Oh yes it is! Oh no it isn’t! Is the panto dame still a suitable cause for mirth?

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With his heavy eyebrows drawn mode up precocious connected his forehead and the extremity of his chemoreceptor heavy powdered with rouge, Dan Leno’s Mother Goose was a sensation. A euphony hallway celebrity, a standup comic and a champion clog-dancer, Leno was the prima of precocious Victorian pantomime. His vocation began astatine the Surrey Theatre successful 1886, and his performances – peculiarly his Mother Goose successful 1902, which helium played alongside a gaggle of unrecorded animals – came to specify the relation of the dame arsenic we cognize her now: the over-the-top, unlucky-in-love, slapstick bosom of the show.

Since the precocious 19th century, panto has been a fixture successful the British festive season, with celebrities taking to the signifier for six weeks to marque everyone from toddlers to great-grandparents giggle. I person ever been an avid fan: in 2021 I saw 3 successful 1 day. But during the past fewer seasons, I’ve often felt uncomfortable astatine immoderate of the laughter directed towards panto dames. Amid the whirling of puns and ever much extravagant outfits, I person progressively felt that the gag presented to the assemblage is rooted successful damaging stereotypes astir gender. When the h2o guns are bare and the glitter cannons person been fired, what’s truthful comic astir a bloke successful a frock?

“If I knew that, I’d beryllium a billionaire,” says Clive Rowe, who is taking connected the relation of Mother Goose astatine this year’s panto astatine the Hackney Empire successful London. Rowe is 1 of the astir beloved dames around, and Mother Goose – a relation for which helium was Olivier-nominated successful 2008 – is his 15th panto astatine the venue. “The effect from the assemblage if you get it close is exhilarating,” helium says of the joyousness of performing the dame. “It’s standup drama with a cast. It’s assortment with a narrative.”

These are the traditions modern panto comes from: euphony hallway and variety, commedia dell’arte, and the Regency epoch of clowning, led by the large Joseph Grimaldi. In the precocious 19th century, erstwhile shaper Augustus Harris saw however fashionable euphony hallway was with the moving classes, helium started bringing successful stars specified arsenic Leno to his immense pantos astatine the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, successful bid to gully successful wider audiences. Panto became a much inclusive, cacophonous, household affair, with a antheral successful resistance centre signifier to invited everyone successful from the cold.

Panto sensation and champion   clog-dancer … Dan Leno arsenic  Mother Goose.
Panto sensation and champion clog-dancer … Dan Leno arsenic Mother Goose. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Theatre has ever embraced cross-dressing. From the Romans playing women agelong earlier women were allowed to play themselves, to antheral impersonators specified arsenic Vesta Tilley, the highest paid pistillate performer of the euphony hallway era, sex has ever been scrutinised, sent up, and experimented with. In the aboriginal days of modern panto, women took connected the rule antheral roles, allowing them to amusement the assemblage a small leg. “But it was not an epoch erstwhile a woman could person thing undignified hap to her,” says Nigel Ellacott, the dame successful Richmond Theatre’s accumulation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and a keen panto historian. “She couldn’t person a custard pastry successful the face. She couldn’t autumn over. So they looked to the older antheral comedians and enactment them successful pistillate roles wherever they could beryllium caricatured and funny.” And that, helium says, is however we got our modern dames successful drag.

Many radical similar to abstracted the two. “I’ve ever said that I’m not a resistance queen,” Rowe says frankly. “I’m not trying to marque immoderate societal remark connected femininity oregon masculinity. I’m conscionable trying to beryllium funny.” Ellacott echoes this point. “We’re not trying to beryllium convincing. It’s not a resistance act, wherever you bash really look similar glamorous ladies.” This favoritism is key. In panto it should beryllium evident that the dame is truly a antheral successful a woman’s clothes. Often the incongruence is the joke. It’s done successful a lighthearted mode but, adjacent so, is it imaginable that this portrayal and our responses to it perpetuate harmful ideas of presenting arsenic the “opposite” gender?

“I can’t spell to a panto without feeling uncomfortable astatine the benignant of laughter that exists,” says Sab Samuel, who is besides known arsenic resistance queen Aida H Dee. “I’m enjoying myself and past I think, ‘What are you truly laughing astatine here?’” Samuel runs Drag Queen Story Hour UK, a institution that organises resistance queens speechmaking stories to children successful libraries. “Panto dames are resistance queens,” Samuel says adamantly. “There is precise small difference. We’ve been saying for years that Drag Queen Story Hour UK is panto successful a library.”

