It’ll be alright on the night (before Christmas)

2 Dec 2021

It’s the most wonderful time of the theatre year - the biggest shows, the sparkliest costumes, the glitteriest sets, bold dames, mulled wine, songs, jokes, the lot. However, the course of Christmas never did run smooth, with Bristol Old Vic being visited by harsh critics, riotous children, and the Luftwaffe, on its journey to bring you amazing Christmas shows. We’ve collected together a few of these little incidents that will make even the most stressful family Christmas feel like a walk in the snow-filled park.

1. The Necromancer

Bristol Old Vic was early into the panto game. The emphasis in early pantos were slightly different though, 250 years ago. The first pantomime on our stage, in 1782, was entitled The Necromancer. To bring this elaborate tale of life after life to life, no expense was spared on the staging with local newspapers describing the scenery as ‘the best exhibition of painting that has ever been produced here…’.

We're looking forward to putting on another festive show about necromancy at some point soon.

2. The Day the Elephant Died

Imagine it. It's 1812, and you've got an incredible selection of Victorian hats in your wardrobe at home. On a frosty morning in November you catch sight of a poster as you shop for pies and another top hat. It proclaims that the Theatre Royal is staging a fabulous Christmas Show - Bluebeard. Intrigued, you carry on reading the poster. Your interest is piqued when it promises that one of the actors will make his entry onto the stage 'mounted on a Stupendous Elephant'! You run across the cobbles and down to the theatre, to purchase your tickets there and then.

A week later, you and your family are sitting excitedly in the dress circle. The magical moment arrives. But the cry goes up: 'I say! That's no elephant!'

And indeed it wasn't, well not a live one. As the posters for the show were being printed, the elephant died. The theatre didn't want to waste excellent marketing materials, so the production just used the elephant's stuffed carcass instead (and then the Theatre Royal Bath used it after that!).

3. Everyone's a Critic

Sometimes the crowd is just impossible to please. In 1807 the theatre put on a production of Mother Goose. Solid Christmas fare, you'd imagine. 

Wrong. Local critics were very honest in their assessment of the show: 'to see our best tragedies and comedies deserted, while all the world is running after a Goose is lamentable!'.

Can't please everyone.

4. 'Never Work with Children'

Later in the 19th Century, in 1858, the theatre manager James Chute decided it would be a great idea to extend performing opportunities to the highly talented children of Victorian Bristol.

Open auditions are great for publicity, and allow everyone to have their chance at stardrom. This is the same now as it was then. Once the call had gone out, the people of the city responded with ferocious enthusiasm.

So enthusiastic in fact, that the crowds overwhelmed the theatre, blocking corridors, getting rowdy. In the end, Mr Chute had to turn hoses on the crowd of screeching would-be superstars just to get it under control!

5. Having a Blast

It's war. Theatre has stepped up to provide light in a dark period. And the Theatre Royal (that's us) had the only Christmas show in Bristol - other venues fearing it too dangerous due to the Bristol Blitz.

Undeterred, the show, Red Riding Hood, was rehearsed in air raid shelters around the city. When the show opened, it provided a wonderful escape for the people of Bristol. But, during the run, the Luftwaffe dropped a series of incendiary bombs over King Street. They landed right outside the stage door, crashed through on to the fly floor, and even into the men's loos (a definite in-convenience).

Fortunately the incendiaries were all duds, and despite the damage, the show still went on!

6. You've Got to Start Somewhere

Even the greatest actors have to start somewhere. We've gathered together a few (slightly embarrassing) photos of some big names who've appeared in some of our fabulous Christmas shows. Check out the gallery below.

Of course, no matter how big the star, none of these can compare with the man who put the Chris in Christmas, responsible for nine pantos at Bristol Old Vic, the great Chris Harris (bonus picture at the end of the gallery).

7. Appendichristmas

Always have an understudy. You never know what might happen and you'll need to call on them. In 2000, with Babes in the Wood on our stage, the Fairy was struck down with a bout of appendicitis. This was a big problem (both for her and for the show).

There was no-one in the cast who could fit the costume, it was too late to cast someone and there was no understudy. How was the show meant to continue?

Well, after looking around the crew, everyone pointed at the Stage Manager, who had been listening to the show since it began rehearsing in November, and was the only crew-member who could fit the costume. There was no choice - she had to go on and play the fairy, and did so for the whole final two weeks of the run.

8. Panto's Not for the Faint of Heart

2001, and we're doing Wizard of Oz! You'd have thought that Bristol Old Vic's luck might improve the year after the fairy debacle, and it did, for everyone except the Wicked Witch it seems.

Our poor witch was a wonderful Canadian actress (pictured), who didn't realise it was a festive tradition for the crowd to boo at the baddie. Her first entrance in front of an audience was so upsetting, with boos, hisses and probably the odd shaken fist, that afterwards the theatre had to put signs up to ask the audience to stop booing until she got used to it.

Not all Christmases are a disaster though! This year we've got two amazing shows to share with you and loads of festive fun to be had in our Cafe & Bar, as well as some great gift ideas. Check it all out here