JOHNNY McKnight, panto star and writer-director legend in Glasgow’s Tron and Stirling’s MacRobert theatres, rewinds on how he came to be “bawling his eyes out” while standing in the Tron wings last year.

It’s a Christmas story on a Miracle on 42nd Street level, that not only reveals much about the Ayrshire-born panto dame and River City writer, but how times are rapidly changing. “We did a matinee show which we learned that morning would be filled with local weans from Primary One and Two, and a hundred folk from the Christian Group. Now, our hearts were in our mouths. (Because of the content; the panto ending featured a gay romance).

“But at the end of the show all the Primary kids - and the Christians - were up out of their seats shouting ‘Kiss him! Kiss him!’ As a result, me and Darren (Brownlie, his co-star) broke down and bawled.”

McKnight’s normally high octane, high octave voice softens; “I was taken aback by the emotion of it all. And at that moment I felt if I didn’t do another panto in life it wouldn’t matter. If made me appreciate panto can reach people in an incredible way. It made me appreciate the world has changed.”

He adds; “Nowadays, you can go to the school gates and you can have two dads and two mums waiting for the weans. But I wasn’t brought up in that sort of world.”

Johnny McKnight’s background is a film script in itself. Growing up in Stevenson his life never even hinted at a life in showbiz, even though he took the train each week to attend youth theatre in Glasgow. And he was more of an outsider than you’d find in a Milanda loaf. Football was something other boys enjoyed. Yet, he didn’t know he was gay, (“My brother is also gay”) in spite of his wearing Kylie sweatbands to school and having a deep love for Streisand.

What was more evident was an incredible work ethic, which saw him graft in amusement arcades from an early age.

But cleverness got in the way, taking the 18 year Johnny to Glasgow University to study Law. “But I’ve got a massive working class chip,” he says, grinning. “I went into Law thinking it was about fighting for the underdog. Not a chance. Law is about money, status and technicality rather than fairness. Those briefcases the other students carried told me I had to leave.”

Drama college was the answer. He found a world. He found his uncovered sexuality. And panto found him, in the form of director Tony Roper who cast McKnight as a Silly Billy in Dunfermline in 2004. “Tony was great. He said ‘Write your own lines. Write what you think is funny. Make it you.’ And he encouraged me to be anarchical. And I learned so much from him. I was like a wee sponge.”

He adds, grinning, with a cautionary note. “But then when I did other shows I couldn’t understand why people didn’t do stuff off the cuff. Later I came to realise you can’t have a show with six people doing that, all competing for the throne.”

McKnight went on to become a panto king, or queen, given his talent for playing outrageous dames, and write his own, hugely successful scripts, tighter than an Ugly Sister’s bustier and always cutting edge, boundary pushing.

He’s set to push against the boundaries again this year with his Tron panto, Cinderfella, in which men, are more out than McKnight is now himself. What’s that all about, Johnny? Isn’t panto, and theatre – and life? - best served with both males and females on the stage? “I know where you’re coming from, doll,” he says in understanding voice. “You’re a man. You want to see male representation. But did you know of the statistic that came out last week which revealed that panto is just 26 per cent female on stage? And there was the stooshi about the Goldilocks poster in which seven men appeared - but none of the two women. On top of that females generally only get to play the young, pretty part and then they’re dumped.” And sometimes Witches and sometimes Fairy Queens, (if a man hasn’t grabbed the wand)? “Yes, but there were two other good reasons for making the Tron panto all-female. The first is we’d never done it before, and the second is Darren (who usually plays Snow Queens and Witches) got offered the King’s Edinburgh. He was originally going to be our Cinderfella, which made us re-think the plan. So we decided to make a feature of the situation, rather than run away from it.”

McKnight cites the example of the fabulous Tron Theatre’s Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) production, with it’s all-female cast. “Plus, you can see a traditional panto elsewhere in Scotland. And let’s be honest, in Scotland we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to female talent.”

He’s not wrong. But what of the argument young men are being denied the Tron stage? “I could take that point if every other panto didn’t offer it. So let’s let women have a real shot. In Scotland, Elaine C. Smith is the only female who gets the respect she deserves.” He adds; “And the boys get their shot in straight theatre, with the likes of Blackwatch and Glengarry Glen Ross. And I’ve done three Cinderellas.”

What of the point that perhaps panto writers should also be women? “That’s a good point. It raises the question; who has the right to tell your story? And can a man direct a show about a woman? My thought is this business is all about being empathetic. And because I’m writing for women I had the likes of Stellar Quines (theatre group) read it, as hard core feminists.” He smiles; “And I got a load of lassies round my house to hear it.

“But consider this; I grew up in a house where my da’ was on the rigs and my maw and her two sisters were constantly talking. And from the age of 17 I worked in a coffee shop in Stevenson with 27 women, from 18-60. I used to go on holiday with them and I couldn’t have loved it more. As a result, for years I never wrote men.”

McKnight can write wonderfully for women in plays such as Bingo and Wendy Hoose because he is aware of the sensibility. Yet, he knows that modern times demand caution. “I’ve always been interested in what camp allows you to get away with. For example, there are certain things Graham Norton can say that Jonathan Ross wouldn’t get away with. And vice versa. But while I like to be subversive, I know the goalposts are changing every year.”

He smiles and adds in softer, but defiant voice; “There will come a time when I won’t get offered stuff. So I want to make a mark. To take a few risks and not get stuck in a rut.”

What’s fascinating to wonder is if society has changed enough in that the bigger panto stage is ready to be McKnighted. He has been tapped, he admits. And would he go to a King’s?

“I like control,” he offers, which comes as no surprise whatsoever. “I do love being able to write and cast panto. I want to be Barbra Streisand, not one of the backing singers. And Stirling and the Tron let me say what I want to say.”

But if he were offered total artistic license? He pauses for half a second and laughs; “I’d say get ‘Get me the flying car and the Kylie backing track - and we’re off.’”

Cinderfella, The Tron Theatre, November 27 – January 5