So, we’ve had too pretty bad pantos in Cinderella (2000) and Aladdin (2000) and on fairly good one in Jack and the Beanstalk (1998), now we have Dick Whittington (2002), will things get better, worse, or stay the same? Christ, I sound like an optician.
Young Dick Whittington (Kevin Bishop) and his cat, Chris (Julian Clary) make their way to London to seek their fortune on streets paved with gold. It’s not long before Dick bumps into Alice Fitzwarren (Debra Stephenson) and the pair fall head over heels in love. Alice gets Dick a job in her father’s, Alderman Fitzwarren (James Fleet) shop, where he meets Sally the Cook (Richard Wilson) and Idle Jack (Lee Mack). After being framed for stealing a necklace, Dick and Chris sneak onto Fitzwarren’s ship, captained by conman Tricky Pete (Paul Merton), which is on an expedition to foreign lands. When the ship sinks in stormy weather, Dick and co are shipwrecked on Tonga, where they are captured by the Queen of Tonga (Amanda Barrie) and her handmaiden/daughter/golf caddy, the maid of Tonga (Tina O’Brien) and face off in a deadly confrontation with the villainous King Rat (Mark Williams)
Dick Whittington is better than it has any right to be. Dick is easily the most likable of the four panto protagonists, he’s naïve and possesses the wide-eyed optimism key to the character. Both Paul Merton and Julian Clary are in their best roles out of the four here, Merton is allowed some comedic freedom as Tricky Pete and Clary’s sardonic campness is pitch perfect for Chris the cat. Mark Williams is wonderful as King Rat and is clearly loving every second of the role. Dick Whittington noticeably manages the villain’s transition from bad to good far better than Aladdin did in terms of audience participation, not a single child booed when King Rat appeared in the ending song sequence (see, it can be done). In fact, pretty much every character is great, Lee Mack is funny and shows his slapstick skills, Richard Wilson is a wonderful panto dame, Debra Stephenson is perfectly fine; I don’t really have any issues with any of them, it’s a real marvel. In terms of humour, I think Dick Whittington is far funnier than it has any right to be; I laughed a lot at this panto, moreso than any of the others. By far the biggest plus of Dick Whittington is that it really feels like an adventure, a difficult thing to do in an hour and 15 minutes, but somehow it manages it. Dick Whittington has always been one of my favourite pantomime stories and mercifully they do it justice here.
That’s not to say Dick Whittington is perfect, but I can only think of three real issues. The first is the good fairy played by Jessica Hynes, who is, and lets be honest about this, completely fucking pointless. There is no need for this character to exist at all, she’s barely in it and has no impact on the plot whatsoever. The second is Harry Hill, who returns here as the ships painter and while he actually had a role within the story in Cinderella, here his purpose is just to provide 2 minutes of filler while actors change costumes and the next sets are sorted. It’s bizarre that a panto that got so much right slipped up while one of the worse ones got this minor point right. Harry Hill just appears, does some stand-up, and then disappears, one would be forgiven for believing he died when the ship sank, presumably his pale, bloated corpse washed up on the shores on Tonga a few days later.
The biggest failure of Dick Whittington, however, is the finale third, which is rushed at a staggering pace. Both Amanda Barrie and Tina O’Brien contribute little of value and really ought to have been given more stage time, and the minor plot point about Alderman Fitzwarren’s wife being missing is resolved in about three lines when she appears from nowhere, as played by Vanessa Feltz, and reveals she has coincidentally been stranded on the exact same island for the past decade. All this needed was another half hour, give Barrie and O’Brien some time to establish their characters and flex their acting skills, and either scatter some references to Mrs Fitzwarren throughout the story or scrap Vanessa Feltz entirely and have the Queen turn out to be Mrs Fitzwarren; which would’ve been a funny twist. It’s a real shame, Dick Whittington was doing so well, all it needed was another 20 minutes or so, and the biggest problem it had would’ve been solved.
A really solid beginning and middle, with likable characters, great jokes, and a real sense of adventure, the issues come about with the poor ending which is sadly rushed, introducing interesting characters and doing nothing with them, a real shame.