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In the British pantomime 'Principal Boy' has always referred to the main male role e.g. Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, Peter Pan etc. It has traditionally been played by a female, especially one with fine athletic legs.

At an early date producers found that they needed to provide material for 'all the family', not only for the kids but mums and dads too. One way of attracting the dads in to the theatre, was to have a fine pair of female legs on show throughout the performance. Hence 'the Principal Boy'. (For those who do not know anything about Pantomime, jokes are also contrived so that the same jokes can be understood on different levels, typically double entendre for the adults, and slapstick for the kids.)

For some reason the role of Principal Boy is in decline (something to do with feminism, no doubt). So if Dick Whittington is now played by a male actor, what do we call him. Is he any longer a 'Principal Boy'?

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One way of attracting the dads in to the theatre, was to have a fine pair of female legs on show throughout the performance.

This was certainly a motivation, though so also was that adults are easier to work with both practically and legally, so between a male minor and a female adult there was that too.

For some reason the role of Principal Boy is in decline

It's declined and risen again though.

So if Dick Whittington is now played by a male actor, what do we call him.

The lead. But sometimes also, the principal boy.

Is he any longer a 'Principal Boy'?

Sometimes.

While the phrase refers to the female-in-male rôle, there is something of a type to such characters whoever plays them, and so they are often still called "the principal boy" as remaining in that heritage.

This is particularly so if either the actor is a bit camp, or he plays the rôle camply. It's interesting to note that the camp of a male principal boy is quite different to the camp of a Widow Twanky.

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  • Yes, I didn't mention the Grand Dames played by men, as I thought that would only complicate the question. I have seen no decline in their use over the last few seasons, since I have been pleasantly re-introduced to panto, now as a grandparent. At the Theatre Royal, Norwich the same chap, Richard Gauntlett, writes the script and plays the main Grand Dame each year, and a fine job he does too. But this year they are doing Peter Pan and I see he's playing Smee. Anyway, thanks for an uncommonly succinct answer. – WS2 Dec 16 '14 at 18:45
  • I have never heard the phrase "grand dame" for this role: always in my experience just "the dame". – Colin Fine Dec 16 '14 at 19:23
  • Oh no it didn't – Marv Mills Dec 16 '14 at 21:04

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