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JJ Henry as Mother Goose at The Theatre Chipping Norton 2014 (Credit: Ric Mellis)

There Is Nothing Like A Dame

What makes the perfect dame? How big is the difference between a dame and drag queen? And what pressures come with being a panto dame?
Alex Scott Fairley

"Drag queens have become more of a part of our culture within the last 5-10 years"

Described by Maureen Hughes as “no less than a British institution”, the pantomime dame will be a colourful and eccentric presence in many theatres, village halls and even churches in upcoming months.

The panto dame is a concept that apparently emerged in the 19th century and has grown since. The role is said to have been first delivered to the pantomime by the clown Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi appeared as the Baroness in Harlequin and Cinderella – credited as the first appearance of the panto dame. Other notable figures include Dan Leno who was a prominent dame during the 1800s, from 1888 until his death he appeared in pantomime at Drury Lane Theatre.

Whilst there were no dames in the early days of panto it’s hard to image it without them now. Much laughter can be found in the dame’s interaction with the audience and the fact the character is so clearly a man; perhaps the funniness is increased when it’s a “manly-man” – large, gruff voice, tattoos. The panto dame may be said to cross into other forms of theatre too in a sense: think Edna in Hairspray.

Having been in a panto I’ve shared the stage with a dame, in all her outlandish finery and appalling make-up. I actually pursued an affair with Robin Hood’s mum in January while playing Friar Tuck, displayed to the audience through increasingly large lipstick marks on my face each time I appeared and – of course – blatant on stage snogging. Imagine my horror when Flossy Loxley fell for the King (not Sherriff) of Nottingham: “You were just a casual Tuck” was her response to my vocalised anger.

I know I believe the dames I trod the boards with to be excellent but I do not profess to know all that much about the area. I wondered what made the perfect dame, how big the difference was between a dame and drag queen and what pressures come with being a panto dame. I decided to talk to someone a little more informed.

 

Alex Scott Fairley will be playing one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella at Millfield Arts Centre, North London, from 26 November-3 January

 

Alex didn’t overcomplicate things when discussing what makes the perfect dame. Even though he did say the amount of different dame types nowadays does make it hard to say, he went on to cite what they all have in common: “a warm rapport with the audience. The dame, I guess, in some ways, is a maternal figure, whether she’s a glamourous maternal figure or a slightly spiky one, I think all of them are very warm. They should be one of the characters that the audience not necessarily identifies with but follows throughout the play because they have licence to sometimes go a bit off script and to break the fourth wall. So warmth and an ability to grab the audience would be the two things that make the perfect dame.”

But is this actually easy to do? Can it be taught or does the ability have to already exist within? “I think you can learn some things,” Alex said, “but you do have to have some of it inside of you already; you have to want to engage and entertain people. It’s so important in this country.

Pantomime is pretty much the only time of the year now when a lot of people will go to the theatre and for a lot of children it’s their first theatrical experience; and you need to understand that and want to bring them in, if you can engage them in pantomime hopefully they’ll go on to watch plays, musicals and all sorts of other things.”

Alex and I went on to discuss drag and damehood and what the difference is. “The perception of drag queen has changed in popular modern culture. Maybe at one time the difference would have been that the dame was traditionally a much more maternal figure and less glamourous than a drag queen would stereotypically be. But the lines are blurring now; maybe that started as far back as when people like Paul O’Grady (Lily Savage) started playing panto dames.” It seems there may have been at time when there was a clear divide between the dame and the drag act. And then it became the case that a drag queen could play a dame thus connecting the two. This coincided with how drag was being viewed generally – “drag queens have become more of a part of our culture within the last 5-10 years as the barriers have broken down and they are no longer relegated to seedy gay pubs.”

I wondered, in the case of there being two dames in a show (such as in Cinderella at Millfield Theatre where Alex and Philip Day will play the Ugly Sisters), whether they had to be different to each other. “With the Ugly Sisters part of the joy is in making them very distinct. Phillip and I are quite different in our physical build so that gives you somewhere to work from. And we quite like the idea of one sister who is common as muck and one who thinks she’s much better and has a plum in her mouth while underneath being just as vile. It’s nice to have that contrast”. But the actor was also quick to point out that it’s perhaps not right to describe the character he is playing as a dame at all…“I should qualify I’m not a pantomime purist but a lot of pantomime purists and very established pantomime dames see The Uglies as different from a dame; they would not call them dames. In fact, I got in trouble the first time I played one and said I was a dame!”

Whether he is playing a dame this time round or not, Alex Scott Fairley knows about the pressures of doing so having stepped into dame clobber in the past. I asked him if dames feel the pressure actors playing Hamlet do given the great dames of the past. “It’s a bit different to playing Hamlet because with that whatever the interpretation you’re using Shakespeare’s text. At the Millfield they’re very good at coming up with a completely fresh script every year. It helps that you’re working with original material. I suppose there is that thing of following John Inman, Danny La Rue and Lily Savage but it helps because you feel part of the tradition. And that is important because we have so few traditions left now in Britain. I love the fact that pantomime is so inclusive and having those great figures of the past is more of a comfort because you feel much more part of a heritage.”

 

Top Image - JJ Henry as Mother Goose at The Theatre Chipping Norton 2014 (Credit: Ric Mellis)

Below - Alex Scott Fairley

 

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