Pantomime: We wear three times as much make-up as most women, but we're nothing like a dame

A lifetime spent in women's clothing has meant stardom for these two men. Sally Morgan visits them off-stage, and finds that behind every good dame is a highly professional comic actor.

Danny La Rue is perhaps the most famous pantomime dame in British theatre. The flamboyant performer has dazzled audiences in this role since the 1950s, when he was first asked to do so by Joan Collins' father Joe. This year he is appearing in his 44th pantomime. He plays Baroness Voluptua in Cinderella at The Mayflower theatre in his home town Southampton, until February 8th.

"My first experience of pantomime was at the age of four, when my mother took my four siblings and me to see Mother Goose at our local theatre in Cork. About five years later, I was cast in one myself. My family had moved to London where I was sent to St Patrick's catholic school in Soho.

I was the tiniest child ever, with jet black hair, and I'll never forget the Irish priest saying, `Now boys, we're going to be doing Cinderella. You, Daniel Patrick Carroll, have got nice big brown eyes - you'd look very pretty as Cinderella'.

That was the first time God threw a frock on me, and I've been wearing them on stage ever since. My next brush with panto came during the Blitz. We were evacuated to Devon where we used to perform our own plays in the village hall.

At 17 I joined the Royal Navy and this is where I became totally involved in the theatre. When Sir John Gielgud saw me on stage in Singapore he said, `I don't usually like men who dress up as women, but you're amusing and make me laugh'.

This is what I enjoy most about pantomime. I've always played glamorous characters, and I was the first person to make people laugh while being glamorous at the same time. My audiences probably don't realise how difficult that can be

For me the art of pantomime is as important as a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. It is peculiarly British and to define the secret of its success is almost impossible. Noel Coward once told me that you should never try to define anything because in doing so you lose its essence.

My belief however is that pantomime is a timeless art. It appeals to people of all ages as it sweeps them away to a world of fantasy. Panto is usually a child's first experience of the theatre, and if it is done splendidly, it encourages that child to return.

The Spice Girls are very amusing, but their clothes don't really look like costumes. In panto the sets and clothes are the same as in grand operas. I love the glitz and glamour of being a dame. Unlike most men, I am not at all frightened by bright clothes.

I've been lucky in that even after all these years, people still ask me to do this. I suppose I'm like a loaf of bread in someone's house - always there and instantly recognisable. Every generation has seen me as a dame in Panto. I've played eight Mother Gooses, appeared in 12 Aladdins and several Cinderellas. I also often have parts written especially for me.

Pantomime season is my favourite time of year and I travel from the other side of the world to take part. I give 120 per cent to my performance, and have a code of conduct which I always keep.

My style of humour is cheeky but clean. I'm a great believer in wit without vulgarity - only inarticulate people swear because they can't find the right words. Having said that, two of my elderly fans once fainted because they were shocked by the four-letter words when I was in the play Privates on Parade. I did, of course, write them nice letters of apology.

What I adore about my profession is that I can joke with people at every level in society and get away with it. I bumped into Maggie Thatcher in M&S the other day and asked her what she was doing there. She told me she always buys her knickers here, so I said, `I didn't know they had a hardware department,' which made her laugh. My humour is risque but I know where to draw the line.

My other rule is that I never let anyone photograph me putting on my make-up. I also think it's obscene for a man to wear make-up without a wig. It looks completely wrong because a man's head is a different shape from a woman's.

Throughout my entire career I have never been seen out in costume. Danny walks into a dressing-room unshaved and then he shaves. Later, when Widow Twanky goes to bed, Danny comes out again, and that's the way it will always be.

Despite years of using heavy make-up, my skin is still soft and supple. The secret is that I never wash with soap after I take off my make-up. I don't believe in expensive skincare products - I simply moisturise with vitamin E cream from The Body Shop.

I was very flattered when Boy George revealed that he created his make- up after he first saw me on TV. Ben Elton and Julian Clary have also heaped me with praise, although I wonder whether they're just being kind and really think `Poor old tart'.

A friend recently told me that her boyfriend loved my eye make-up and wanted to know where I'd bought it. My reply was that under 4000 watts of light, this particular eyeshdow looked great, but in the street it would look appalling. I told her that if he wants to wear make-up in the daytime he should try grey eyeshadow.

I have several thousand dresses which my assistant Anne Galbraith stores in her huge home in Tunbridge Wells. We call my massive wardrobe `Aladdin's cave'. Some of my frocks cost up to pounds 5,000, but I don't have a favourite. I used to make my own, although now I have them made for me. I won't do a show without wearing a touch of mauve. It was my late mother's favourite colour and because of my deep love for her, I always wear a wonderful creation which I call `Mum's frock'.

I'm touched that the Victoria and Albert museum have asked if they can display one of my costumes. Sometimes I give a few frocks back to the profession to be used again by another performer.

