Is there any job more fun than being a pantomime dame? Oh no there isn’t…

Is there any job more fun than being a pantomime dame? Oh no there isn’t…

For many families, the annual pantomime is as much a Christmas staple as Santa, presents and turkey with all the trimmings.

Although seen as a British tradition, panto stems from Italian slapstick theatre,  dating back to the 1500s. The artform boomed in popularity during the Victorian era, featuring elements of harlequinade interlaced with classic fairy-tale, and our love affair with this age-old theatre has been going strong ever since.

These year it’s thought at least one in 10 people in the UK will be heading to a pantomime this year – with the genre now considered lifeblood for much of British theatre, bringing in an astonishing £60 million in annual revenue and effectively ensuring their survival for the rest of the year.

Of course, it takes a full cast of characters to make a panto – from the handsome prince, the fairy princess and the dastardly villain – but it’s the dames that are really the stars of the show, bringing to the stage bucketfuls of slapstick humour, double entendres and fantastical costumes. 

And with famous dames along the way including Les Dawson, Julian Clary, and the Queen of Panto Dames himself, Christopher Biggins, it’s hard to argue.

Here, speaks to three dames about what it’s like to plaster on the lippy and entertain the crowds at theatre’s busiest time of the year.

Christmas is sweat, glitter and boobs for dames

Paul Morse has been a dame for 18 years. This year he is starring alongside Justin Fletcher in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hexagon Theatre, Reading.

‘I’m an old bird when it comes to being a panto dame. I trained as a classical actor first, and we had panto classes at drama school – I was livid when I was constantly being cast as the dame. I wanted to be a handsome prince! But it was 100% right for me and the first job I got was as a panto dame at a theatre in Leatherhead.

‘The dame is the powerhouse of the show. We must keep the energy up and keep the show motoring along. You have to have a lot of energy yourself and need to be a variety performer with a comic strip, Carry On sense of humour.

‘You’ve just got to physically keep yourself well. We often end up throwing themselves around on the floor, we cover ourselves in custard pies a lot. It’s a hard show, and we only get one day off for Christmas. But I thoroughly enjoy it. Christmas means hard work, sweat, glitter and boobs.

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‘I’m quite a traditional dame, quite glam. But I’m still very much a bloke in a frock, I’m not trying to be a female impersonator – it’s not drag. I think a good dame is that mumsy feel that everyone enjoys.

‘I do all my hair and make-up myself – it takes me about an hour to get ready, and I do big glossy lips and several pairs of eyelashes to the point I can barely keep my eyes open. I’m so used to wearing heels now – I can totter around in stilettos which make me about seven foot tall.

Want to be a dame? Oh yes you can…

Clive Rowe is a panto legend, regularly taking to the stage since the late nineties (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

It takes more than a frilly frock and a few filthy innuendos to become one of panto’s greats. Clive Rowe, who has become a legend on the scene for being Hackney Empire’s dame in residence, has racked  up an impressive 15 pantos to his name, since he started in 1995.

‘Everybody has a dame in them,’ he tells Metro. ‘We all only have to pursue the dame within us to find her.’

The most important quality of being a damn good dame? Simply having the balls to do it.

‘You can’t show fear. The audience can smell it,’ Clive advises. ‘You just have to pursue the dame that is within each of us and let that person out. Nobody taught me how to be a dame. I just watched people. I’ve seen dames in boots and beards that made me cry with laughter. And that’s what I always try to be. Funny.’

But while Clive is a panto mainstay due to his powerhouse voice – he won an Olivier award for his take on Sit Down You’re Rockin’ in the 1995 revival of Guys and Dolls, he believes it really is a group effort to make a stage performance unforgettable.

‘It wasn’t like I was out there on my own,’ he says modestly. ‘I was working with amazing actors; Henry Goodman, Clarke Peters and Imelda Staunton. I was with the creme de la crème’.

‘I’ve had some really special moments on stage, and we get wonderful people come to watch the show. We had someone celebrate her 100th birthday, so we bought her a bottle of champagne and made a fuss of her on the night. All of a sudden, she just started full out dancing on stage! It was brilliant to see she was having such a lovely time. 

‘There’s mishaps too. One panto I did in Worthing several years back had some performing dogs. I could hear the audience cheering and then gasping and the dog was having a poo on the corner of the stage – it was hilarious, but the dancers who were about to come on next weren’t so thrilled. However, it’s almost a bonus when things go wrong, as you can react to it and make the incident funnier.

‘I think I will always do panto. Luckily as a dame, you can go on for quite some time. I’ll keep going as long as the audience still wants me to do it and as long as I keep enjoying it. I went to a medium once when I was on tour with a different show and she said this would be in my lifeline for a very long time.’

