Panto historian and veteran dame Nigel Ellacott speaks to Matthew Jenkin ahead of his latest role as Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk at The Orchard in Dartford.

You have starred in panto for more than 30 years now. How has the tradition changed since you first started?

Nigel Ellacott: To start with, everything goes in cycles. When I was a kid it was the pop singer phase.

Pantomimes had male principle boys, which was a new thing in the late 50s and 60s. There were pop singers starring in the shows, which all started because of Cliff Richard playing at The Palladium with The Shadows.

Recently we have had the Australian phase. The first one from Neighbours to come over here and do panto, I thought, was Guy Pearce, but it turns out it was Peter O’Brien.

He played a part in Neighbours and went on to do Flying Doctors and now has turned up in the Wolverine film, playing Hugh Jackman’s father.

Then we had the celebrity Big Brother people, where people who had walked off the street and had never been in a show before were suddenly playing parts in pantomime. That was a terrible period.

I don’t know what we’re in now. I think we’ve gone back to traditional, slightly variety-based pantomimes, and smut has been more or less eradicated.

Double entendre is part of British Carry-On tradition. I’m talking about smut, which had started to creep in, and people were a little bit wary about taking children.

When I first started doing pantos, you could have six names on a panto bill. Now you’re likely to have one big name.

Orchestras have got smaller too. Also, when I first started we had around 10 dancers. Now you’re more likely to have four or six. It’s all to do with the economy.

If we give people the panto they really want in a huge venue, it’s possible. But when you’re in a small venue you can’t give them 12 dancers etc.

Those are the changes but there is nothing really new about pantomime.

I was doing something in Birmingham and Frank Bruno was doing panto. Everyone was criticising them for having a boxer in pantomime. But in 1889, a champion boxer not only appeared in pantomime in London, he had invited members of the audience up and hit them and knocked them out. At least Frank didn’t do that.

I don’t know what the future holds but maybe we’re getting into the Strictly Dancing panto. Pantomime is about novelty. It will take anything new and use it. Anything which brings the public in like 3D or lasers. Then when pantomime notices people have had enough of it, they drop it.

Panto is a very organic form of theatre. Because we’ve only got it in Britain, we stole bits of the 18th century Italian and French performers and conventions we liked, we mish-mashed them about.

Then suddenly, around about 1860, Augustus Harris at the Drury Lane added the fairytale element. He was the first innovator of that aspect and by 1880 he decided to incorporate the big stars of music hall. He hit the formula and panto has not changed since then.

Has the dame always been a part of the panto?

NE: Not through history, no. We dames come in around about the 1860s and 70s.

We are a very strange tradition. Our make-up is like clowns and I think we owe our background to Gramaldi.

He was the great clown in pantomimes, just before the fairy story element began to creep in. Gramaldi always played the clown then he decided to wear ladies’ clothes in the 1830s or 40s. That tipped the balance.

After that you start to see the dame coming in and by 1870 a woman can’t play a comic character on stage who could get pushed over. It would not be dignified.

The astonishing thing is, if you look at old photos, in the 1880s and 90s, the dames just wore costumes of the day. They’re just dressed like Victorian ladies. It’s as if I went to Topshop and popped a frock on.

How did you become a dame and why?

NE: If you think being a dame is uncomfortable, I’ve done every uncomfortable character you can imagine.

I played goose in panto for three years and that’s the worst. You’re constantly walking around in the shape of a bent hairpin with a crash helmet and a tower of a beak on your head and a wire body.

I did three of those, two Puss In Boots where you’re suffocating in fur and then I went into Ugly Sister way too young.

I’m now at the age when you’re supposed to play dames for the first time. I was about 26 when I first played a dame, which is alright for sister but not for dame, because you’re somebody’s mother. It’s a bit biologically risky.

How did you feel when you first slipped into the dame’s frock?

It was a feeling of exhaustion because when I first did sister back in 1981 we got cocky and decided to have hundreds of changes.

I remember in the technical rehearsal, I and my co-dame went on stage and looked at each other. I had now run out of costumes. I had one scene to go and we could not work out how, somewhere along the line, we had got out of sync. We were exhausted.

That was how it was the first time. My memory was of running. When you weren’t on, you were running to change. I still do that. Only now I have learnt you put the quick change room in the wing. I spend most of the panto in the wing. I don’t go to the dressing room. You sit in the wing changing your frock.

Panto is obviously very seasonal. What do you do for the rest of the year?

NE: It’s been bizarre. I’ve sort of managed to make pantomime into my life.

I run a website which is completely about pantomime, I write pantomime scripts and I design and make costumes. That started back in June.

I also do a pantomime road-show which tours schools around the country.

It’s become an all year round job. It’s astonishing, but somehow, somewhere along the line, I became a walking pantomime encyclopaedia and I don’t know how that happened.

Starring Bobby Davro as Silly Billy, Jack and the Beanstalk opens at The Orchard Theatre in Dartford on December 4 and runs until January 9. For tickets, call 01322 220000 or visit