‘Flamenco, lambada/ But hip hop is harder/ We moonwalk the foxtrot/ Then polka the salsa…’ I’m sure you know those lines from the Spice Girls’ anthem ‘Spice Up Your Life’, which happens to be the biggest song-and-dance number in this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime at Helmsley Arts Centre in North Yorkshire. It’s also a spotlight moment for the Dame, who’s required to wiggle extravagantly downstage then pirouette for the next line — ‘Shake it, shake it, shake it’ — and do just that. I’m told it’s called twerking. And yes, the Dame is me, your veteran weekly business columnist.
How did I get here? You may well ask. I’m reminded of a different line, from an interview long ago with a lordly tycoon who had risen from humble origins to wealth and influence: ‘I am now what I always imagined myself to be.’ Well, I can tell you this: I never in my wildest dreams imagined myself cross-dressed and camping it up night after night in the persona of a fright-wigged nymphomaniac. Unfashionably, I’ve never suffered even a passing moment’s confusion about my gender. But now I’ve got into the ballgown, after 25 years of playing every other available part on the amateur stage from Canon Chasuble and Alan Bennett to Victor in Private Lives and René from ’Allo ’Allo, I have a feeling that it was always meant to be.
The satisfaction in acting, if you’re a restrained sort of person like me, has a lot to do with release of inhibition. I like angry scenes. I quite like snogging scenes, though in one rehearsal the actress involved — a no-nonsense farmer’s wife — had to grab me by the lapels and say: ‘Come on, Martin, time to get physical.’ Wearing huge false bosoms, flirting with the dads in the front row and whacking doughballs at the folk further back, while delivering filthy gaglines you hope their kiddies won’t understand, is all just one more step up the ladder of inhibition-release towards self--realisation. If I had a therapist —like that hot Dr Melfi who helped television mobster Tony Soprano discover his demons — I’m sure she’d tell me I’m doing the right thing.
I’m getting physically fitter too. With ten performances in prospect, I’m doing my 64-year-old best to obey the Spice Girls’ instruction to ‘Slam it to the left if you’re havin’ a good time’ then ‘Shake it to the right if you know that you feel fine’. More often than not I’m slamming it and shaking it in the wrong direction, but our professional choreographer is remarkably patient and my mistakes will mostly be hidden by a magnificent hooped skirt illuminated with fairylights. For novice Dames intimidated by complex dance routines, here’s my tip: position yourself behind the smallest chorus-line member, copy her steps as best you can — and let the audience know by your facial expression that any blunders are deliberate acts of theatrical subversion.
My role model in all this is Berwick Kaler, recently retired doyen of four decades as York Theatre Royal’s resident Dame and panto supremo. A commanding comic presence, he was famed (the Guardian recalls) for ‘plotless pantomimes bearing only a tangential resemblance to the fairy tale on the poster’, as well as for hurling Wagon Wheel chocolate biscuits into the stalls in defiance of health-and-safety. Breaking the ‘fourth wall’, and with it the audience’s own inhibitions, is the Dame’s essential role and you can’t be shy about it: the more they shout ‘Behind you!’ and chuck the doughballs back and sing along to the big songsheet, the more they love the entire age-old ritual.
And once they’re warmed up, they’ll groan cheerfully at the corniest of jokes; but we try to give them good ones as well. Last year, I added in ‘Brexit? I told my last boyfriend to keep his hands off my backstop or he’d be leaving without a withdrawal agreement’; and ‘Fracking? I’m all for it! At my age how else am I going to feel the earth move!’ But this year I’ll be steering clear of topical controversy — we’ve all had enough of it — and sticking closer to the script, which is a cracker by Tom Whalley. My favourite Dame gag so far: ‘Jack, my boy, your fore-fathers would be proud of you!’ ‘Four fathers?’ ‘Well, it was a very dark night, son.’
But in this #MeToo era, with a cast as young as five and all their families in the audience, we have to be more cautious with the smut than panto producers used to be. We can no longer assume adult jokes go over the heads of little ones; and we’ve cut out anything suggestive of predatory male behaviour towards the young heroine: that was a problem a couple of years ago when the principals in Dick Whittington, including the Alderman’s teenage daughter Alice, sailed in search of treasure with a crew of salty seamen.
But the naughty old Dame is always fair game — oh yes she is — and can get a laugh merely by raising an eyebrow when someone else on stage mentions ‘sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend’. If that’s almost worthy of Julian Clary at the London Palladium, I prefer straighter gags like this one with my other son, Simple Simon: ‘Let’s face it, Mum’s no Keira Knightley.’ ‘Nightly? I should be so lucky!’
Lucky indeed: panto is an eccentric English treasure that bestows winter happiness on my small Yorkshire town and many places like it. Damehood is anarchic and transgressive, yet played by rules that can be traced back to mummers’ plays and commedia dell’arte; as undignified as a well-known local citizen like me can get, yet dignified by a tradition that’s embedded in folk memory.
The wardrobe ladies say they’ll struggle to create a Geri Halliwell minidress big enough for me in the Spice Girls number but I’ve said not to worry: I’ll just flash the backside of my Union Jack bloomers.