‘We’re not trying to beryllium  convincing’ … Nigel Ellacott (right) with Peter Robbins arsenic  the Ugly Sisters successful  Cinderella.
‘We’re not trying to beryllium convincing’ … Nigel Ellacott (right) with Peter Robbins arsenic the Ugly Sisters successful Cinderella. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

But the 2 are treated precise otherwise by the public. Where panto dames person been wide accepted arsenic family-friendly entertainment, resistance has historically been, and continues to be, taxable to important discrimination. This is surely existent of Samuel’s experience. Over the past fewer years, Drag Queen Story Hour UK has received an onslaught of maltreatment and assertive protests.

“I’ve had to determination location due to the fact that my code was made public,” Samuel says. “This summer, I was followed crossed the full of the state with radical shouting the words ‘paedophile’ and ‘groomer’ astatine me. I was successful a room speechmaking my children’s publication astir not bullying, portion extracurricular the library, homophobic radical were bullying the parents and kids walking in.” At the commencement of our conversation, Samuel gets a notification of a tweet. They clasp the telephone up to amusement maine the meme. The apical fractional is simply a representation of resistance queens. The bottommost fractional is simply a firing squad.

Why is determination specified a marked quality successful nationalist sentiment towards panto dames and resistance queens? “It’s antithetic histories,” Samuel suggests. “Drag artists are seen arsenic a practice of the queer community. They are ever astatine the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights, and panto dames are not. Bigots volition happily judge a panto dame but not a resistance artist.” In panto, due to the fact that the exploration of sex is simply a joke, a one-time thing, harmless successful the proscenium arch, it’s not seen arsenic threatening to idiosyncratic with prejudiced ideas astir queerness. But successful an mundane abstraction specified arsenic a library, with an enactment truthful rooted successful queer past and experience, it’s harder to abstracted the LGBTQ+ civilization from the performer and the performance. Though Drag Queen Story Hour UK is each astir making children laugh, Samuel explains that the quality is that kids are laughing with them, alternatively than astatine them. As Samuel puts it: “The panto dame is the joke. The resistance queen makes the joke.”

At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern successful London, Tim Benzie and Paul Joseph person written queer big pantos for the past 5 years. This year’s is Cracked, a raucous retelling of Snow White. Their superior absorption – aft packing successful arsenic galore gags arsenic they tin – is ensuring the traditions of panto are done successful a mode that centres LGBTQ+ experiences. “With a batch of pantos, the main people is children,” says Joseph. “Our work is to queer adults. We’re determination for the radical who had a pugnacious clip increasing up, to marque definite they’re not being retraumatised by the aforesaid aged crap they would person spent years listening to aboriginal on.”

‘Drag Queen Story Hour UK is panto successful  a library’ … Sab Samuel, AKA Aida H Dee.
‘Drag Queen Story Hour UK is panto successful a library’ … Sab Samuel, AKA Aida H Dee. Photograph: Drag Queen Story Hour UK

“You tin let radical to person the elements of the traditions they enjoy,” adds Joseph, “and dispose of the worldly that’s going to marque radical consciousness uncomfortable. It’s the writers’ work to beryllium better, funnier, smarter.” Small changes are shifting the scenery of dames today. Gradually much women are being formed arsenic the dame, and resistance performers are taking connected different roles successful shows, specified arsenic past year’s all-drag circuit of Dick Whittington.

The thought that pantomime tin displacement and accommodate to suit the time is thing new. Over the years, Rowe has seen important changes to jokes and scripts. “There are things we mightiness person said 15, 20 years ago, with each innocence,” helium says, “that we wouldn’t accidental now, that wouldn’t beryllium perceived arsenic funny.” This adaptability is simply a halfway portion of the form, helium says, reiterating that helium hopes everyone feels invited and included astatine each panto he’s a portion of. “Pantomime is, astatine its best, ever changing. It’s a remark connected the time, truthful it’s pantomime’s occupation to metamorphosise.”

This is not astir silencing comedy, oregon damning dames. But erstwhile LGBTQ+ rights are being eroded, and trans radical are subjected to hatred crimes and media vitriol, the information of however our show of sex affects our attitudes towards it disconnected signifier is important. Whether we mock oregon observe makes a difference, and with specified tremendous and avid audiences, pantos person the powerfulness to power people’s prejudices. But the caller breed of dames look much intent connected making america laughter with their characters, not their antagonistic stereotyping, which each helps to marque panto play the astir fantastic clip of the year.

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