Crazier than Christmas: Nothing like a dame!
Two of the English-speaking world’s most famous drag comedians and panto dames, Paul O’Grady/aka Lily Savage and Barry Humphries /aka Edna Average, died recently and their nations went into mourning.
How the Brits love a dame
This is because they were considered ‘National Treasures’ – similar to the likes of Dame Judi Dench (M in the Bond movies) and Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings’). In fact, McKellen was a panto dame himself (or herself) this year playing Mother Goose in a UK Christmas Panto.
How the Brits love their panto dames! By dame, I mean a man who dresses up as a woman to make an audience roar with laughter. This tradition came originally from the 19th century when theatre producers engaged male comedians to portray female characters in shows – to the delight of everyone, including children. British children are used to seeing men in dresses and lipstick on stage from a very early age.
Not on your Nelly in DK
Theatre has always embraced cross-dressing: from Shakespeare’s time, when men played women’s roles, to the present day. Denmark however has no theatre tradition comparable to the British panto. Some Danish comedians have impersonated Queen Margrethe in summer revue shows, but that’s about it.
So maybe this is one of the reasons there was a protest in Denmark when two men dressed in women’s clothes to read aloud to children. The occasion was a public reading by drag queens of a book about four orphans who become friends with Miss Nelly, a man who wears a skirt and high-heeled boots.
This event at the Frederiksberg Library sparked unbelievable protests from demonstrators. Mette Thiesen from Dansk Folkeparti even said: “More and more adults believe that they must push the issue of gender confusion and diversity down children’s throats. Drag queens do not belong in a public library entertaining children.”
Such a backlash seems to be a new phenomenon in Denmark, a country with a longstanding tradition of liberal views and free speech. Despite a well-established image of itself as a free-spirited country, narrow-mindedness is seeping through the cracks.
Woke culture to blame?
But perhaps this is the fault of ‘woke culture’. These days it is extremely hard to be a comedian because of the list of things that are no longer politically incorrect. Every year when I write the Crazy Christmas Show, I read my earlier scripts. This year will be my 40th script, so there are a few to get through. What is interesting is how many jokes I used even as little as five or six years ago that are no longer acceptable today.
A woke person wrote to suggest that I should no longer include the popular panto dame in the show because this character was demeaning to women and transgender men. But surely we should not be silencing comedy, or damning dames? I respect that LGBTQ+ rights are being eroded, and trans people are being subjected to hate crimes and media vitriol, and whether we mock or celebrate makes a difference.
However the panto dame is more intent on making us laugh, and not with negative stereotyping. Rest assured, this year’s Crazy Christmas show, including a male comedian dressed as a pouting, preening panto dame, will continue to be a fun and hyggelig evening for everybody’s taste.
Vivienne McKee, Denmark’s best-known English entertainer, is this country’s most beloved foreign import. For over four decades, hundreds of thousands of Copenhageners have enjoyed her annual Crazy Christmas Cabaret show at Tivoli, marvelling at her unique, wry Anglo wit and charm.