Wednesday, September 09, 2015

That's just Dopey - Leicester comes up short as Snow White goes solo

We Chelsea fans are eminent jesters. For years we have declared in song at home and away matches how "We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea and..." - without anyone truly understanding why - "Leicester".

Various theories have circulated as to why the city of Leicester has been singled out so. One nefariously relates back to a time when Chelsea and Leicester City hooligans met on a regular basis to engage in forthright discussions about Middle East politics, global debt reduction and other weighty topics requiring the carrying of knuckledusters and nunchucks.

Another is that, on the M1 motorway, there was once a sign that read "The North & Leicester", which would certainly appeal to the supreme grasp of irony football fans are generally blessed with (and which arms them with opportunities to launch into comic routine at the sight of anything worth a giggle).

Until now, however, I wasn't sure why Leicester warranted such singling out. An inprepossessing city of 330,000 in England's East Midlands, and largely best known for being the birthplace of Gary Lineker (and the Walkers crisps factory that continues to employ him), and Sue Townsend's fictional teenager, Adrian Mole. Oh, and a football club which this summer eccentrically hired Claudio Ranieri to be its manager, which so far hasn't turned out too badly at all.

But, as I say, all that was until now. This week the city's famous music venue, De Montford Hall, has baited Daily Mail readers by announcing that its Christmas pantomime this year will be, simply, Snow White, as opposed to the more conventional Snow White And The Seven Dwarves.

This has nothing to do with any diva-like behaviour by the titular star, nor arts underfunding requiring cuts to the casting budget. No, the unconventionally minimalist title is due to the panto's producers not wanting to"people of restricted height".

Yes, dwarves. According to the panto's producers, Snow White will have, instead, "friends" as they felt that the term 'dwarf' is "generally not a word that people feel comfortable with".

Warwick Davis, the actor who starred as himself as a dwarf actor in Ricky Gervais' Extras, as well as in the Star Wars and Harry Potter films, told the Leicester Mercury newspaper that he found the decision more offensive than any offence the term dwarf could cause: "Personally, I find it quite patronizing when people are offended on our behalf," he told the paper.

"I’m sure there are those out there who don’t like the term, but as a short actor I want to be given the choice about whether I appear in panto or not. I don’t want someone making that decision for me." He also suggests another purpose behind the production's decision - hiring child actors to play Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, Dopey, Sneezy and Sleepy instead of adult dwarf actors. Either way, it smacks of good intentioned but absurd political correctness.

Should Elvis Costello have recorded without The Attractions for fear of insulting fairground rides? Neil Young split from Crazy Horse to avoid offending owners of mentally instable nags? Dwarves are dwarves. They are not "persons of restricted growth", never call them "midgets", and though they might be OK with a term like "little person", it sounds silly. Dwarfism is also a well established medical condition, caused by a genetic disorder.

You could argue that excluding dwarves from Snow White is discrimination, but mostly, it would seem, it is the result of political correctness gone mad. Pantos were never the greatest of PC institutions, which was half the attraction of going to see them as a family, a guilty pleasure that might cause Granny to blush, but nothing worse.

True, pantomime producers have always tried to write topical gags into scripts, but there has been growing concern that political correctness has crept into the genre to its detriment. Characters like Sinbad and even Robinson Crusoe have been abandoned for fear of causing racial offence, while pantos based on traditional Grimm fairy tales have stopped for fear of scaring audiences...despite those audiences being perfectly comfortable watching Game Of Thrones or Twilight. There have even been pantos dropping the Victorian tradition of a female actor playing the 'principle boy' out of concerns over treading on sexual politics.

"You are getting to the stage where you are frightened to do anything as a joke," Tommy Cannon - one half of Cannon & Ball - told the Daily Telegraph in 2007 as the political correction of pantos appeared to be gaining momentum. "We used to do Babes In The Wood a lot and we'd play the robbers who kidnap the children and whisk them away in a pram. But people actually believed something was happening to the kids on stage and we would get complaints," Cannon said, adding that "People forget that this is panto and that sort of censorship is so wrong. These pantos are disappearing and they are not coming back."

The Grimms' original fairy tale may have been simply Snow White when it was published in 1812, but for almost the last 80 years, since it was Disneyfied, the seven dwarves have held equal billing without anyone feeling the need to ease anyone's discomfort about the diminutive condition. And, frankly, with dead children in the Mediterranean, barrel bombs and the wilful distruction of ancient relics and their custodians, there are many more valid things in this world we should be getting offended by.

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