I would happily do panto all year round

Justin Brett, 49, has been a dame for 13 years. Last year, he starred in Cinderella in the Corn Exchange Theatre in Newbury.

‘Panto is in my blood and bones. My dad was an actor who did a lot of pantomime – even starring at the Palladium! I grew up watching him on stage and I’ve still got great memories. It seeded my love of comedy and theatre and also growing up with a sense of silliness. I’ve got a child now and if my kid isn’t silly and doesn’t have a sense of humour then I don’t know what I’ll do!

‘When I left college in 1995 after training to be a classical actor, I had ambitions of being in the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Instead, I fell into comedy and improvisation gigs and  spent 15 years touring the country as part of a clown car show called Dingle Fingle and the Clown Town Crime Watch. But I actually prefer doing comedy and acting – I could quite happily do panto all year round.

‘I did my first panto aged 36, and it was nerve-wracking. I would rush my delivery of lines because I didn’t trust in my material so much. Looking back, I was quite insecure – now, I’m a lot slower and more relaxed. The audience can sense when you’re struggling.

‘The dame as a character has to be a bit of a cheeky trickster, but it’s important to remember she’s always the butt of the joke. When you’re picking on people in the audience, you have to be able to be playful while ensuring they’re the hero of that interaction. Basically, you have to make the audience feel fabulous and comfortable – but they should know not to mess with you.

‘We have a fantastic costume department that measure me for what outfits to wear. You have to make the costume work for you.

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I like a dress to be tight around the waist and wider around the bottom so when I move, it moves with me. The more outrageous and outlandish they are, the better.

‘I have also mastered the art of quick change – I have to swap outfits in less than 30 seconds sometimes. When we start our technical rehearsals, you think: ‘God, I’ll never learn to change outfits that quickly in time.’ But when it comes down to the live shows, you’ve learned to do it so quickly you’ve got time to change, have a cup of tea and a poo before going back on stage.

‘There is pressure as a dame.  You tend to open the show and you have to reassure the audience that they’re in safe hands and if that’s not done well… it can have an effect on the rest of the show. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have fun. Casts at pantos are always a tight knit bunch, and we try and prank each other as much as possible: the more fun we have together, the more fun the audience has. 

‘It’s brilliant when things go a bit tits up: panto is all about dropping things on the floor and someone forgetting their lines. And it makes for a wonderful community feel, There’s always a panto romance. I know quite a few prince and princesses and Cinderellas and Button’s who are together and now are married with kids.

‘Pantomime has changed a lot since I first started. Scripts are a lot kinder, softer and more inclusive now – and rightly so. Panto is a folk tradition, it’s community theatre and it’s about bringing people together. The scripts should reflect that.’

Custard pies and pratfalling is pretty normal for me

Philip Pellew, 60, was a dame for the first time last year. He is now sharing dame duties with Justin in Jack in the Beanstalk at the Corn Exchange Theatre Newbury.

‘My entrée into damehood was slightly different. I’d done panto before but I genuinely played other characters – villains or the villain’s stupid sidekick with stupid names like Lickspittle.

‘However, a theatre in Oxford nearly had their panto thrown into disarray when their dame was told by doctors they weren’t well enough to perform. Literally, it was the night before the show started and they had no replacement dame. They needed someone who could jump on stage and go on immediately, so when I heard, I foolishly announced I could do it. Within an hour, I was on stage doing the show!

‘This is only my second time as a dame, so I’m still learning to do make-up to find my look. I’m quite clownish in my approach – but all make-up is dependent on what sort of dame you plan to be.

‘As an improviser, I’m used to dealing with uncertainty and the unknown in audience interaction. You know generally who to pick on and who not. Every audience is unique and it’s your obligation as a performer to do your very best In front of that audience.

‘Having custard pies to your face and mastering pratfalls are all in a day’s work for me. But it is a gift for me when things go wrong. I love that element of surprise and I’ve actually pushed for more improvised sections in the pantomime this year.

‘You can’t hide behind errors, you just have to work with them. Audiences then get a totally unique show – “Remember when the cow fell over on the stage and the dame said he’s got mad cow disease?” People love that because it makes the experience special.

‘I think panto is still popular because it’s a community thing. People come and see it with family and kids. We know what people are going to expect. I know that we’re not going to be challenged with deep philosophical drama, I’m not going to have things said to me that will worry me. It is going to be a good time.

‘There will be songs, sweets, custard pies, romance, dancing, lights. Who doesn’t want to see that?’

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