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


Simon Usborne
Thursday 20 December 2012 20:30

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.

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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).

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