Last Night's Viewing: Michael Grade's History of the Pantomime Dame, BBC4
Darren Boyd's Little Cracker, Sky1


You only wish Michael Grade had been given more of a chance to be a dame, so passionate was he about that most peculiar of British institutions.

He appeared in full mask and costume at the top and bottom of a festive confection that revealed as much about the life peer and media mogul as it did his specialist subject, but stuck to his trousers in between in his History of the Pantomime Dame.

The former BBC chairman has panto in his blood, it turns out. As the son of a theatre impresario, he remembered as a young boy watching his Aunt Cathy perform in panto from the wings. His still childish delight in discovering more about the artform made me wish it was a requirement of any documentary presenter to be so devoted to his subject. You got the sense he already knew a lot of what we learned, but his joy throughout was infectious.

In York, Grade met Berwick Kaler, a giant of the modern scene who has directed and written himself as the dame into pantomimes at the city's Theatre Royal for more than 30 years. Kaler defined panto as the "only quintessentially British artform", in which "a girl dressed as a boy, the son of a man dressed as a woman falls in love with a girl who's a girl, helped by two people dressed as an animal."

A mad evolution began, we learned, in the piazzas of 16th-century Italy and the commedia dell'arte, which inspired an appetite among audiences across Europe for simple stories of unrequited love driven by humour. By the 18th century, London was at war as the impresarios John Rich and David Garrick competed in the West End with ever more lavish productions.

Joseph Grimaldi later helped bring clowning centre stage and the British dame followed. Gyles Brandreth, as ever, provided the best value among the documentary's supporting acts. Himself a panto obsessive, he defined the vital qualities of the dame thus: "Eyes that say everything and knees that make you laugh. If you haven't got funny knees, forget it."

As Grade followed panto out of the West End and to provincial theatres, where it still thrives, he sat through a production of Cinderella in Stratford in east London. It appeared to the dispassionate viewer to be a pale imitation of what had come before (a clunky plug in the script for the local shopping centre that had sponsored the show was excruciating) but, to his credit, Grade reserved judgment and sat beaming, as entranced as he must have been as a kid in the wings.

From pantomime, we leapt to silent film for the last of Sky's quiet but acclaimed Little Crackers. Now in its third series, it too benefits from the indulgence of its creators, each episode giving a funny person the chance to make a 10-minute film inspired by their own lives. It's a bit like asking a Desert Island Discs subject to turn their best anecdote into a comedy short.

Darren Boyd, seen last year in the BBC's acclaimed Holy Flying Circus, admitted in the making-of film after his directorial debut that it was only very loosely inspired by real events, and stood more as a love letter of sorts to his mum (he wouldn't say how) as well as silent movies.

He played his own dad, sort of, alongside Doon Mackichan as his mum, sort of, as parents whose obsession with ballroom dancing left little room for their son. The absence of words demanded all the muscles of Mackichan's expressive face, most notably in a scene in which she gamely squished her face into the glass of a trophy cabinet in a grotesque staring contest with a rival dancer. Her eyes said more than those of even the greatest pantomime dame. Oh yes they did (sorry).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?