Wyn Calvin, beloved Welsh comedian who took the art of playing the pantomime dame to new heights – obituary
Wyn Calvin, who has died aged 96, was invariably billed as “The Welsh Prince of Laughter” but he was also acclaimed “the Laurence Olivier of pantomime dames”.
During the 1950s and 1960s he starred in summer shows at many leading British resorts and became a particular favourite in Llandudno, where he appeared for seven seasons from 1955.
Having established himself as a stand-up comedian, Calvin made his break into battered bloomers in the mid-1960s, when his dame potential was spotted by the theatrical impresario Tom Arnold. Calvin became a past master at applying greasepaint to his face in the traditional dame style and the rapid costume changes (at least 10 per show) called for in the seasonal slapstick productions of favourites like Babes in the Wood, Puss in Boots and Mother Goose.
His favourite dame role was Widow Twankey in Aladdin. When he starred in a production at the Royal Court, Liverpool, in 1975, one critic reported that Calvin was “bubbling and effervescent as an overflowing magnum of champagne”.
Traditionally, dames see to their own make-up, and Calvin made a point of concentrating on the eyes and mouth. “The important thing is making it look as if you’re trying to look feminine,” he explained. “Every dame does the character differently, in their own way”.
Reflecting on his first 50 years as a pantomime dame in The Daily Telegraph in 1999, Calvin recalled appearing in Dick Whittington as the mother of the notoriously prolix comedian Ken Dodd. “The children came in to see the show aged three,” he recalled. “After his spot they were five.”
While his wife Carole made his costumes, Calvin himself came up with the silly ideas and routines. His Widow Twankey hat with a miniature washing line on top is now an exhibit at Wilton’s Music Hall Museum in London. He retired from panto in 2011.
Calvin also worked in theatre, television and radio, and appeared with many great postwar stars including Harry Secombe, Frankie Vaughan, Shirley Bassey, Bob Hope, Bud Flanagan, Vic Oliver, Morecambe and Wise and Roy Hudd.
In 1967, while appearing at the Arcadia Theatre in Llandudno, Calvin surprised the audience by making an impromptu political speech from the stage. The Secretary of State for Wales (later the Speaker of the House of Commons), George Thomas, had been persuaded to visit the theatre, which was threatened with closure.
After listening to Calvin’s plea for the theatre’s future, Thomas approved its purchase by the local council and the venue continued to stage live shows for a further 25 years.
Wyn Calvin was born Joseph Wyndham Calvin Thomas on August 28 1925 at Narberth, Pembrokeshire, but the family moved to Cardiff when he was four and he was taken to his first pantomime aged seven. On leaving the city’s Canton High School at 17 he joined the Royal Army Service Corps for wartime service but collapsed during training and was invalided out when a heart condition was diagnosed.
He subsequently auditioned for the Entertainments National Service Association (Ensa), and in May 1945, a few days after VE Day, sailed to France with an Ensa troupe to entertain allied soldiers in newly liberated France, Holland and Belgium, and on into newly defeated Germany, where he appeared at the re-opened Düsseldorf Opera House. “The day I was put into a uniform Hitler shot himself, so you can see the impact I had on the war effort,” he would recall.
On demobilisation, Calvin went into weekly repertory, starting as a juvenile lead, but realising he lacked the looks of a leading man he decided to turn to comedy, appearing in variety. By the late 1950s he had established himself on the summer season circuit with seasons at Llandudno, Blackpool, Weymouth, Worthing and Torquay.
He moved into pantomime in the 1960s when he played Humpty Dumpty in a part written for Harry Secombe, who performed it at the London Palladium. Calvin took over when the show transferred to Manchester.
Appearing on a variety bill with the Seekers in Bristol, Calvin was approached by Tom Arnold, known as the King of Pantomime, and told that he would make a splendid dame. “Children are amused knowing that pantomime dames are men trying to be feminine and failing,” Arnold explained.
Calvin appeared regularly on radio and hosted a weekly chat show on BBC Radio Wales for many years. He served on numerous showbusiness charity committees, and was a past chairman of the Wales committee of the Variety Club of Great Britain.
He was elected “King” by the Grand Order of Water Rats in 1990 and appointed a Freeman of the City of London in 1992. A Freemason, he was appointed MBE for his charity work in 1989 and an Officer of the Venerable Order of Saint John in 2000. Among his recreations he listed “world-wandering”.
To mark his 90th birthday in 2015, the British Music Hall Society held a lunch in London in his honour, and in 2021 the British Music Hall Society hosted a celebration of his 75 years in showbusiness.
He married, in 1975, Carole Tarvin-Jones, a former dancer from Tenby. She survives him.
Wyn Calvin, born August 28 1925, died January 25 2022