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Principal boys

Madame Vestris as Orpheus, 1831. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Madame Vestris as Orpheus, 1831. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The tradition of women dressing up as men on stage started in the 18th century. Male roles played by women were known as 'breeches parts'. With the increase in popularity of the ballerina in Romantic Ballet male dancers went out of fashion and women would often perform the male role. In the theatre Madame Vestris made her name playing the roles of boys and men in burlesques and operas. This was a period when women dressed modestly covering their legs with long dresses. To see a woman in short trousers and tights was considered particularly risqué and Madame Vestris was the sex symbol of the 1830s.

Madame Vestris was exceptional in that she was the first actress-manager, a successful female performer who leased and ran a London theatre, the Olympic Theatre, from 1830-1849. The picture on the right is from a production called Olympic Devils, a burletta staged as the Christmas entertainment in 1831 and based on the classical Greek legend of Orpheus. The show was appropriately pantomimic in style: the script was full of verbal puns and slapstick humour. In the legend, Orpheus' severed head floated down a river still singing. This effect was created by Madame Vestris sticking her head through a hole in a painted model of some water, and the model being pulled across the stage. Unfortunately the contraption did not move smoothly, and the effect was apparently spoiled by shouts from offstage of 'Faster! Slower! Looser! Pull... Damn it! You'll strangle her!'. Apart from this the production was a huge success.

Like the pantomime dame, the principal boy character evolved slowly throughout the 19th century. Women such as Vesta Tilley made their names as male impersonators in the music halls before treading the boards in pantomimes as principal boys. By the 1880s the hero role in the pantomime was always played by a woman.

Famous principal boys have included Marie Lloyd, the Queen of the Music Halls, and in the 20th century, Dorothy Ward.

More recently principal boys have been played by TV soap stars, pop stars and sports personalities. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a trend for male principal boys with pop stars like Cliff Richard playing the role.

Pantomime dames

Nellie Wallace, black and white photograph, early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nellie Wallace, black and white photograph, early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There were no pantomime dames in early pantomime but there is a long tradition of women's roles being performed by men in English theatre. In Shakespeare's day women were not allowed to perform on the stage and all the female roles were played by boys or men.

Comic dames first began to appear in pantomime in the early 19th century. In 1820 the clown Joseph Grimaldi played the Baron's wife in one of the earliest versions of Cinderella. The dame role slowly evolved over the next fifty years and really took off at the end of the 19th century.

Dames came in several types: working class and plain, glamorous and snobbish, or grotesque and elegant. In the late 19th century it became the vogue for Music Hall and Variety stars to perform in pantomimes. Some female impersonators from the Halls began to play the Dame role. Famous 19th century dames include Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell.

In the 1940s and 50s Variety stars such as Arthur Askey took on the Dame role for the pantomime season. More recently pop stars, television personalities and sports stars have played the role of the Dame.

The Dame character has remained consistent for the last hundred years or so. Dames have a bawdy sense of humour, outrageous costumes and extrovert characters. They interact with the audience, initiate slapstick and play tricks on the other performers. The costumes they wear play a large part in the jokes and are often visual puns.

Most pantomime dames have been played by men, however there are a few exceptions. Nellie Wallace, a comedienne in the 1930s, was a popular dame. Nellie Wallace was a music hall star who made her name playing comic characters and singing comic songs such as 'I was the early birdie after the early worm' and 'I've been jilted by the baker Mr White'. Nellie began performing in pantomime when she was only seven years old and added a comic fall to her tiny part in the pantomime, to get more laughs. She did attempt serious roles, but her performance in Little Willie's deathbed scene in East Lynne was received with so much laughter that Nellie was finally convinced she should not attempt to be a serious actress. This is one of Nellie's music hall characters - a spinster with buck teeth and heavily drawn eyebrows who wore an ill- fitting tweed suit, a hat with one feather protruding at the top, and a fur which she referred to as 'me little bit of vermin'. Her exaggerated dress sense, bordering on the grotesque, made her one of the few women who appeared successfully as a pantomime dame.

Dan Leno as Widow Twankey, 1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dan Leno as Widow Twankey, 1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dan Leno played his first pantomime Dame at the Surrey Theatre in 1886. George Conquest, the Surrey's manager, had seen him singing the comic song 'Going to buy milk for the twins' at the Middlesex Music Hall. He noticed how well skirts suited Leno, and booked him as the Dame for Jack and the Beanstalk. It was not long before Leno was hired by Augustus Harris, who produced the spectacular pantomimes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Leno was such a success as the Baroness in the 1888 Babes in the Wood, that Harris booked him for the next three pantos, and eventually - as Leno would boast - 'for  the term of my natural life'.

The production of Aladdin  in 1896 was not seen as one of Drury Lane's best shows, but Dan Leno's Widow Twankey was judged by many to be his finest Dame. The Stage's review was typical: 'Singing, dancing or acting, Mr Leno is at his best this season... he stands out through the production as certainly the most clever actor who has been seen for many years in this class of work'.

