WE MIGHT not realise it, but pantomime as a theatrical form is very old indeed, stretching right back to the ancient Greek shadow plays. From there it progressed through Commedia dell’Arte, Punch and Judy, 18th century Harlequinades, and the spectacular productions of the Victorian era, right down to the star-studded musical shows of today.
Along the way it has borrowed from every format, changed with the centuries, reinvented itself constantly, yet always retained that atmosphere of magic, of fantasy, of sheer entertainment.
Joseph Grimaldi, a legendary clown (we still call them Joey in his memory), is credited with being the first official pantomime Dame in 1820, when he played the Baron’s wife in a very early version of Cinderella. Later, music hall stars like Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell donned the skirts and ruled the stage. In the 20th century stars of variety shows like Arthur Askey took over, followed by television personalities and even sports stars.
The most important thing about the Dame is that she is larger than life. Her clothes are always outrageous in cut, colour and style, and fanciful to the point of unbelief. Wigs are crucial, the bigger and more brightly hued the better, and it is traditional for her to change costume constantly throughout the performance. (Spare a thought for the number of dressers, make-up artists, wig arrangers and prop organisers who have to be allocated to the Dame alone in any pantomime.)
More important even than her appearance is her behaviour. Not quite a woman, not quite a man, she is a being in her own right, able to make the most disastrous decisions, commit the most frightening follies, because that is who she is: Mistress of Misrule.
In ancient Ireland we had a tradition on Twelfth Night whereby the lords and ladies would change clothing and character with their servants. The most humble of the servants was created Lord of Misrule for the occasion, enthroned in state with a golden crown on his head. The paper crowns we find in crackers and wear at the Christmas feast are all that remain of that tradition, but the Dame has definitely taken on the mantle of the Lord of Misrule.
Children watch in awestruck delight as she breaks all the rules of good behaviour, ignores the orders of others, but somehow comes through at the end, because she is, essentially, on the side of Right and Good.
It’s a man in a frock, yes, says Frank Mackey who is currently playing Nanny Nellie in Snow White at Cork Opera House, but onstage she is a real character in her own right. “The exhibitionist, the one who can and will do anything, the crazier the better. In one way she’s everybody’s favourite granny, in another she’s the wild uncontrollable person, well outside normal human behaviour, who can dare to do things we wouldn’t.”
Mackey says he has played dame for so long now that, “when I put on one of those voluminous dresses at Christmas, I slip into the persona and she becomes part of me. I really am Nanny Nellie. And because I believe in her, the kids do too.”
He has a treasured memory of leaving the theatre after a matinee and finding a starry-eyed little girl waiting outside, hoping to see her heroine. “Is Nanny Nellie upstairs?” asked the little girl shyly. “Well, what could I say? There was me in my normal everyday gear, make-up off, going home for a break. I couldn’t shatter that belief. I said, ‘Yes, she’s upstairs, but I think she’s having a sleep.’ And the little girl thanked me and went off quite happily with her mother. Well, what else could I do? I’ve never forgotten that.”
As a child himself, Mackey enjoyed the great Cork pantomime dames like Paddy Comerford and Billa O’Connell.
“Then I went to see Danny la Rue playing dame, and I could see the difference immediately. It’s not the same thing at all. Danny was a brilliant female impersonator, but it’s a different genre to that of Dame.”
Ciarán Birmingham, who plays Dame Merry Beret in Beauty and the Beast at the Everyman in Cork, agrees.
“As Dame, you’re not trying to pretend you’re a man or a woman, you’re not trying to be a glamour queen, you’re the granny everybody loves but also someone gawdhelpus.”
He agrees about Danny la Rue, who, he holds, was one of the best female impersonators ever. “They’re two very different forms. They each have a skill and a style set unique to themselves, but the Dame is very tough because you have to make it as real as possible without going over the top.”
Bermingham says his character would be far too much trouble in real life.
“She has to be lovable but she’s always a disaster too. She has the freedom to say and do anything because it’s all tongue in cheek.”
He points out that the Dame is today one of the most interesting characters on stage because we’ve had such an influx of political correctness.
“You’re almost afraid to compliment somebody these days, or open a door for them! The dame is free to say anything because it’s a non-gender situation, and that’s unique.”
Billa, Paddy and the other classic Cork dames
We are blessed to still have Billa O’Connell with us, now an octogenarian but with a fund of wonderful memories to share. He was just 19 when he first played Dame, in 1948, and was to continue spending every festive season onstage up to very recently. “Make the kids laugh, bring them over to your side, and it’s great,” he says.
But Billa modestly claims that he couldn’t hold a candle to the late and much lamented Paddy Comerford. “He could convulse you onstage with just a look,” chuckles Billa. “And he had a way of stamping pettishly across the stage as if the cares of the world were on his shoulders, that brought the house down.”
Paddy himself, however, always insisted that his cousin, Ignatius Comerford, was by far the best Dame in the business. “He had a way of drawing the audience into his confidence just by looking out over the footlights at them. Every child loved him, every adult in the house. Oh he was the best.”
Paddy Cotter and Paddy Coughlan were a great double act of Dames back in the 1960s. One plump, the other thin, they were perfect foils or one another.
They played a pair of wicked witches in that big production of Jack and the Beanstalk at the Opera House around 1967. They had a way of using that sharp Cork wit to great effect.