A MEETING with Elaine C. Smith is always a fun affair; we go back nearly 30 years, there’s an intimacy that allows for lots of laughs and some good old ding-dong conversations.

Today however, in a café that’s part of St Stephen’s Church rehearsal studios space (we meet ostensibly to talk about her King’s Theatre panto role as Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk) the offer of a coffee from the comedy star is so feeble you feel she’d be travelling to Brazil to pick the beans herself.

What’s going on? The answer comes swiftly. “I’m fed up having to defend you from female actors,” she says, trying hard (and failing) to sound confrontational. Why? What’s the problem? “They think you hate women.” Why? “That article you wrote last week, saying it’s wrong the Tron panto features only women.”

Well, I did write a column questioning the merit of removing men from panto. But hang on, I can defend myself from the offended, Elaine. I don’t need you to be my Good Fairy. She sidesteps my comment “Here’s the thing, do you think a panto can only be funny if the dame is a man in a dress?”

Hang on; did you see my follow-up interview with Tron panto writer Johnny McKnight, in which he explained how this year’s panto came to be a girl power celebration? “So what was your point to Johnny?” That I like men in panto, Elaine, as dames, as wicked queens, as idiots. But I enjoy women in those roles too. However, I want equal shares of work in society, which should be represented in panto. “But society isn’t fair, is it?” No, it’s not. But is there something wrong with a fifty-fifty ideal?

Smith slaps me harder than Dandini ever slapped his (her) thigh. “I don’t think you want fifty-fifty.” What? Ok, you tell me what I want, Elaine? “I think your ideal society goes back to the days when most men had the power. You think, like so many men, that women can’t be funny.”

What? That theory is as real as the cow you’re going to be playing against this week. It’s an accusation of misogyny. Why can’t I make a case for equality? “When did you ever make a case for equality when there were relatively few women in panto? Where are your articles from 20 years ago saying women only get to play virginal, fairies, or evil?”

I’m now getting the sort of treatment Cinders took from the Uglies. Smith adds that when she fought for the right to play an Ugly Sister I hadn’t been campaigning for it. My defence was I wrote extensively about her complaint. But here’s a thought Elaine; when it comes to campaigning, where were the voices of the other female panto stars? Where was Equity? I didn’t have a pocket full of magic beans to throw on the ground hoping for panto equality to suddenly sprout. Those were very different times . . .

She cuts in. “No one ever said there’s not enough funny men on stage. And the thing is there are lots of unfunny men on stage.” But I’ve always endorsed the argument women can be every bit as funny as men, using quotes from yourself, from Janey Godley, going all the way back to the days of Una McLean and Mary Lee. I’ve shouted out Dorothy Paul’s talent more than all her agents. I’ve written dozens of features about you, sang the praises of the likes of terrific women in panto such as Karen Dunbar, Jo Freer . . .

God, my throat is dry now. Mercifully, panto co-star Johnny Mac brings me a cup of tea. The bell goes, and we’re off again. “You forget we’ve had loads of men-only theatre productions over the years.” Agreed. But I’ve also said two of the best shows I’ve seen in the past decade have been all-female productions, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour and Pride and Prejudice (Sort of). “I didn’t like Our Ladies,” she pointed out. “The women were great but all I could hear was a man’s voice.”

So you don’t want men to write for panto? She answers indirectly. “We have to ask what about the lighting designer, the director, the stage manager, the sound supervisor, the props person, the producer? All men. So when I see an all-female production, I think ‘We’re just redressing the balance. Aren’t we due a wee shot of control. What’s really wrong with six women on a panto stage. Do you agree with that?”

I can understand it. “Other actors want to know why you even write about this gender issue in panto?”

At this point I’m thinking I’m hoping a genie will appear and grant me a wish, to be on a magic carpet out of here. But does even asking the question about male representation imply a disagreement with the right to try testosterone-free casting? She shrugs. However, I’m fearful of talented young men being ignored, marginalised. I’m afraid of a growing schism. I’m worried that meritocracy will be cut off like an Ugly Sister’s toe, under the banner of feminism. “Feminism for me is the right to be as sh*** on stage as men.” Smith’s on a roll. “And do you know when I first headlined the King’s panto the articles were all about the alleged money I was earning. I don’t ever remember anyone asking what Gerard Kelly was on, or Gregor Fisher.”

Fair point. But here’s a thought; tell me a female I could make a case for as a headliner at the King’s? “Yes, it is about stars,” she agrees, in softer voice. “But how do you become a star if there are no television programmes being made in Scotland that feature women? Susan Calman gets more exposure than anybody but she couldn’t headline panto. You need to launch the right type of performer, the likes of comedy act The Dolls. The problem is men of ordinary talent get all the chances. Women have to arrive fully formed.” That’s true. But that is not my fault. “You do support women,” she admits, “but only after they emerge.”

No. I back them when they’re still in chrysalis. Talent such as Karen Fishwick, Frankie McCann . . . but tell me this, where are the female theatre producers, the women running our top theatres? And you’re the biggest panto star in the land? Why don’t you, top banana, demand female representation right throughout your panto? “Look, all I want is for us to get a 50-50 share of the good roles.”

That’s exactly what I’ve argued for. And I concluded with the notion the Tron is right to adventure with an all-female cast, particularly since the two male stars are absent this year. But wait a minute; did you actually read the column? She has the good grace to laugh when she says “No. But you know I do love to wind you up.”

That’s clearly the case. But it’s made for a lively chat. And she’s underlined food for thought, about how panto is evolving, about gender swaps. Panto should be about confounding expectations. We have to question why imbalance comes about. We need women involved at every level.

Yet, I don’t say this. I say she should read the ‘fee-fi-fo-f******’ piece before you open your gob, next time. She laughs. “We can both agree that funny’s funny, whether it’s a man or a woman. And as a journalist I think you were right to ask the question. My beef is the status quo was never questioned before.”

The coat drapes around the shoulders. “I still love you,” says our panto queen, waving a cheery goodbye as she wafts out the door like the great dame she is.

Jack and the Beanstalk, the King’s Theatre Glasgow, November 30 – January