Affectionately known as 'Bunch', Nelson Keys was a well known comedian and impersonator. He appeared in music halls all over London, and acted in reviews in the 1920s and 1930s with Ciceley Courtneidge, Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence. His gift for mimicry even enabled him to bluff his way as a dancer, copying the steps until he had learnt them well enough to appear with professional dancers.

Bunch played Mother Hubbard in Red Riding Hood at Covent Garden in 1938. The young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were taken to see it by their mother, the Queen. Red Riding Hood turned out to be the last pantomime presented at Covent Garden theatre, the theatre that had contributed so much to the birth of British pantomime over 200 years before.

Animal impersonators

Johnny Fuller, cat impersonator, August 1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Johnny Fuller, cat impersonator, August 1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pantomime animals appear in many of the traditional pantomimes. Jack has a cow in Jack and the Beanstalk and Dick Whittington has his famous cat. There are also pantomime horses, geese and dogs.

In the 19th century, some actors specialised in performing animal roles, which were known as 'skin parts'. Johnny Fuller specialised in 'skin parts' - particularly cats - and was one of the most well known animal impersonators in pantomime, along with a few others such as Charles Lauri. Puss in Boots and Dick Whittington cannot happen without a cat, but all the early Victorian pantomime subjects allowed generous leeway for the addition of cats if they wished, and a 'highly clever and comical cat' featured in A, Apple Pie, or, Harlequin, Jack in the Box and the Little Boy Blue.

Charles Lauri was famous for his animal impersonations and regularly appeared at Drury Lane as one creature or another. The photograph of Lauri as a dog is from the 1888 Drury Lane pantomime, Babes in the Wood. Although referred to in the programme as 'The Pug Dog', Lauri is quite clearly meant to be a poodle.

Charles Lauri's imitations were exceptional for the accuracy with which they reproduced the movements of different animals. When rehearsing for a part, he spent hours watching the animal he would be impersonating: he borrowed a poodle in the weeks before Babes in the Wood opened so that he could observe it. The performances were physically extremely demanding and Lauri had to be an acrobat as well as an actor. In Babes the poodle performed tricks, such as jumping through a hoop, and he was described in a review as 'the most agile performing poodle ever seen'.

Charles Lauri as 'The French Poodle', The Sketch Magazine, 15th March 1893. Museum no. 131655. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Charles Lauri as 'The French Poodle', The Sketch Magazine, 15th March 1893. Museum no. 131655. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Animals are a regular feature of pantomime and were added into pantomime stories if they were not already part of the plot. Real animals were often used on stage, but there was plenty of humour to be found in animals played by human actors wearing animal costumes (known as 'skins'). The first animal to make an appearance in a pantomime was a donkey, ridden by a clown. Occasionally, actors made a career out of playing animals.

Charles Lauri, for example, was known as the 'Garrick of Animal Mimes', and perfected the parts of the dog in Sinbad the Sailor and the cat in Puss in Boots. The Conquest family, George Senior, Fred, Arthur, and George Junior brought to life a remarkable menagerie, appearing variously as a parrot, monkey, and goose as well as well as the more unusual octopus, oyster and flying fish! Here, Fred Fitzroy, a former trapeze artist, is pictured playing a pantomime cat later in his stage career.

We have an interview with Dick Whittington's cat played by Mr Charles Lauri. This first appeared in a newspaper called The Sketch on March 15 1893.

'My first appearance as pussy was made some thirty years ago in Birmingham. Even as a child I was devoted to animals and always took particular note of their ways and doings; still a considerable time elapsed before I again thought of acting an animal. All London was running to see a performing monkey called Pongo. I said to myself I am sure that I could do as well as that Monkey. Well I went to the zoo and spent hours in the Monkey House watching the creatures and I believe learning their language.

It was no easy matter to get a proper skin or costume made; you see what is wanted when impersonating an animal is really a wig for the body and it was difficult to make anyone understand that, so I not only designed but practically made my first skins. Each hair had to be put in separately, and after many trials I found that brown or grey wool was the best material to use on the foundation. Then we had to invent the head mask for the monkey. At last we hit on a brown leather one and as for the big eyebrows which on being worked up and down produce the peculiar grimaces which are so characteristic of monkey faces, I managed to make them workable by means of brown threads reaching down to and fastened on the coat.

My monkey face requires more makeup than any other beast character I have ever played.

I have also been a bear, a wolf, an ostrich, a kangaroo, a white poodle etc. But I find that the public really prefers domestic animals – a cat, a dog, and monkey are unfailing favourites. You see people like to watch the thing with which they are already familiar and there is literally always something new to see and discover about animals. I need hardly say that I am an entire believer in studying from life. When getting my poodle part I had one always with me at home and it was from him that I learnt nearly all my tricks.'

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