The comedy of the traditional panto dame uncovers cultural acceptance


As Christmas and the New Year approaches, there is a notable chasm in the lives of Brits the nation over.

Thanks to stringent and ever tightening Covid restrictions, our theatres have seen a devastating loss and the staple Pantomime has been no exception. For centuries, pantomimes have graced the stages of Britain’s theatres but this year has left those same stages gathering dust.

One group of people which has suffered as a result of theatre closures is none other than the stars of the pantomimes themselves: the pantomime dames. Back in September, these dames were among those protesting at Westminster, demanding that the government provide more support for those struggling within the arts. But why are pantomime dames such a cornerstone of festive celebrations?

Played by men portraying often older, brazen women, the pantomime dame is drag in its most striking form with outrageous outfits and an outright parody of the female form, something which drag itself champions. It’s ‘camp’ in its purest form, dearly loved in a country which doesn’t always love the overly effeminate.

Brevity, the soul of wit

Cross-dressing has always been a big part of British theatre, stemming back from Shakspearean times when female actors were banned from the spotlight. However, the tables later turned so much so that, by the 17th century, cross-dressing was outlawed. Suddenly, men dressing up as vivacious women was outrageous, subversive and most of all, really funny.

Something that has never failed to unite the British public is a hammy, corny and bizarre sense of humour which the rest of the world views with confusion.

Photo: Spinechiller

Pantomimes are no exception and the ludicrousness of a towering man playing the role of a matronly woman is always just as funny on the 20th occasion as the first.

The same can be said of British drag in general. From Dame Edna to Lily Savage, British entertainment is unique in the way it has embraced men in drag with light-hearted (and often outrageous) humour. As for why, the answer may be rather simple: drag is just fun! Once the political, challenging aspect of men in women’s clothing is crossed, there is something undeniably funny about a dame causing chaos for the amusement of the masses.

Where otherwise sits difference, through humour, the pantomime dame demonstrates to audiences that difference is not only harmless and freeing, but not to be taken so seriously, nor should it be viewed with scorn. If we can all laugh at the same thing and find fun in it, where is the harm in it?

Here lies a great loss this festive season. At any other time, pantomime is a welcome feature of our British winters. Gloominess and dark nights are replaced by laughter, colour and sparkle. The monotony of winter is defeated by an alternative form of entertainment where audiences are part of the magic of the show, happily participating in the ridiculousness of it all, where fairytales are laid out before their eyes. Most importantly, for a few hours, anything is possible: people flying across stage, magic, music and best of all; men dressed as women.

While pantomime is far from being behind us (if you pardon the pun), it is vital that its magic does not become another loss of this pandemic because winter may not be the same without it. Oh no it wouldn’t!

MACKAYAN: What’s behind britains love of panto dames?