Clive Rowe stars in Mother Goose at Hackney Empire (Photo: Robert Workman)
Clive Rowe stars in Mother Goose at Hackney Empire (Photo: Robert Workman)

Nothing like a Dame

Published November 28, 2016

Ask 100 actors who’ve done Panto to describe how to play Dame and you’ll get 200 different answers. Funny, kind, matronly, vulgar – there’s an infinite list of words you could use to describe pantomime Dames – but there’s one word they’d all agree on – essential.

A Dame invariably comes with a wardrobe the size of a small country and more wigs than Marie Antoinette. But strip away the pancake, the bloomers and enormous coiffeuse and underneath you’ll invariably find a seasoned performer with a wealth of experience, who can ad-lib their way out of a laundry malfunction or collapsing beanstalk and who can make grandma guffaw and children adore them.

“I ask you – how could anyone feel masculine by the time they’ve got all this on!?”
Jack Tripp (1922-2005) The Art of the Pantomime Dame

The origins of Pantomime can be traced back to the growth of the ‘Harlequinades’ which often followed as a way to lighten the mood after more serious dramas. The 1770s saw the first pantomime story that we would recognise today, Jack The Giant Killer. This was swiftly followed by Robinson Crusoe, Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp, Babes In The Wood and, finally, in 1804 by Cinderella which remains the only pantomime where the Dames (The Ugly Sisters) are actually the villains.

“My Dame is an extension of myself. Most people realise they have both male and female inside them…I suppose that’s why the Dame comes easy to me.”
Terry Scott (1927-1994) The Art of the Pantomime Dame

The role of Dame can, perhaps, be traced back even further to the early days of theatre in London when women were not permitted on stage, but the more formalised tradition of cross-dressing in Pantomime really began with Joseph “Joey” Grimaldi. From his first performance in 1800 the public flocked to see his appearances at Sadler’s Wells and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and it was he who really brought the idea of a comedic cross-dressing character to the fore.

Among Grimaldi’s best-known roles were Queen Rondabellyana in Harlequin And The Red Dwarf and Dame Cecily Suet in Harlequin Whittington. Nowadays, the Dame is more usually the hero’s mother or nursemaid – Widow Twanky in Aladdin or Dame Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk – although almost every pantomime will find a way of shoe-horning in a Dame, no matter how unlikely the explanation.

“I can’t play a glamorous Dame – I’m not that tall and I’m quite an old scrubber.”
Billy Dainty (1927 – 1986) The Art of the Pantomime Dame

There must be something in Pantomime which draws not only audiences but performers
back to the theatre time and time again. So much so, that Joey Grimaldi is still said to haunt the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and is said to give a swift kick in the pants to any performer not trying hard enough to entertain the audience. Another ghost at the very same theatre is that of Dan Leno. Between 1888 and 1903, Leno appeared every year in Drury Lane’s hugely popular Pantomimes. His final appearances as Dame were in Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty before his untimely death in 1904 aged just 43. It was, perhaps, Leno and the Music Hall performers who came after him even more than Grimaldi who really gave Dames – and Pantomimes – the characteristics we recognise today.

“I’m not a female impersonator. I’m a Dame which is a quite different thing.”
George Lacy (1904-1989) The Art of the Pantomime Dame

The twentieth century saw Pantomime firmly established in the nation’s cultural psyche and although now it’s largely seen as a Christmas entertainment, for many years, pantomimes would continue well past Easter. Perhaps that’s why so many household names found themselves a lucrative income playing Dame? Stanley Baxter, Terry Scott, Christopher Biggins, Les Dawson, Patrick Fyffe, Melvyn Hayes and John Inman are just some of the big names who have played Dame the length and breadth of the country.

Three of the most famous names of all to play Dame, though perhaps not ‘Dames’ in the most conventional sense, are Danny La Rue, Barry Humphries and Paul O’Grady. All have put a distinctly glamorous twist on the role of Dame and have been as well known for portraying female characters away from the Pantomime stage. After a brief stint in the Royal Navy, La Rue rose to fame as a female impersonator, even playing the title role in Hello Dolly! in the West End and both Humphries and O’Grady have well-established female alter-egos as Dame Edna and Lily Savage respectively.

“If you’re camp, then play it that way. I play it like my mother.”
Billy Dainty (1927 – 1986) The Art of the Pantomime Dame

Having spent a great deal of time in dressing rooms with Dames, I’ve noticed one theme that’s common to them all – the ritual of makeup. Whether simple or elaborate, the mere act of putting on a little rouge, or a false eyelash seems to bring the character of Dame to the surface, like somebody who’s been holding their breath and comes up gasping for air. Dames can be funny, vulgar, kind and are always larger-than-life – but one thing I can guarantee you…there’s never a dull moment when they’re around.

“I shouldn’t be doing all this at my age you know. I should be in bed”
Jack Tripp (1922-2005) The Art of the Pantomime Dame.

See a Dame in action at a London panto this season! Choose from Aladdin at the Lyric Hammersmith, Sleeping Beauty at the Hackney Empire, Sinbad The Sailor at Stratford East, and the Palladium’s first panto for nearly 30 years, Cinderella.

By Niall Palmer