WHEN Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics of the song There is Nothing Like a Dame for his Broadway musical South Pacific, the last thing on his mind was the good old British pantomime.
But since then it has become the anthem of those painted men who don a huge padded bra, outrageous frocks and a coloured wig the size of a shag carpet.
Welcome to the world of pantomime dames.
Maintaining one of the longest traditions in British theatre, in which men took on the roles of older women, the acceptable face of cross-dressing is alive and well on both professional and amateur stages.
It probably started with Mrs Noah in medie-val mystery plays and continued even when the convention was at risk when women were finally allowed on stage in the 17th century.
So why, hundreds of years later, do we still love a dame? The generation of children brought up on Nintendo and Xbox love it just as much as their parents.
David Pierce, who has played the role for a quarter of a century, is in no doubt. “It’s good old-fashioned slapstick; obvious visual and physical humour and there is genuine interaction with the audience,” he says.
“The dame is always on the side of the kids and they are allowed to respond.”
This doyen of the dames is a most unexpected role for the quiet businessman and trainer who has spent a lifetime in industry, mostly in Sheffield, and who, before retiring from a full-time job, was a senior figure at the then Manpower Services Commission.
After working at firms ranging from steel companies to food manufacturers, the self-effacing freelance training consultant is the last person you might expect to flaunt himself his all his painted glory.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” he says. Now 74, he joined Dronfield Light Opera Group at the behest of a friend over a dinner conversation. The first show he was in was a pantomime playing another traditional role – one of the brokers’ men.
“I suppose I must have shown some flair and that was it. I enjoyed it and I am generally regarded as a ‘stayer’ once I have committed to something – as a result I have been involved ever since.”
David, who lives in Nether Edge, where he is involved in several community projects including the successful street market, comes originally from Liverpool and there is a clue to his theatrical success from his father.
“My dad was welfare officer for the English Electric Company and he often produced shows in the company’s Sports and Social Club or canteen and one of them featured a particularly talented local lad. It was Ken Dodd at the start of his career.
“I was quiet and shy and found it all a little embarrassing so I didn’t get involved.
“But there must be an extrovert part in me somewhere,” he says. “I never would have thought in a month of Sundays I would end up playing a dame.
And that now shows in his ability to talk his way out of most situations.
He says: “Pantos are unusual because deviations from the script are allowed and indeed ad libs and interaction with the audience enhance the show.
“I suppose the ability to do that must be high on the list of competencies in the dame’s job spec. Over the years you learn to deal with the heckling and it’s good to respond. I also enjoy being part of a great tradition. It’s good old-style slapstick with broad visual humour.”
David is well aware of the distinction between a dame and a female impersonator. “Being a dame is definitely about a man obviously playing a woman. There is nothing camp about it,” he says.
Alongside his successful business career, involvement in Dronfield Light Opera Group gave a further dimension to his life.
“I’m a great believer in people coming together to do things and the opera group is a great example of that. It is about learning a heck of a lot without going through a classroom.
“The group is a fine example of co-operation and pulling together to achieve success which is splendid to behold.”
Starting tomorrow (Friday) for two long weekends, David will be strutting his stuff in the group’s production of Sinbad the Sailor.
Of his role in it, David says: “I suppose it’s a cliché to say that people like to be liked and there is nothing quite the same as the sound of applause when the audience takes to you. But I enjoy seeing kids and adults having a good time. Pantomime is a great old-fashioned night out. And there really is nothing like a dame.”
Tickets are available on 01246 416364.
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