Babes in the Wood – a Poluski panto family affair

The Poluski family were stars of the late Victorian and Edwardian stage. They were in demand year after year to appear in pantomime. One particular show starred the whole family – Charles Machin’s Grand Christmas pantomime, Babes in the Wood at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh.

Babes in the Wood is a popular panto based on a 16th Century English ballad about a Norfolk landowner who abandons his wards after his brother – their father – dies in order to get his hands on their inheritance, which would fall to him if they die. He hires two robbers to take them deep into the local forest and murder them.  The robbers fall out and one kills the other to save the children who still die of exposure in the wilderness.

The story was adapted in the 18th Century as a pantomime and there are various version of the story and the children generally survive and returned to their parents. Robin Hood appears in many versions from the mid-19th Century onwards and acts as the Babes’ rescuer and this is true of modern versions of the panto.

The character of the “wicked” Sheriff of Nottingham became involved. The Good and Bad Robbers would interact with the Sheriff, and one, or sometimes both would find they could not carry out the Wicked Uncle/Sheriff’s grisly task. A Fairy would appear and command the birds to cover the Babes with leaves, and by the opening of Act Two they would be guided to Robin Hood’s encampment in Sherwood Forest. Often Act Two involved a scene at Nottingham Goose Fair and the famous archery scene- where the Sheriff would attempt to lure Robin into his castle by staging an archery competition.

By the end of the pantomime, the babes were returned to the castle, and the wicked uncle/Sheriff would be unmasked as the villain. The children would inherit their wealth and be looked after by Robin and Marion who might well marry at the end of the act.

The version of Babes in the Wood written by James Francis for Chas. E. Machin and performed at the Empire Palace Theatre, Edinburgh in 1899-1900 is the Robin Hood version in 11 scenes; the Fairy Glen in Sherwood Forest, Nottingham Market Place, library in the castle, a bedroom in the castle, a corridor in the castle, a grand ball in the great hall of the castle, the Baron’s kitchen, the Greenwood Tree in Sherwood Forest including the Heliotrope Ballet, the Sheriff’s Courtyard, Africa – inserted as a reference to the Second Boer War, and finally The Glen of Christendom and the finale.

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It was a family affair. Husband and wife William Nelson Govett (Will Poluski) and Harriet (Nettie) Waite, their son Will Jr, daughters Lottie and Winifred (Sisters Govelle) and William’s brother Samuel Govett (Sam Poluski) all featured prominently. Brothers Poluski starred as the showmen and ruffians Barnum and Bailey, Nettie Waite was Herne the Hunter, Sisters Govelle were Bertie and Cissie – the eponymous Babes and Will Poluski Jr was the Cat.

Herne the Hunter introduces the pantomime and is revealed as a demon intent on spoiling Robin Hood’s life. The Fairy Queen knows this and will tell Robin. Meanwhile Robin wins the golden arrow at the Goose Fair where the Fairy Queen reveals the Sheriff’s plan to kidnap and murder the Babes. Under the magical influence of Herne, the Sheriff reveals his plan to Barnum and Bailey, two broke showmen come to the fair to make some cash with their troupe of dancers. He hires them to kidnap the babes and take them to Sherwood and kill them.

Willie, the page, and Nurse overhear the plans and warn Robin. During a grand ball the showmen (robbers) kidnap Bertie and Cissie. In the forest Barnum has a change of heart and the pair fight and, as the Babes are left to wander the greenwood alone Herne senses victory. The Fairy Queen then commands the birds and animals of the forest to cover the Babes and protect them while they sleep; they are discovered by Robin and saved.

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Good (the Fairy Queen) triumphs over evil (Herne the Hunter) and all the humans are vindicated and even the Sheriff is pardoned. The final scenes are a patriotic pageant with a parade of champions of British allies – patron saints of Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy and Spain among them. The musical finale is a rousing a tub thumping recruitment song sung by Nurse which concludes with the lines:

Advance on the foe side by side
And show them what British pluck is made of;
If wanted, as heroes you must die,
For there’s no one that Britannia is afraid of.

Machin’s grand Christmas pantomime was commissioned by Sir Edward Moss, the impresario who owned the Empire. Moss amalgamated his company with Richard Thornton and Sir Oswald Stoll to form Moss Empires shortly after the Babes in the Wood run began, making it the largest chain of music halls and variety theatres in the United Kingdom.

Babes in the Wood
Babes in the Wood – cast images from the Edinburgh Evening News

The three-hour long show opened on Saturday 9 December 1899 and ran to packed houses throughout the Christmas season.  The curtain opened to a record audience and crowds had gathered since early in the afternoon to get a seat.

Babes in the Wood was the Poluskis’ first panto north of the border and it proved very popular. Patrons of the Empire Palace had long wished for them to appear in a panto at the theatre and now they were able to enjoy the indescribable comicalities of Will Poluski as Barnum and the more robust humour of Sam Poluski as Bailey.  The panto had been criticised for being overly long and crammed full of speciality material from the comedians that could have been peppered throughout the run instead.

Reporting on the opening night the Edinburgh Evening News of 11 December was complimentary:

‘In regard to the present pantomime the author has done his work well, a commendable restraint in regard to bad puns being particularly noticeable. The pantomime has had the advantage of being produced under the direct supervision of the author, Mr. James Francis, who is acting as stage manager, consequently greater smoothness and adherence to the ideas of the writer have been obtained.’

The Sisters Govelle’s dancing was creative, Bertie singled out by the paper as particularly successful in this department.

The Brothers Poluski are the comic combination of the show and their cleverness does not admit of any doubt said the Evening News reviewer although thought that there was a tendency to over prolong their business especially in the ‘bedroom’ and ‘fight’ scenes.

He summed up – ‘Generally, it may be said that the present pantomime promises to be one of the most attractive which has appeared in Edinburgh for a number of years. There was a crowded house on Saturday night and at the conclusion the author, in a few words, thanked the audience for the hearty reception they had given the production.’

The producers must have paid attention to early reviews because after a couple of weeks and ‘considerable use of the pruning knife’ the panto had settled down into one of the ‘most enjoyable entertainments imaginable.’

Machin’s Babes in the Woods production benefited from exquisite costumes and fine scenic effects, both visual and mechanical supplied and set up by J Hemingway and a team from the Avenue Theatre, Sunderland. Both the scenery and the costumes were lavish.

The Poluskis combat scene and their ‘Dummy Soldier’ sketch made the house ‘ring with laughter’. This scene, entitled Africa was included in the book to allow for a popular music hall act to perform one its best known acts and deliver a satirical reference to the Second Boer War, which had started in October 1899. Or more likely it was included to introduce the patriotic sentiment with which the Panto was closed.

The sketch was a version of one which Will and Sam had toured the music halls with for years, even taking it on a tour of South Africa and Australia. Called Late on Parade – or sometimes Army HQ – the sketch used a row of dummy soldiers. Two of the doll-like dummies were on springs which, on being struck by either of the Poluskis, rebounded to give a knock-down blow in return. In the original sketch Sam was Captain Blazer made up in the ordinary dress of an officer  while Will was Corporal Spottletoe with make-up which was an ‘extraordinary conception, as grotesque as it was original’. Here the two officers became Barnum and Bailey in Africa.

For more on Babes in the Wood and its origins visit It’s Behind You

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