Oh yes it is! Oh no it isn’t! Is the panto dame still a suitable cause for mirth?

<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

With his thick eyebrows drawn way up high on his forehead and the tip of his nose heavily powdered with rouge, Dan Leno’s Mother Goose was a sensation. A music hall celebrity, a standup comic and a champion clog-dancer, Leno was the star of late Victorian pantomime. His career began at the Surrey Theatre in 1886, and his performances – particularly his Mother Goose in 1902, which he played alongside a gaggle of live animals – came to define the role of the dame as we know her now: the over-the-top, unlucky-in-love, slapstick heart of the show.

Since the late 19th century, panto has been a fixture in the British festive season, with celebrities taking to the stage for six weeks to make everyone from toddlers to great-grandparents giggle. I have always been an avid fan: in 2021 I saw three in one day. But during the last few seasons, I’ve frequently felt uncomfortable at some of the laughter directed towards panto dames. Amid the whirling of puns and ever more extravagant outfits, I have increasingly felt that the joke presented to the audience is rooted in damaging stereotypes about gender. When the water guns are empty and the glitter cannons have been fired, what’s so funny about a bloke in a frock?

I’m not trying to make any social comment. I’m just trying to be funny

“If I knew that, I’d be a billionaire,” says Clive Rowe, who is taking on the role of Mother Goose at this year’s panto at the Hackney Empire in London. Rowe is one of the most beloved dames around, and Mother Goose – a role for which he was Olivier-nominated in 2008 – is his 15th panto at the venue. “The response from the audience if you get it right is exhilarating,” he says of the joy of performing the dame. “It’s standup comedy with a cast. It’s variety with a narrative.”

These are the traditions modern panto comes from: music hall and variety, commedia dell’arte, and the Regency era of clowning, led by the great Joseph Grimaldi. In the late 19th century, when producer Augustus Harris saw how popular music hall was with the working classes, he started bringing in stars such as Leno to his immense pantos at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, in order to draw in wider audiences. Panto became a more inclusive, cacophonous, family affair, with a man in drag centre stage to welcome everyone in from the cold.

Panto sensation and champion clog-dancer … Dan Leno as Mother Goose.
Panto sensation and champion clog-dancer … Dan Leno as Mother Goose. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Theatre has always embraced cross-dressing. From the Romans playing women long before women were allowed to play themselves, to male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley, the highest paid female performer of the music hall era, gender has always been scrutinised, sent up, and experimented with. In the early days of modern panto, women took on the principle male roles, allowing them to show the audience a little leg. “But it was not an era when a lady could have anything undignified happen to her,” says Nigel Ellacott, the dame in Richmond Theatre’s production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and a keen panto historian. “She couldn’t have a custard pie in the face. She couldn’t fall over. So they looked to the older male comedians and put them in female roles where they could be caricatured and funny.” And that, he says, is how we got our modern dames in drag.

Many people like to separate the two. “I’ve always said that I’m not a drag queen,” Rowe says frankly. “I’m not trying to make any social comment on femininity or masculinity. I’m just trying to be funny.” Ellacott echoes this point. “We’re not trying to be convincing. It’s not a drag act, where you do actually look like glamorous ladies.” This distinction is key. In panto it should be obvious that the dame is really a man in a woman’s clothes. Often the incongruence is the joke. It’s done in a lighthearted way but, even so, is it possible that this portrayal and our responses to it perpetuate harmful ideas of presenting as the “opposite” gender?

“I can’t go to a panto without feeling uncomfortable at the type of laughter that exists,” says Sab Samuel, who is also known as drag queen Aida H Dee. “I’m enjoying myself and then I think, ‘What are you really laughing at here?’” Samuel runs Drag Queen Story Hour UK, a company that organises drag queens reading stories to children in libraries. “Panto dames are drag queens,” Samuel says adamantly. “There is very little difference. We’ve been saying for years that Drag Queen Story Hour UK is panto in a library.”

But the two are treated very differently by the public. Where panto dames have been widely accepted as family-friendly entertainment, drag has historically been, and continues to be, subject to significant discrimination. This is certainly true of Samuel’s experience. Over the last few years, Drag Queen Story Hour UK has received an onslaught of abuse and aggressive protests.

“I’ve had to move house because my address was made public,” Samuel says. “This summer, I was followed across the whole of the country with people shouting the words ‘paedophile’ and ‘groomer’ at me. I was in a library reading my children’s book about not bullying, while outside the library, homophobic people were bullying the parents and kids walking in.” At the start of our conversation, Samuel gets a notification of a tweet. They hold the phone up to show me the meme. The top half is a picture of drag queens. The bottom half is a firing squad.

Why is there such a marked difference in public sentiment towards panto dames and drag queens? “It’s different histories,” Samuel suggests. “Drag artists are seen as a representation of the queer community. They are always at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights, and panto dames are not. Bigots will happily accept a panto dame but not a drag artist.” In panto, because the exploration of gender is a joke, a one-time thing, safe in the proscenium arch, it’s not seen as threatening to someone with prejudiced ideas about queerness. But in an everyday space such as a library, with an act so rooted in queer history and experience, it’s harder to separate the LGBTQ+ culture from the performer and the performance. Though Drag Queen Story Hour UK is all about making children laugh, Samuel explains that the difference is that kids are laughing with them, rather than at them. As Samuel puts it: “The panto dame is the joke. The drag queen makes the joke.”

At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London, Tim Benzie and Paul Joseph have written queer adult pantos for the last five years. This year’s is Cracked, a raucous retelling of Snow White. Their primary focus – after packing in as many gags as they can – is ensuring the traditions of panto are done in a way that centres LGBTQ+ experiences. “With a lot of pantos, the main target is children,” says Joseph. “Our responsibility is to queer adults. We’re there for the people who had a tough time growing up, to make sure they’re not being retraumatised by the same old crap they would have spent years listening to early on.”

“You can allow people to have the elements of the traditions they enjoy,” adds Joseph, “and dispose of the stuff that’s going to make people feel uncomfortable. It’s the writers’ responsibility to be better, funnier, smarter.” Small changes are shifting the landscape of dames today. Gradually more women are being cast as the dame, and drag performers are taking on other roles in shows, such as last year’s all-drag tour of Dick Whittington.

The idea that pantomime can shift and adapt to suit the day is nothing new. Over the years, Rowe has seen significant changes to jokes and scripts. “There are things we might have said 15, 20 years ago, with all innocence,” he says, “that we wouldn’t say now, that wouldn’t be perceived as funny.” This adaptability is a core part of the form, he says, reiterating that he hopes everyone feels welcome and included at every panto he’s a part of. “Pantomime is, at its best, always changing. It’s a comment on the time, so it’s pantomime’s job to metamorphosise.”

This is not about silencing comedy, or damning dames. But when LGBTQ+ rights are being eroded, and trans people are subjected to hate crimes and media vitriol, the consideration of how our performance of gender affects our attitudes towards it off stage is important. Whether we mock or celebrate makes a difference, and with such enormous and avid audiences, pantos have the power to influence people’s prejudices. But the new breed of dames seem more intent on making us laugh with their characters, not their negative stereotyping, which all helps to make panto season the most wonderful time of the year.

• Mother Goose is at Hackney Empire, London, until 31 December. Goldilocks and the Three Bears is at Richmond theatre until 31 December. Cracked is at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London, until 6 January