Thank goodness there really is nothing like a Dame! Can you imagine how fearsome a creature such a character would be in real life? Loud and vulgar, with no dress sense; domineering; incompetent at whatever her job might be - mother, washerwoman, cook; always broke but with a wide range of outfits, all in appallingly bad taste; vain and cunning but with the proverbial heart of gold. Oh yes, and on the hunt for a man, any man. That's the Dame!

Somehow or other the Dame has come to dominate the modern pantomime. Where once Harlequin then the clown was the main figure, now it's that man in a woman's clothing. A man playing a woman, of course, is not something unusual in British theatrical tradition. We all know that women in the plays of Shakespeare’s time were played by boys. It goes back even further to the comic women’s parts in the Mysteries, such as Mrs Noah, which were played by men. There’s no doubt that the origin of the Betty in the Morris Dance stretches back to the simple morality plays of the Middle Ages. Women were not allowed to appear on stage until the 17th century.

It has been suggested that, even after women were allowed to appear, actresses didn’t want to play such parts because they weren’t glamorous but this doesn’t stand up. Do we take it, for example, that Mrs Malaprop would be played by a man, or that a woman would choose to play Juliet but not the Nurse? What about the bitter harridan in Richard III, Queen Margaret? Would women refuse to play her but insist on playing Lady Anne?

No, the reason men have played the Dame from as early as 1731, when Harper played the Cook in Dick Whittington, is because it’s funnier that way. Old Mother Reilly would never have got the laughs `she’ did if we hadn't known it was Arthur Lucan playing her. And if Lily Savage was really a woman, we wouldn’t laugh a quarter as much as we do. Like all humour, it's impossible to explain. We all know that having to explain a joke kills it stone dead, and so it is with the pantomime Dame: the fact that it is a man just makes the character funny. On the few occasions women have played the part, the slapstick element, particularly the `slosh’ scenes and the custard pies, was played down. Interestingly, the only successful female Dame, Nellie Wallace (‘The Essence of Eccentricity’) played a caricature of a woman, which is the point of the Dame.

Widow Twankey
Probably the best-known Dame is Widow Twankey, Aladdin's mother. She was originally, in the Covent Garden production of 1813, called Widow Ching Mustapha, a name which is a strange mixture of Muslim and Chinese - typically pantomime. It was HJ Byron who first used her modern name in 1861. It was a contemporary reference that has stuck, unlike the majority of such references which die when the event that gave them birth is forgotten. Twankey comes from Twankey Tea, a fashionable brand in 1861, which came from the Chinese province of Tuan Ky (or Twan Kay). She was originally the widow of a tailor but, by the middle of the 19th century, she had become a washerwoman, and it’s this trade, with all its opportunities for jokes, `slosh’ scenes and sight-gags, which has become established in the modern pantomime.

Dame Durden / Dame Trot
The names of the Dames do change over the years. Jack’s mother in Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance, was called Dame Durden when the panto made its first appearance as Jack and the Beanstalk (or, Harlequin and the Ogre) at Drury Lane in 1819 and she still had that name when Dan Leno played her, in his first performance as Dame, at the Surrey Theatre in 1886. A little later, however, when Leno played the part at Drury Lane, she was Mrs Simpson one time and Dame Trot another. In the Drury Lane production of 1910-11, when played by George Graves, she became Mrs Halleybutt (halibut: get it?). For the modern audience, however, Jack's mother is Dame Trot. Although some less sensitive comics have been known to point out how close the name is to `the trots’ (as in diarrhoea), in fact, the word `trot’ was 18th-century slang for the vagina, which somehow by the 19th century had come to mean an old hag.

The Dame in Dick Whittington has always been the Cook, at least as far back as 1731. Thomas Greenwood called her Dame Dorothy Drippington in 1852, but she is usually known as Sarah the Cook.

The Ugly Sisters
The Dame in Cinderella is interesting. Today there are two, the Ugly Sisters (known in the business as the ‘Uglies'), but in some earlier versions of the story, Cinderella had a wicked stepmother who treated her as the Uglies do today. They made their first appearance as Cinderella's (not ugly) stepsisters in Rossini's opera La Cenerentola (1817), where they are called Clorinda and Tisbe (anglicised to Thisbe in panto). They appeared as unkind and selfish stepsisters in Harlequin and Cinderella (or, The Little Glass Slipper) at Covent Garden in 1820, but were first introduced into pantomime as the Uglies in HJ Byron's 1860 Extravaganza Cinderella (or, The Lover, the Lackey, and the Little Glass Slipper) at the Royal Strand Theatre.

The Ugly Sisters have had more names than any other characters in pantomime history. Each writer seems to exercise his ingenuity to produce suitable ones: Namby and Pamby, Tutti and Frutti, Valderma and Germolena (one of my favourites), Pearl and Deane, Hilda and Tilda, Posh and Scary, Britney and Cher, Dannii and Kylie, Ammonia and Amnesia ... the list goes on.

Other Main Dames
As in Cinderella, the Dame in Sleeping Beauty has changed over the years. Originally the Dame was the Cook (a part once played by Sir Henry Irving), but modern-day versions of the panto have the Nurse in the role. In some pantomimes, the Dame is the eponymous character. Mother Goose and Old Mother Hubbard are obvious examples of this. Incidentally, the original Mother Goose role was an old crone; it was the ubiquitous Dan Leno who created the modern version at Drury Lane in 1902.

Manufacturing a Dame Role
There are some pantos where the original story does not have a dame or even a suitable character to make into one, so writers have been forced to invent. In Little Red Riding Hood, for example, the grandmother has been used. Then there’s Mrs Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe’s mother, not his wife). In fact, bringing in a mother character is probably the obvious way to introduce a Dame. Another example is in Sinbad the Sailor.

Probably the panto that provides the greatest challenge to the writer is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Where is the Dame there? Prolific panto writer John Morley got round that one by having the three bears join a circus which is managed by the (incompetent) Dame.

The above is extracted from It’s Behind You! The Story of Panto, written by Peter Lathan & published by New Holland (hardback, £19.99). For more information, visit the New Holland website. Alternatively, to WIN A COPY, click here. Competition ends 16 December 2004.