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Mark Shenton’s top 6 panto dames

Berwick Kaler in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Anthony Robling Berwick Kaler in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Anthony Robling
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There’s nothing like a panto dame, to paraphrase the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific.

And the best of them have become theatrical institutions: actors and/or personalities who may have thriving careers outside of pantomime, but come into their own at Christmas. 

Here are a selection who make pantomimes a key part of their lives – and ours.

1. Berwick Kaler

Britain’s longest-running consecutive panto dame is Berwick Kaler. He is an institution at the York Theatre Royal and, despite recent heart surgery, is about to perform his 39th dame in Jack and the Beanstalk. In Roger Foss’ review of last year’s Cinderella for The Stage, he wrote: “Over the decades Kaler must have marched tens of thousands of families up to the top of pantoland’s peaks. And in his rare moments off stage in the theatre’s newly redesigned main house, playing Hernia, Cinderella’s brutally barmy step-sister, they are still up there with him.”

2. Kenneth Alan Taylor

Kenneth Alan Taylor as dame Daisy in Jack and the Beanstalk in 2013. Photo: Robert Day

Kenneth Alan Taylor has been associated with the Nottingham Playhouse’s pantomime for more than 30 years, a tradition he brought from Oldham where he was artistic director in 1984. Now in his 80s, he has hung up his heels. Does he miss it? As he told The Stage recently:  “When I look at the schedule – there are 84 performances this year – I don’t miss playing the dame. If I could do a short week then yes, but otherwise it’s a killer. But working on the panto is still the highlight of the year.”

3. Paul O’Grady

Paul O’Grady in Cinderella at the London Palladium. Photo: Paul Coltas/Steve Williams

Paul O’Grady is one of our finest (and filthiest) drag queens. He emerged from a career as pub drag queen Lily Savage, to become a national institution. Last year he and Julian Clary returned to the London Palladium, in a pantomime that Michael Billington, in the Guardian, referred to as a “tsunami of smut”. Clary returns in this year’s Dick Whittington, so perhaps we can expect more of the same; it’s a pity O’Grady isn’t joining him.

4. Christopher Biggins

Biggins – as he is almost universally known – announced last year that after 40 years of playing the dame he was going to hang up his frock. He told the Daily Mail: “I don’t mind getting old, in fact I’m rather enjoying it. But I was doing 12 shows a week and I had 13 costume changes every show. So that’s 26 costume changes a day, matinee and evening… I don’t want to go on too long and finish my career as a panto dame in some little theatre you’ve hardly heard of. And on walking sticks! I don’t want to die in a dress.” His presence every Christmas will be missed.

5. Clive Rowe

Clive Rowe in Mother Goose. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Clive Rowe in Mother Goose. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A fixture of the Hackney pantomime, Clive Rowe even earned an Olivier nomination for his Mother Goose – but it is undeniably hard work. As he said in a 2015 interview: “It’s tiring to your bones and when you’re in the middle of an 11-show week or getting up for two shows on Boxing Day, one can be forgiven for having a sense of humour bypass! But there’s nothing quite like that feeling of organised chaos.” This year he’s swapping Hackney for Wimbledon, where he’s starring in Jack and the Beanstalk as Jack’s mother.

6. Roy Hudd

Roy Hudd in Mother Goose. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The veteran and venerable Roy Hudd has long been a pantomime legend – he has starred in them for more than 35 years – but it wasn’t until 2015 that he switched gender to play a dame. As he told the Daily Mirror at the time, “I always played Buttons, because a buddy of mine, who was a dame, said to me: ‘Don’t go into skirts, son, because if you make a decent fist of it you’ll never get out of them.’  But then I thought: ‘Well, I ought to do it once before I snuff it, because I’m nearly 80′.” He made his dame debut in Dick Whittington at Wilton’s Music Hall and returning last Christmas, Michael Billington wrote of him, “It’s been a vintage year for 80-year-olds in the British theatre. First, there was Glenda Jackson as King Lear. Now Roy Hudd as Mother Goose.

Read our interview with Roy Hudd

Aside from the gender switch and jokes about eggs, there are few obvious points of comparison… Hudd, with his gap-toothed cheeriness, seems the last living embodiment of music hall and shines up the hoariest of jokes. Advertising the enduring appeal of elderly widows, he says: ‘We don’t yell, we don’t tell and we’re very grateful.’ After Mother Goose’s transformation into a peroxided sex-bomb, someone announces: ‘I do like your dress’ to which Hudd replies: ‘I bought it for a ridiculous figure.’ Forever hitching up his false bosom and joshing his fellow actors, Hudd is the friendliest and most welcoming dame.”

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