Oh yes she is!
As we know, dames come in all shapes and sizes, but at Christmas time there is one type of dame leading all the others, usually on a merry dance.
These are of course the pantomime dames, who really know how to enjoy themselves. Loud in voice and dress, they don’t let age and their low status inhibit their romantic and social interactions, and are only too happy to laugh at themselves along with everybody else.
So what could be more up damesnet’s street than a free lunchtime lecture by Simon Sladen at the V&A on The Twelve Days of Christmas – A history of pantomime through its great dames? Dames Verity and Barbara were delighted to attend. Before reading on, please note the following health warning:
It must be acknowledged that on this occasion most of the heroes whose careers we are highlighting are men, but in the true spirit of panto and misrule, we hope the more purist of our readers will not take offence.
Our pantomime dame history starts with the Mystery plays, with Mrs Noah an early example of a cross dressing dame in the 15th century. The dame could also be spotted in productions of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare created Juliet’s Nurse as a fixer, clown and pragmatist who is certainly not beyond a spot of crude innuendo. What better character to be played in the style of the pantomime dame? The Nurse is large and ugly, and her voluminous garments billow round her, prompting Mercutio’s cries of “A sail, a sail!”
The actor and comedian Joseph Grimaldi, who was the most popular performer of the Regency period, was instrumental in developing the harlequinade for the English stage – a slapstick version of the Italian Commedia dell’arte. As the harlequinade with its traditional five characters – Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, Clown and Pierrot – began to decline in popularity, its place was taken by pantomime proper – enter the dame, stage right.
Every genre of the stage has its stars, traditions and taboos: in the pantomime pantheon, there is one role that is seen as the pinnacle of any dame’s career, and that is Mother Goose. The part was created for Dan Leno, who rose to prominence at the end of the 19th century. He performed a total of 12 different dames in 18 pantomimes – no mean feat.
In Scotland there was a tradition of female dames in pantomime, and Nellie Wallace is perhaps the best known. A master (mistress?) of facial expression, she was called the ‘Essence of Eccentricity’ and would have the audience laughing as soon as she came on stage. And let us not forget Clive Rowe, a rare example of a black pantomime dame.
These dames were nothing if not energetic: Douglas Byng was known as “Bawdy but British”, a highly camp female impersonator who played a number of famous dames in panto. George Lacey played over 60 dames between 1923 and 1984. He also had a tradition of appearing in a new costume with each of his entrances during a single pantomime. He was very popular, delivering working class jokes with an upper class accent. Jack Tripp was described as the “John Gielgud” of dames, appearing in over 35 pantomimes. He was awarded an MBE specifically for his contribution to the pantomime genre – the only time a ‘dame’ has been honoured in this way.
The queen of cross dressing Danny La Rue was equally tireless, performing in pantomime right up until his death in 2006 – surely the most glamorous dame of them all?
Finally, the importance of the pantomime dame on the British stage can perhaps best be summed up by the decision of Sir Ian McKellen, who, despite being the recipient of every major theatrical award in the UK and the US, chose to play Widow Twankey at the Old Vic in 2004 and 2005, one of the most notable – and unexpected – pantomime dames in recent years.
So there you have them. Long live the pantomime dames. May they continue to break a leg.