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Review - He's behind you, or rather she is ..

Ah, Christmas. Season of goodwill, peace to all men, and cross-dressing entertainers making double entendres in front of small children.

Yes, there's nothing like a dame. A multicoloured-frocked, bewigged pantomime dame. And in the seasonal documentary Michael Grade's History of the Pantomime Dame, the broadcast executive looks at the history of a peculiarly British institution.

Great dames, past and present, are called on for their words of wisdom. And so Matthew Kelly, formerly of Mother Goose, sums up panto thus: "A man, dressed as a woman, who has a son who's a girl dressed as a boy, who falls in love with a girl who's actually a girl."

It all began in 16th-century Italy, with commedia dell'arte. These tales of Harlequin, Pierrot and thwarted young love eventually made it to Britain. Here, 18th-century impresario John Rich discovered that he could match his nature to his name much more effectively with bawdy comedy than with serious theatre.

And so commedia morphed into British panto. There was the wordplay: "Dad picked up that bag in Baghdad, did Dad." There was the more adult wordplay: "I can't stand double entendre. If I see one in the script, I just want to whip it out."

But, until the late 18th century, the clown was only a bit-player. It was famed actor Joseph Grimaldi who moved him - and, increasingly, him-as-her - centre-stage. "He was a comic dame figure," says comic non-dame figure Giles Brandreth.

"I bet he was wonderful," says Grade.

"He must have been wonderful," says Brandreth.

There is a lot of this sort of thing in the programme. I guess once you have been chairman of the BBC, they let you get away with sucking the joy out of panto. Oh, no they don't. Oh, yes they do.

Anyway, by the high Victorian era the pantomime was standard Boxing Day entertainment (no EastEnders special back then). The critics were appalled. "Only an undisciplined nation would have done this," one fulminated.

Widow Twanky - surely the doyenne of the dames - made her debut appearance in 1861. (She was originally Widow Twankay, after a mass-market tea. Her modern counterpart might be Widow Tetley.)

And so to the modern day. Cue various actors and directors musing very seriously on what makes the dame great. Possibly it is his respect for the women he is impersonating. Possibly it is the magic of nothing being what it seems. Possibly, Kelly offers with a dollop of sexism, it is that "a man can be silly and still retain a modicum of his authority".

But Brandreth puts it best. "It's like bread-and-butter pudding," he says. "Other people would think, ugh, that's revolting. But we understand it. We know what it's about."

Michael Grade's History of the Pantomime Dame, BBC4, 20 December, 9pm.

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