Michael Grade has recently become BBC Four's go-to-guy on all matters concerning variety theatre.
Having already given in-depth guides to the history of variety and the music hall, this Christmas he's covering panto, looking into the origins of the pantomime dame character. He traces its routes from Italian theatre, to its rise in popularity lead by the great clown Joseph Grimaldi.
However, what will be of interest to most people reading this, by which I mean comedy fans in the north, is that the biggest panto dame is from the region. Berwick Kaler is a Geordie, and has written and starred in every panto at York's Theatre Royal for 33 years. He keeps the scripts fresh and topical, but always starts with the same four words: "Me babbies, me bairns!" Watching his performances and devotion to the genre, you can't help but want to see him perform live, although demand for tickets would be so high the chances of doing so would probably be negligible.
This show was diverting, entertaining, and somewhat education. It certainly gave me a new application for an artform that I'm not that keen on personally. However it's good to see some peculiar British forms of entertainment still flourish.Ian Wolf, Giggle Beats, 24th December 2012
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.Simon Usborne, The Independent, 21st December 2012
An affectionate history of the queens of misrule.Veronica Lee, The Arts Desk, 21st December 2012
My Christmas came early this year, courtesy of BBC4, and two splendid documentaries that turned out to have a lot more in common than their titles might suggest - Michael Grade's History of the Pantomime Dame, and When Wrestling was Golden - Grapples, Grunts and Grannies.Harry Venning, The Stage, 21st December 2012
Up-and-coming TV presenter Michael Grade explains the evolution of a peculiar British cultural institution, in a lightly festive hour that begins with our host in full make-up, wig and tent-like dress. We learn how 18th-century impresario John Rich discovered harlequin shows were ten times more lucrative than Shakespeare; then how the specifics of a man delivering double entendres as a deliberately unconvincing woman gradually fell into place.
Grade chats with Gyles Brandreth, Richard Briers and Matthew Kelly about the demands of damehood. But the star of the show is Berwick Kaler, writer, director and dame of York's famous panto. The future of the art form looks safe with him.Jack Seale, Radio Times, 20th December 2012
Oh yes it is! It's a rave review of the pantomime dame, presented, somewhat bizarrely, by former BBC1 controller Michael Grade. Going back to the 18th century for the birth of this very British tradition, this compendium of men donning frocks features insights from veterans such as Richard Briers and Matthew Kelly.Metro, 20th December 2012
Panto, it has been rather unkindly said, is the only artform invented by the British. Well, Michael Grade gets so involved in this profile of a theatrical phenomenon that he looks like he'd be the first to shout 'oh, no it isn't!'. He looks tickled pink, in fact, to be rubbing shoulders with some of the great pantomime dames (Berwick Kahler has been filling stockings at York's Theatre Royal for 30 years) while his investigations reclaim panto from the nitpickers and the knockers (oo-er) and reinstall it as an artform with a storied past. One thing is clear: pulling off the sort of concentrated chaos and misrule that sustains the best pantomimes has long been a feat of considerable technical innovation and creative artistry. Equally and perhaps unexpectedly, panto has sustained its relevance into the twenty-first century with a broadening cultural palette. The pantomime's best days may not be,er, behind it...Gabriel Tate, Time Out, 20th December 2012
They are the "most gregarious, garrulous, gorgeous creatures in the history of British theatre", says Michael Grade of the pantomime dame as he takes a tour through the character's history on stage. "It all depends on the eyes and knees," says one observer, of someone who can be "motherly, vain, outrageous and anarchic". Grade looks back to the pantomime productions of the 19th century and to vintage performances by Terry Scott and Arthur Askey. In the company of Richard Briers and Berwick Kaler, the latter having played the part for 30 years at York's Theatre Royal, Grade discovers why the dame has proved so popular.Simon Horsford, The Telegraph, 19th December 2012
Done with presiding over TV output, Michael Grade is free to make the kind of programmes he likes, and pretty good they are too.
They're mostly about showbiz, but his love of its traditions shines through. This film is about "the most gregarious, garrulous, glorious creature in all theatre" - the dame.
Grade remembers his very first panto - "sat on a bucket in the wings of the Finsbury Empire watching my Auntie Cathy play the principal boy". He tells us about 18th century impresario John Rich who discovered that harlequin shows were ten times more lucrative than Shakespeare. And he travels to York to meet Berwick Kaler, the "first lady of modern panto", who himself started out in thrall to the Bard but has now been dressing up in women's clothes for 30 years. Oh no he hasn't. Oh yes he has.The Scotsman, 16th December 2012