My Christmas came early this year, courtesy of BBC4, and two splendid documentaries that turned out to have a lot more in common than their titles might suggest – Michael Grade’s History of the Pantomime Dame, and When Wrestling was Golden – Grapples, Grunts and Grannies.
No sooner does his documentary begin than Grade is slapping on the make-up and clambering into drag to find out how he’d look as a pantomime dame. Disturbing is the answer, but all credit to him for having a go. Grade, of course, comes from a showbusiness dynasty that was itself heavily involved in pantomimes, both as producers and performers.
He traces British pantomime back to the commedia dell’arte troupes that travelled here from Italy and France in the 16th century. Gradually, they adapted to British tastes – forget the star-crossed lovers, we want a laugh! – and by the time the celebrated clown Joseph Grimaldi was packing them in, comedy had very much taken centre stage.
By the 18th century, pantomime included many of the ingredients familiar to a modern audience, including product placement, singalongs, topical references, fabulous costumes and stage transformations. However, the great British public had to wait until the next century for the dame to emerge in all her bawdy, cross-dressing glory, as popularised by music hall’s biggest comedy star, Dan Leno.
Since Leno, there have been many great stage dames, with several contrasting approaches to the role. In archive interviews, we hear Arthur Askey eschew femininity altogether, Terry Scott confess to an excess of femininity that he would draw upon in performance, Richard Briers admit to floundering around far from his comedy comfort zone, and Billy Dainty sharing the dame’s golden rule as he got into costume: “What nature’s forgotten, we stuff with cotton”.
Grade interviews enthusiasts Matthew Kelly, Gyles Brandreth – “If you haven’t got funny knees, forget it!” – and Berwick Kaler, renowned in York where he writes, produces and stars as the dame every year in the local Theatre Royal pantomime. Clips from Kaler’s shows came over so fresh, funny and effervescent that it made me want to jump on a train to York to witness it first-hand.
As someone who grew up watching World of Sport, I had very little tolerance for wrestling, which I regarded as an inconvenience to endure before the football results came on. But I have very clear memories of Mick McManus, the no-holds-barred bruiser, and the epic battles he had with Jackie Pallo, the dandy with a ribbon in his hair.
Grapples, Grunts and Grannies harked back to the golden age of wrestling in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when the sport’s television audience numbered in its millions.
Joint Productions, the cartel that ran the ‘sport’ and decided upon the results, realised the importance of instantly recognisable personalities in the ring. These grew more and more eccentric and absurd, reaching a bizarre climax in Adrian Street’s wrestling persona. The son of a Welsh miner, Street fused glam rock style, camp posturing and muscular athleticism to devastating effect. To all intents and purposes, he had turned himself into a pantomime dame – an ugly sister who was violent with it.
Michael Grade’s History of the Pantomime Dame, BBC4, Thursday, December 20, 9pm
When Wrestling was Golden – Grapples, Grunts and Grannies, BBC4, Thursday, December 13, 9pm