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Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann as the two ugly sisters in the Royal Ballet School's 1965 production of 'Cinderella' at Covent Garden. (Pic: Victor Blackman/Getty Images)
Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann as the two ugly sisters in the Royal Ballet School's 1965 production of 'Cinderella' at Covent Garden. (Pic: Victor Blackman/Getty Images)
Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann as the two ugly sisters in the Royal Ballet School’s 1965 production of ‘Cinderella’ at Covent Garden. (Pic: Victor Blackman/Getty Images)

Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, has been faced with a puzzle this week. It seems that the movie of his most famous creation has been rated PG (for parental guidance) by the British Board of Film Categorization, for what they describe as “dangerous behaviour, mild threat, mild sex references (and) mild bad language.”

Which is a surprise, given that the Paddington books tend to feature a lot of accidental chaos (which would count as dangerous and threatening) but not a whole of of sex or swearing. In fact, there’s none, as Michael explained to the Mail: “I am amazed… I can’t imagine what the sex references are. It doesn’t enter into it with the books, certainly.”

Well, it seems that these “mild sex references” include a “comic sequence in which a man disguised as a woman is flirted with by another man.”

And this is a slightly odd thing to flag up as troublesome. If there is one thing British children are used to, it’s a flirtatious exchange between a man dressed as a woman and a man. In fact, this is a gag that has been running for hundreds of years.

The curious thing about the British and their predilection for dressing men as women and women as men for entertainment is that it’s so deeply embedded in the culture that we barely notice it as a quirk. It’s only when people from elsewhere start questioning pantomimes or androgynous pop stars or fancy-dress blokes with balloons up their T-shirts that we have a moment’s pause to think, “Hang on a second, we do this a LOT, don’t we?”

It could have started anywhere, but the most relevant precedent to today’s world of men in dresses is the theater of Elizabethan England, in which it was considered unthinkable that a woman would lower herself to being seen on stage pretending to be another woman in public. That’s a man’s job, especially as so many plays contained saucy humor. And so from the start (assuming this is indeed the start), part of the entertainment is watching a man that you know is a man pretending to be a woman, and being the subject of bawdy innuendos about various body parts.

Not that it’s always bawdy. Romeo and Juliet will have originally been played between two male leads, and that’s not a vulgar play at all. And then there are curious wooing scenes such as this, from Twelfth Night:

Twelfth Night is also one of those Shakespeare plays that further confounds the audience by bringing in a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, with the woman ending up pretending to be a man while still being played by a man dressed as a woman, and then love comes along to complicate matters still further.

Then there was a brief pause, as the Puritans banned all theatrical entertainments for being base and vulgar, which lasted until the reign of Charles II. After this was the era of the pantomime. In its original form, it was an all-round entertainment, a mixture of classical narrative, songs, dancing and clowning that featured a section called the harlequinade, which told the story of Harlequin and his lover Columbine, her father Pantaloon, and servants Clown (the troublemaker) and Pierrot (often heartbroken after being spurned by Columbine).

Hugely popular in their day, pantomimes slowly evolved, abandoning the harlequinade to the circus, while keeping the sense of magical reality and trickery. During the Victorian era they began to absorb the children’s folk stories of Europe—Cinderella, Snow White et cetera—and retell them using grotesque characters such as the pantomime dame. The dame is a beefy matriarch, (or in the case of Cinderella, two beefy sisters) with too much makeup, a lack of personal boundaries and, yes, a rude sense of humor.

And while the lead characters in the story of the show are always the pure-hearted principal boy (a woman dressed as a man, such as Prince Charming), and principal girl (a girl, such as Cinderella), the dames run the show, keeping it well serviced with ribald jokes and general silliness of the sort that would keep a Puritan up at night.

And this set a pattern for comedy that has been tough to avoid. In the music halls of the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of the most popular entertainers were female and male impersonators. Vesta Tilley was a hugely popular female performer who dressed as a man, and wore such dapper Savile Row suits when playing soldiers or sailors that she actually influenced male fashion. Hetty King had a similarly well-loved act, but played across the class spectrum too, appearing as toffs, cowboys and ditch-diggers with equal glee:

As TV started to drain talent out of the music halls and onto the screen at home, character comics such as Benny Hill and Dick Emery had several female identities to draw upon, with catchphrases to boot. Dick Emery’s most famous character is the swinging deb Mandy, who always reads a little too much into every encounter, before purring, “Oh you are awful, but I like you,” whacking her interrogator on the shoulder like a coquettish Hulk and tottering off:

Even arch comedic innovators like the Monty Python troupe were not above donning frocks from time to time, if it would get a laugh. Although they tended to leave the (for want of a more modern and less damning expression) dollybird stuff up to Carol Cleveland, for which we should all be grateful:

But cross-dressing is by no means a relic from the 1970s. Drag acts dominated light entertainment through the 1980s, and into the ’90s, whether it was Dame Edna Everage or Lily Savage. Lily, the creation of comedian Paul O’Grady, even ended up presenting prime time game shows like Blankety Blank.

Note: while all this was going on, there was the parallel development of gender-bending pop stars, inspired by a more liberal attitude towards gender identity coming out of feminism, gay rights, and the pioneering work of David Bowie. Stars such as Boy George and Annie Lennox were androgynous, sexy (despite what George may have claimed about preferring a cup of tea) and visually arresting, but they weren’t there to be funny, so they’re really part of a different tradition entirely.

More recently, Catherine Tate‘s very heterosexual character Derek proved another enormous success with the British public. His catchphrase “How very dare you” can still be heard whenever there’s a situation of mock outrage:

Which brings us up to date, with the single most popular TV comedy in Britain at present. It’s not The IT Crowd. It’s not Fresh Meat. It’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, a broad comedy with a lot of pantomime in it, starring Brendon O’Carroll as the titular Mrs. Brown. Now, the thing to note is that this is actually an Irish production, but it is made by the BBC and it is enormously popular in the U.K., although it is WAY too rude for children.

So to recap, British cross-dressing is about making women appear base and vulgar, just like men, and also about making men appear sophisticated and well-dressed, just like women.

Bears are another matter entirely.

See more: 
A History: Are Brits Better at Satire?
It’s Official: Stonehenge is Part of the Longest Settlement In British History
The Brit List: 10 Coolest Brits in History
Fraser’s Phrases: The Curious History Of ‘The Hokey Cokey’

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By Fraser McAlpine