A question I am often asked is who inspires me. In both my work and my life I have been inspired by God. I'm very religious, though not in an Evangelical sense, and I talk to him all the time. Without my religion I couldn't have survived. When I lost pounds 2million in 1982, for example, my faith helped me to pull through. If everyone had a great belief they would never feel sad. I really believe that God gave me my talent, and I do as much as I can with it to help others. I am involved in raising money for lots of charities.

The world needs entertainment and humour to lighten it up. This is why I like to leave my audience with a nice message, one good line, to make each performance diiferent.

I adore playing the panto dame, and I'm delighted that I can still do it at my age. If I drop dead tomorrow, I will have died happy to be doing what I love most."

Michael Sharvell-Martin, 53, is what is known as a "traditional" pantomime dame, He lives in Sherborne, Dorset, with his wife Linda, a former dancer, to whom he has been married for 30 years, and has two daughters, Ellen, 24, and Kate 19.

This year Michael will be performing at the Chichester Theatre in his 23rd pantomime - Mother Goose - which runs until 17th January.

"My career as a panto dame began when my friend Peter Todd, who now runs the Hippodrome in Birmingham, and the choreographer Dougie Squires, asked if I'd ever considered trying this particular genre. They had seen me on TV in comedies such as the Dave Allen Show, Les Dawson, and No Place Like Home, and decided that I would make a good dame. They were looking for a man to play Widow Twanky in Aladdin. I was flattered to be asked but wondered what I'd let myself in for.

Pantomime dames are a specialist art form in their own right and very different from straight comedy. One important piece of advice from experienced friends was that a dame should always be friendly, and rather like a lovable mum. Lovability makes a panto dame amusing, so I decided to play all mine as cosy, cuddly characters. I knew this worked when Lionel Blair said to me: `I'd really like you to be my mum'. In fact, I did play his mum one year - in Goldilocks as Gertie Gemel, and he was Silly Billy.

My style of panto dame is known as `traditional', which means a man dressing up as a woman, as opposed to a female impersonator. Terry Scott, Les Dawson and Arthur Askey all favoured the traditional, hairy-chested type of dame. One of the ideas behind this genre is that the audience, and children in particular, know that this dame is a man in women's clothes. If it seemed that a real woman was being insulted and the butt of so many jokes, it would not be amusing.

I had never dressed up as a woman on stage before I was offered the part of Widow Twanky, and at first I felt a bit strange. But I enjoyed it immensely. As a dame my voice becomes slightly feminine because I'm supposed to be a funny old mother figure. I also shave off my moustache for the part every year.

Some people ask whether, for inspiration, I watch my wife Linda applying her make-up. My reply is this: if she put on her make-up as thickly as mine needs to be on stage, I would have divorced her years ago.

The only unnerving experiences I have had in this business is when I literally stepped into a dead man's shoes. I had to wear some Victorian- style, high-heeled boots for one production and written on the label inside was the name Les Dawson.

I felt rather sad when I saw this, especially as his name had been crossed out. Later that year I also had to wear a costume that had belonged to the late Terry Scott. Although it was an honour for me to put on their clothes, I hoped that this double coincidence wasn't a bad omen. So far, it seems to have brought me nothing but good luck.

Nowadays I have most of my costumes made because I'm fairly rotund - when I was slimmer Linda used to make them for me. About 20 years ago we experienced an amusing incident when I saw a pattern for a wedding dress I liked. I showed it to Linda, and the shop assistant assumed it was for her. She suggested that Linda try a size 10, so Linda turned to her and said, `Well actually, it's for my husband'. Not surprisingly the shop assistant was confused. `Oh dear,' she said, walking away.

My family and friends have always been very proud of my career as a panto dame. When they were children, Kate and Ellen used to bring all their friends to watch me perform. At primary school Ellen made a show-and-tell book, with drawings of `Daddy and Uncle David' as ugly sisters in Cinderella. When she was nine, Kate bought me a pair of heart-shaped crystal earrings for Christmas to match one of my costumes. My mother-in-law raised her eyebrows, but everyone knows I'd never appear in drag off-stage.

I have several wigs, a basic working one and a glamorous blonde number. When I make an entrance, I like to create a vistual impact. My opening costume tends to be cosy and mumsy, but the `walkdown' dress at the end of the show is glitzy and glittery.

Gold sequins are my favourite decoration, a preference I'm sure I share with Danny La Rue. We have been friends for 10 years and I'd love to play the Ugly Sisters with him.

I suppose that deep down I am a frustrated stand-up comedian and pantomime is the nearest I'll probably ever get to achieving my ambition. To walk on stage and make people laugh is one of the most difficult skills in the entertainment business, but as a dame I have the protection of my costume, character and the story.

At the end of the day, getting paid to do something I enjoy is the most satisfying feeling in the world."

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