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Five things you (probably) didn’t know about pantomime dames

panto dames
A major part of Christmas for many is seeing the panto – and the best bit of the panto is always the dame! There’s a strong connection between the pantomime dame and queer culture. Nick Cherryman, an ESRC-funded researcher in Warwick's Department of Sociology, shares their top five things you may not know about panto dames.
1. Pantomime goes all the way back to the 1500s

Pantomime has a really complicated and messy history, but broadly speaking it came about from Commedia Dell’arte, a traditional Italian theatre form that involved comedy, clowning, and audience interaction.

The clown that we know of today comes from this tradition (the Harlequin), and the tumbling slapstick comedy we associate with clowns and pantomime also reflects its traditional background. There used to be a ‘dumb’ show in these Commedia Dell’arte shows – or what we now call pantomime (also known as the Harlequinade). These gradually spread across Europe and grew in popularity throughout the 17th-19th Centuries.

These shows became popular in England, and eventually turned into the pantomime we know and love. The Pantomime Dame, of course, draws on this clownish and funny background – and as dialogue was introduced into the shows as time went on, the Panto Dame became more and more popular and the role itself was cemented.

Nowadays, we have an amazing tradition of pantomime in the UK, and a panto wouldn’t be complete without a dame. Often, panto dames are played by celebrities – such as Christopher Biggins, Julian Clary, Paul O’ Grady and Sir Ian McKellan.

There’s a strong connection between the pantomime dame and queer culture, with many people comparing them to a family-friendly drag act.

2. The first pantomime dame appeared in 1806

Script from Mother GooseThe first pantomime dame, as we would recognise it in the UK, goes all the way back to the succinctly named Harlequin, and the Mother Goose; or, The Golden Egg performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden on December 29th 1806.

Mother Goose was played by a Mr. Simmons, and in this performance was seen as a wicked old witch. Even then, pantomimes were based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and today traditional panto is often based on similar stories.

This performance was also the Covent Garden debut of the infamous Joseph Grimaldi, regarded as one of the original archetypal clowns, and still viewed as one of the most successful and talented of all time. This production, despite Grimaldi having little faith in it, ran for 92 nights and took in around £20,000 (over £1.5 million in 2020). A few years later in 1812, Grimaldi took up the dame role himself playing Queen Ronabellyana in a panto called Harlequin and the Red Dwarf.

When Grimaldi died, the London Illustrated News mourned: ‘Grimaldi is dead and hath left no peer… we fear with him the spirit of pantomime has disappeared.’

3. Old Mother Riley was an actual person

Old Mother RileyOld Mother Riley isn’t just an archetypal character in pantomime shows, she was a real person. Also known as Arthur Luthan, Old Mother Riley was a character created that expanded far beyond the pantomime stage.

Luthan, whilst a relatively reticent person, spawned an entire franchise of work under the Old Mother Riley name. Often performing with his wife, the notoriously difficult Kitty McShane, who played Old Mother Riley’s daughter (also called Kitty), they were at one point one of the highest earning performers in the UK – earning the equivalent of approximately £50,000 a week in today’s money.

You can see a clip of Old Mother Riley here.

4. Window Twankey was named after a tea

Dan Leno as Widow TwankeyWidow Twankey, famous for being the Dame in Aladdin, which started in 1861 at the Strand Theatre, is named after Twankey Tea. It was a cheap Chinese green tea that no ‘real’ tea drinker would ever choose to drink: think more Tesco Value than M&S. Of course, this is echoed by the fact that the Dame herself is played by a man, so of course there is a parallel between Widow Twankey not being the kind of woman any of the audience would choose to date.

Dan Leno was perhaps the most famous of these Window Twankey actors, but he made his debut in Jack and the Beanstalk as Dame Durden. He continued working in pantomimes, and was so popular he became, at one point, one of the highest paid comedians in the world.

The Times newspaper, on 29th December 1901, when talking about his role in Sister Anne in Bluebeard, described him as follows:

"It is a quite peculiar and original Sister Anne, who dances breakdowns and sings strange ballads to a still stranger harp and plays ping-pong with a frying-pan and potatoes and burlesques Sherlock Holmes and wears the oddest of garments and dresses her hair like Miss Morleena Kenwigs [a Dickensian character], and speaks in a piping voice – in short it is none other than Dan Leno whom we all know."

5. Pantomimes would sometimes go on for hours and hours (and hours…)

panto damesPantomimes nowadays tend to last around the two hour mark, and (mercifully) don’t run on much longer than two and a half hours. However, some of the old pantomimes became infamous for how long they could go on for. It is said that the Drury Lane Theatre’s production of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast in 1900 went on for five hours and had dozens and dozens of performers.

As pantomimes have developed, running times have reduced, and as a pantomime dame myself, I can honestly say that I’m grateful I’m not on the stage much longer! The make-up and the wigs that performers wear are heavy and it gets extremely hot on stage, so to imagine this going on for so long is incredible. The endurance of those acting in the pantomime must have been phenomenal.

Regardless, I think we can all agree that the dame has become a fixture of the British pantomime tradition, and remains the best part of a Christmas pantomime.

Oh no she’s not!

Oh yes she is!



3 December 2020


Nick CherrymanNick Cherryman is interested in drag performance and subversions of gender(ed) performance, and works in the relatively new field of queer and drag theory. Nick’s primary interest is on theoretical readings of form and bodies in drag performance and how this reflects/inverts contemporary gender(ed) constructions. Their research has covered subjects in popular culture and performance, from structures of the graphic novel to theoretical analysis in queer film.

Image credits:

Nick Cherryman playing The Evil Queen in Snow White and playing Salmonella in Cinderella - credit Andy Evans and Stagecraft

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