By Guy Robarts
BBC News business reporter
Lily Savage poses as the Wicked Queen in Snow White
Look behind you! Christmas is coming and it's curtain up for the pantomime season as soap stars, comedians and showbiz ingenues take to the boards, slap on greasepaint and swell the coffers of our cash-starved theatres.
Gathering for a giggle is a traditional pastime for many families in the UK over the festive season.
More importantly for theatre managers, the panto season can keep venues going through the leaner months of the year and save them from the clutches of their creditors (boo, hiss!).
From mid-December up until as far as March 2005, as many as 300 or so professional productions will be staged across the UK, bringing glittering cash rewards for moonlighting celebrities who can expect to pocket up to £10,000 a week.
What the back-end of the pantomime cow manages to milk is not quite as impressive, more like £350 a week.
Bread & butter
While many forms of traditional theatre, including weekly repertory, have all but vanished, the privilege of watching men dressed as ugly sisters and women posing as principal boys, still keeps bums firmly on seats.
Even Sir Ian McKellen is about to make his pantomime debut as Widow Twanky in Aladdin this season.
The "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" style of post card humour is as warmly embraced by British families as it ever was.
"It's one of those things that seems to be hanging on in there," says Jonathan Kiley of the UK's biggest panto production company Qdos.
"It's a great British tradition like fish and chips and Christmas and roast turkey."
And according to rival UK Productions, which is producing 10 pantos this year from Blackpool to Basingstoke, business is thriving.
"In terms of pure ticket sales, year-on-year they've gone up. It's certainly not a flagging business," says theatre producer Martin Dodd.
"It's good bread and butter for theatres."
Song, dance, buffoonery, and satire are the major ingredients behind this annual event in the theatrical calendar.
Wimbledon Theatre is rubbing Aladdin's lamp to boost its coffers
But it is also market-driven forces that keep the panto culture alive; the flavour of the day is vital to its survival.
To be able to lure people more inclined to watch an animated donkey in 'Shrek 2' down to the theatre to see an unknown actor parading in a cow suit is quite a challenge.
The answer is to hire a top celebrity, which then becomes the most important factor in budgeting for a show.
"The cost of producing a panto varies from show to show depending on the star name," says producer Jonathan Kiley.
Once modern day heroes are thrown into established plots, then up-to-date references and in-jokes are given their stage time to hook an audience not just one year, but every year.
With an annual makeover they are a sure-fire earner.
As guaranteed as first-night nerves.....
Pantos are watertight forms of entertainment; that's why the genre has survived while many other forms of theatre have met a sticky end.
Their origins date back to the middle ages, heavily influenced by the Italian 'Commedia Dell'Arte and traditional English music hall - a cocktail of comedy, singing and slapstick from a bunch of stock characters.
But most of the familiar titles of today did not hit the stage until the early 19th century when pantomime began its golden age.
The age of the panto rolls on; and for many people their first memory of the inside a theatre will be of hundreds of children screaming 'Look behind You!' at one of the great pantomime dames.
"It's important that we get it right and make sure its magical so they go back to the theatre again and again. It's an investment in the future of live theatre," Mr Kiley said.
"A great problem we have is finding people to do panto now. There's a handful of great panto performers left - Brian Connolly, Lily Savage, John Inman - one of the few legendary dames."
For now there is no danger of the panto business losing its magic grip on the hearts and wallets of the nation.
THE MOST POPULAR PANTOS
Jack and the Beanstalk
Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs
Puss in Boots
According to a recent survey by the Radio Times, 68% of families in the UK plan to go to pantos this year, paying an average of £17 for a ticket in the regions, to
about £35 in London's West End.
"For any regional theatre, pantomime is the most important production of the year. It's the longest running show of the year," said a spokesman for Wimbledon Theatre.
Having survived a major cash crisis, Wimbledon is reporting better than expected advance bookings for its forthcoming production of Aladdin.
The potent power of panto has proven to be the one guaranteed way to help theatres dodge the barrage of financial custard pies flying their way.