A Hackney history of pantomime dames - who’s your favourite?

With Clive Rowe back in the borough for the Hackney Empire’s Christmas cracker, Gazette reporter JASMINE COLEMAN takes a look at the history of pantomime dames

When Dame Daisy steps on stage, the audience goes wild. All it takes is a pout of those red rose lips, a flick of the golden curls or the now immortal introduction “Cooeee” to get everyone in stitches.

But although the jokes are about that night’s TV, the music is from the current charts and the costumes are new designs, this girl goes way back. Olivier Award-winning Clive Rowe is just the latest in a long line of pantomime dames – many of whom have links right here in Hackney.

The word ‘pantomime’ comes from the Greek words ‘pan’, which means ‘all’, and ‘mimos’, which is translates as ‘imitator’.

Its origins lie in a type of travelling street theatre called Commedia dell’arte, which came from Italy in the 16th century. Although female roles have been played by boys or men since Shakespeare’s day, the comic dame as we know her did not appear in pantomime until the early 19th century.

On the first Sunday in February every year, hundreds of clowns from all over the world gather for a memorial service to Joseph Grimaldi at Holy Trinity Church in Beechwood Road, Dalston.

Not only is Grimaldi the most famous British clown in history, he also introduced the dame to the stage. He first played the Baron’s wife in 1820 in one of the earliest versions of Cinderella. And after he retired in 1823, one critic claimed “We fear the spirit of pantomime departed with Grimaldi”, so important was his influence.

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The role of the dame slowly developed over the next fifty years and really took off at the end of the 19th century.

It soon became fashionable for stars of Victorian music halls such as the Hackney Empire to appear in pantomimes. Marie Lloyd, who lived in Graham Road and was crowned Queen of the Music Hall, delighted with songs full of innuendo and double meaning. And some Variety female impersonators began to play the dame role, such as Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell.

This was when much of her character – the bawdy sense of humour, outrageous costumes, slapstick and satire – developed, and it has remained consistent for the last hundred years or so.

Christopher Biggins, one of Britain best-loved pantomime dames and a Hackney resident himself, told the Gazette his top five dames of all time.

First up was Les Dawson who shot to fame in the 1960s with his portrayal of working class women.

“He is the epitomy of pantomime humour,” said Biggins.

“With a face like his, all he had to do was come on stage and come off again to make people laugh.”

He also named Doug Byng, a popular dame in the 30s and 40s, British TV actor John Inman and veteran drag act Danny La Rue as his favourites.

And Biggins mentioned Berwick Kayler, a relatively unknown performer who has - like many other dames including Hackney’s Clive Rowe - built up a huge following among local audiences.

“He has been doing pantomime in the Theatre Royal in York for over 30 years, and the theatre packs out year on year because he is such an institution,” he said.

The actor, 62, of Harrowgate Road, South Hackney, is currently appearing as Widow Twankey in Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre and has been playing dame himself for over 38 years.

“It hasn’t changed an awful lot to be honest,” he said.

“I’ve always been everybody’s favourite aunty, mother or best friend.

“I think the dame holds the show together. And it is wonderful to be able to communicate with an audience twice a day every day.”

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