There is nothing like a panto dame!

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A DAME! Derek Marshall, second right, in a scene from a Great Yarmouth “Ops an

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A DAME! Derek Marshall, second right, in a scene from a Great Yarmouth “Ops and Drams” pantomime. - Credit: Archant

OH no he isn’t! And that’s semi-official. It is another of those signs that “times they are a-changing” if you believe the Bob Dylan lyric.

The victim – if that is not too strong or emotive a word – is the traditional pantomime dame, usually a grotesquely made-up buxom comedian wearing a wrap-around pinafore and a headscarf, Les Dawson-style.

Of course, panto confusion is augmented by the fact that another of its essential characters, like beanstalk-climbing Jack, is played by a girl... acknowledged as the principal boy .

By this reckoning, the Ugly Sisters must also be in crisis...

In my pantomime-going years, decades ago when the Peggotty children were young and not so worldly-wise as their counterparts today, this apparent cross-dressing never provoked questioning because it was readily accepted as part of the traditional on-stage innocent fun.

However, over this Christmas newspapers have been reporting that the current generation of pantomime-going youngsters do not see the comic side of cross-dressing.

It hardly needs saying that the culprit behind all this is the Wicked Witch named Political Correctness...or should that be the Wicked Wizard, or the Wicked Person of either gender?

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The revelation stems from a survey claiming that only a tenth of the 251 professional pantomimes in production this Christmas and New Year have female principal boys. This information comes from the National Database of Panto Performance, a computer-held store of facts and figures linked to The British Theatre Guide.

Great Yarmouth was no different from any other place in Britain in that pantomime was an eagerly-awaited part of our winter calendar for much of the 20th century, and this form of entertainment continues to provide escapist pleasure for all the family. At present Jack and the Beanstalk is being staged at the St George’s Theatre in Yarmouth, ending on Sunday after 24 performances during a fortnight-plus, while across the river in Gorleston Pavilion, Goldilocks and the Three Bears finishes tomorrow at the end of nearly 50 shows, having opened back on December 11.

Both pantomimes played to capacity audiences at many performances.

The St George’s production was promoted as “the newest Christmas tradition for Great Yarmouth”, while Gorleston Pavilion follows Goldilocks and the Three Bears with another numerical-themed production of the inflationary Snow White and the 8 Dwarfs for four days in the middle of this month.

And oh yes – there was an adult panto, Dick!, at the Pavilion before Christmas.

For many an older Yarmouthian and Gorlestonian, however, pantomime brings back memories of our local Operatic and Dramatic Society’s professional-standard presentations in the postwar decades and, in particular, the contribution of the late Derek Marshall whose towering performances as the larger-than-life dame were an annual pleasure every Christmas and New Year.

Women in the audiences “Ooed” and “Aahed” at his costumes: it was akin to later years when Danny La Rue took to the stage in Hollywood-style gowns.

I might well be wrong, but I am sure that Derek Marshall also wrote the scripts for our “Ops and Drams” pantomimes as well as producing them and playing the principal comedic dame roles. His stature was such that he even warranted a mention in local historian Colin Tooke’s 2007 book That’s Entertainment: Theatres and Cinemas of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston.

In a chapter on the Wellington Pier Pavilion, Colin wrote: “From 1947 until 1964 the Great Yarmouth Operatic and Dramatic Society used the pavilion for their revues and annual pantomimes, many of which were produced by Derek Marshall, well-known for the flamboyant costumes he designed and wore in his usual role as the pantomime dame. From 1965 the pantomime moved to the Regal Theatre.”

So Derek Marshall and Danny La Rue’s over-the-top costumes were both seen by Regal audiences, the former’s in those post-1965 panto years and the latter’s when he starred in his own all-summer show there in 1981, by which time the venue had been renamed ABC.

Even if you were not a panto fan, the Yarmouth “Ops and Drams” staged many other praiseworthy shows and dramas, and in particular I loved their musicals, especially My Fair Lady and the American ones such as Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls. They were superbly done, and it was hard to believe that these were amateurs with day jobs.

Another snippet of entertainment news recently was that veteran bill-topping comedian and actor Russ Abbot, seemingly long absent from our television screens, is to make a return by co-starring in a six-part sitcom on BBC1 about three recently-retired couples. He spent the summer of 1980 amusing thousands of local people and holidaymakers on the Britannia Pier, with Les Dennis topping the supporting bill.

One of his off-stage gimmicks was to befriend Scout groups and troops, presumably having been a member of the organisation in his youth, and he continued his support during his season here. In khaki Scout uniform he visited the Bradwell troop, which enrolled him as an honorary member, and I believe he also attended meetings of others hereabouts.

Finally, veteran comedy magician Paul Daniels is to perform at the St George’s Theatre for one show next month. He and wife Debbie McGee enjoyed a successful summer bill-topping on the Britannia Pier in 1979, but Mrs Peggotty and I had never heard of him when we first saw him in Yarmouth two years previously.

That was in a big marquee on the racecourse as one of the entertainers at the golden jubilee annual meeting there of the national Round Table organisation. His routine included unsuspecting(?) volunteers or pressganged audience members obeying orders to do daft things while hyponotised.