Friday 9 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Douglas Byng (1893-1987)

Every city and town in the UK (and a lot of villages as well) produces a pantomime for the festive season. It’s a part of British culture which mystifies and confuses most of the rest of the world. Most of them will be starting around now and go on well into the New Year.

The origins of pantomime go back centuries and cannot be traced to a single source. Two elements that are essential for a successful modern panto are the cross-dressing Principal Boy and Dame characters. The notion of cross-dressing on stage is an ancient one. Though whereas in real life the purpose of cross-dressing is usually to be perceived as the opposite sex, in pantomime it should always be clear that the Principal Boy is a girl and the Dame is a man.

Playing the Dame is a very particular skill that is very difficult to master. I’ve tried it myself several times but wasn’t very good at it.

One of the best and most influential panto Dames of the 20th century was Douglas Byng.  He was born in Mapperley, an area of Nottingham, one of the 12 children of the local bank manager. Originally a costume designer Douglas made his stage debut in 1914 and his panto debut in 1921 at the legendary London Palladium. He formed his own drag cabaret act and wrote many silly songs which he later included in some of his pantos.

During this month BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting a one-man show about Douglas Byng based on his diaries and featuring some of his songs. The performer was someone who owed a lot to Byng’s pioneering exaggerated style in dress and double entrendre, Julian Clary.

Byng utilised his costume designing skills in most of his Dame costumes. At the time the Dame was often portrayed as an old woman in a slightly exaggerated costume. But Douglas Byng introduced something extra – parody. One of his favourite Dame costumes during the 1930s was a cape made out of bathroom loofahs. This was parodying the fashion of the time for fox-tail capes. However, as soon as World War II broke out in 1939 bathroom loofahs went from being a common household possession to a rarely obtained import and loofahs became very expensive. Douglas soon realised that his loofah cape became a valuable item – Black Marketeers could make a fortune selling it. So he always locked it in theatre safes everywhere he performed. They had become the most valuable bathroom loofahs in the world.

These days you won’t see a panto Dame that doesn’t have an outrageous costume parodying a contemporary fashion or emphasising an aspect of the Dame’s character. Such costumes have included a lighthouse costume for the Dame in “Dick Whittington” when the characters are shipwrecked, and a washing basket doubling as Widow Twankey’s skirt. Also, Douglas Byng was the first Dame to come onto stage with a different and increasingly more bizarre costume with every entrance.

So, move over Lady Gaga – Douglas Byng got there first!

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