Thursday, 22 August 2013

The History of the Dame. With Panto in a Day

The History of the Dame. With Panto in a Day

At Panto in a Day we've had some extraordinary pantomime Dames over the years. But where does the pantomime dame come from and who's the best?
We briefly touched on this in our previous blog, 'The History of Pantomime' but the dame herself (and we mean, himself) has always been the highlight of a Christmas pantomime. The self proclaimed beauty, double entendres 'up to date fashion' sided with witty sense of humour are always going to be the highlight gracing the pantomime. Whilst they perceive themselves in such light we as the audience see an awkwardly funny yet colourful mess.
Traditionally they are played by males, however, here at Panto in a day we have always cast females. But strongly focused on the characters being as extroverted as any other full scaled pantomime. With the likes of Lucinda Forth, Amy Tripp, Andrea Young and Hannah Margaret



The pantomime dame emerged from the music halls of the Victorian era. As early as the 1860 and saw the public relish in seeing their favourite comedian play in a role usually cast for women. The ugly sisters date back to the 1860's performed at the Royal StrandTheatre. However, it wasn't until 1897 in Babes in the Woods as we have previously mentioned where we saw an ensemble of men dressed as women. The origins of the 'pantomime crossover' were starting and one of the male actors named Herbert Campbell played 'Nanny Nurse'. 
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In most pantomimes the dame is the leads mother. She commonly makes us laugh and follows her son throughout the story ending up in 'love' with another character, resulting in a big sloppy kiss. However, in Cinderella of course the 'dame' character is portrayed through the Two Ugly Sisters, and as Daphne and Celeste would clearly state [clear throat to sing] 'U.G.L.Y you an't got no alibi, you ugly, mmm humm youugly!' This is where our natural instinct to love our 'dame' is tampered with in this story. These are clearly two horrible people! As they keep Cinderella under lock and key forcefully completing the most gruesome of tasks. And as she sweeps the floor we laugh at their jokes and dwell in their loaded insults. We're a 'sucker' for a comic (and when I say we, I mean us. The audience). Forget Cinderella! As horrible as her life is and we'll happily admit her transformation into a princess may well be majestic. But did she make us laugh? Unless she forgot a line or two chances are 'NO'. We leave the theatre asking 'did she really have sea shells in her hair' and 'exactly how many wigs did that dame go through'. They are not the protagonist but we go to see them, laugh with them and leave talking about them. And that is why they are the most important character in any pantomime. They are the epitome of pantomime. 

Notably some of the most iconic pantomime dames were Douglas Byng (1893-1988). The original dame who took his role very seriously. He made all his own costumes and after performing 50 shows (bearing in mind there is only one a year) he created a pretty impressive CV. GeorgeLacey had a similar stint. He started from the age of 19 in 1923 and continued to create one of the most iconic Dames pantomime had to offer. After a staggering 60 shows he hung up the wig in 1984. If you haven't heard of the first two you will have heard of Christopher Biggins, his on and off stage presence makes him an obvious choice to play such a role. Since establishing himself as a serious Dame contender his loveable (or not so loveable) extroverted persona have seen him star in reality shows such as 'I’m a celebrity...get me out of here' and 'Come Dine with Me'. 
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panto in a dayThe word celebrity here is unfortunately the prevailing one. Since him there hasn't really been a 'well known' actor stepping into the high heels on an annual basis. Sure, there are credible dames out there that play the character every year, but there work, although loved at the time, go under the radar for the rest of the year. Or maybe like Santa they return to the North Pole and hibernate until called upon again. Paul O'Grady, Les Dawson, David Hasselhoff and Keith Chegwin have all donned great costumes and breathed new life into the dame. But our adored Douglas Byng and respected Geroge Lacey are all but gone from this generation. Not that we're complaining, the flip side of injecting new life into old characters will always be loved by Panto in a Day.


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