as Desert Island Discs and Gardeners’ Question Time (and yes, there are innumerable ways to bed Primrose and Marigold). John Harvey cajoles, inspires and encourages his sometimes wayward cast, not all of whom are entirely convinced that rehearsals are a prerequisite. Learn lines? Why bother when they can tape them to useful props to produce a ceaseless flow of sketches, all spiced up with random ad-libbing, which guarantees that no two performances are ever the same.
Baz Hughes, doyen of the petrol-pony brigade of followers, turns his never-ending acting skills to impersonations of Friar Tuck and Tommy Cooper and is also a dab hand with his magician’s wand. The hunt’s countryman Paul Connolly devises his own rhymes and leads some gutsy singing while the footies’ hammed-up version of morris dancing makes the proper version look almost sensible. And who could resist three pretty girls, including event rider Emily Gilruth, who appear demurely attired in their side-saddle kit and slowly but surely divest themselves of their habits to reveal an altogether foxier form of (un)dress? And the mirth doesn’t stop at the on-stage antics. When hunt scribe David Higham offered to source a blow-up doll he told the shop assistant, “I only want it for a little play.”
Having cut its teeth on a couple of variety shows, the Bedale took on Cinderella as its showcase production. It might have had to clear vintage cars from a local garage to use the unorthodox venue for rehearsals but, come the opening night, from the moment the curtain was raised with a blast of the hunting horn it was show business. No wonder the entire county clamours for seats. And with 70-odd members of this Yorkshire pack participating there’s no doubting the camaraderie which so clearly exists off as well on the hunting field. Co-ordinator and director Sam Bratley and chairman Christopher Bourne-Arton appear as the two stupendously well-upholstered
ugly sisters, who are decked out in an unending series of outrageous outfits topped with psychedelic wigs. The racehorse trainer Mark Johnston’s wife Deidre enchants as Cinderella with her beautiful singing voice, writer Jonny Beardsall plays the lovelorn Buttons and in classic tradition there is the drop-dead gorgeous principal “boy”, Dandini, in the form of toweringly tall Kirstie Hughes.
There’s a panto horse too, which displays a somewhat recalcitrant nature. With its back end not necessarily always following the front half, it wouldn’t take the straightest line across country. And who said that age matters? The pneumatic Dollies might give the nimble Friskies a few years ? or is the other way round? ?but both groups of dancing girls put their best feet forward thanks to the tutoring of the Butterfly School of Dance.
When Cinderella finally gets to go to Prince Charming’s (hunt) ball she finds there’s a Strictly Ballroom interlude in which the quartet of Masters strides out ? giving the foxtrot a whole new meaning ? under the beady eye of the judging panel and compere Kirstie Hughes, who doubles up in cameo role as Bruce Forsyth. But it is the young entry who undoubtedly steal the limelight as a pack of mice, all sugar and sweetness, scuttling around 10-year-old Angus Johnston’s feet as he blasts out his solo.
And where is the villain in all these productions, the evil baron who will ban all these festivities? Well, he’s ever present but not on stage ? the Labour government that tried to ban hunting and the life it brings to rural areas. How it must fume when it announces that all this has come to an end, only for country people to roar back “OH NO IT HASN’T!”