THE chat with Elaine C Smith has been set up to talk about her return to pantomime in Glasgow after 13 years. But it doesn't take long for my conversation with the star of Sleeping Beauty at the King's Theatre in Glasgow to yield revelations that are very far removed from fairy tales.

Smith’s unbridled joy in returning to her hometown after a long stint in Aberdeen turns to current themes of sexism and misogyny. But doesn’t this bright world of cross-dressing, of tales of princes and princesses, represent more of an egalitarian platform than straight theatre?

“Not really,” says Smith with a wry smile. “I think women have to work twice as hard to get there in panto. For example, if you put a man in a dress that’s funny. A woman, so what?”

Smith has a point; women don’t tend to dress up as men in panto, the exception being Principal Boy, a female in thigh-length boots. What about encouragement? We know the world of variety theatre often denied women the chance to get laughs, the argument from men being that they aren’t funny.

“I’ve been told that in the past,” says Smith, who is 59. “In fact, Rikki Fulton once declared that to be the case. But to be fair to Rikki, he later came to see me in panto and then wrote me a beautiful letter, which I still have. He said the panto was the best thing he had ever seen. And Jimmy Logan called me up and said similar.”

But there were surely many others who didn’t – and perhaps still don’t – think women can front panto, I suggest. Smith’s voice drops to a more serious note. “Look, I’ve seen women in panto who are rubbish. But I’ve also seen men who are rubbish. It’s about using people who are good. Yet, here’s the real injustice. So many men are allowed to go on stage for a 15-year stretch to give them a chance to find their comic persona – whereas a woman has to arrive the finished article. The female has to arrive and be Sarah Millican.”

Smith gives examples of Scottish women not being given the chance to lead panto from the front. It made no sense, she says, that Dorothy Paul, once Scotland’s comedy queen, was never lassoed by the major theatres and turned into a panto star. “It wasn’t to do with Dorothy’s talent. But at the time women weren’t allowed to play the really big parts. And Una McLean also should have been a headliner.”

Smith and Barbara Rafferty broke the mould when the pair appeared as Uglies in the King’s Theatre in Glasgow’s production of Cinderella in 1996. Was there a widespread belief until then that women shouldn’t play the grotesques, that they should stick to the prettier parts?

“Yes, definitely,” she says, laughing. “And there have been times during panto season when I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and wondered why my husband is still married to me.”

Her tone becomes less jocular. “The thing is, women can create problems for themselves because at times we have a problem with our vanity. I know of women who have gone on a diet for months before they appear in panto, who are so concerned about revealing a fabulous figure.

“Women have been brought up and conditioned to look pretty but you can’t look gorgeous and be funny. Pamela Stephenson, for example, was too attractive to be really funny whereas the likes of Phylis Diller, Victoria Wood, Dawn French and Catherine Tate have all been prepared to look terrible.

“When I appeared in Aladdin I had the producers put me in a fat suit. And if you see me in the next episode of [the BBC sitcom] Two Doors Down I was asked to look like a ‘puppy breeder’ – and that’s a perfect description.

“What I would say to young actresses is it’s all very well being pretty when you’re young but longevity comes with being prepared not to look pretty. I had to learn when I joined Naked Video I had to dress down, which of course led to Mary Nesbitt.

“The key point about panto comedy roles for women is you have to be able to make an arse of yourself. In this panto I’m going to be Wonder Woman at some point. And it won’t be a pretty sight. But will it be funny? Oh yes it will. I’ll be up there saying: ‘I’m Wonder Woman, Queen of the Amazon!’ and the tag line will be: ‘Amazon? Is that where you got that costume?’”

If women have to accept more of a comedic responsibility in panto, Smith says they should also be given the chance to play wider roles. The roles women are “allowed” to play are usually restricted to the evil witch, the virgin or the good fairy. But Smith admits playing an Ugly these days wouldn’t work.

“The climate has changed too much. I think men can take the brutalist approach but the misogynistic lines don’t sit right when coming out of an actual woman’s mouth.”

At least the debate is now open about women’s contribution to panto and to acting in general. But the battle to eradicate sexism, she says, has been horrific. “Well, things have changed in the 30 years I’ve been on television when [at the beginning] it was 'OK' for men to comment on your tits. Over 30 per cent of the crew working on Two Doors Down are women.

“And I’ve been lucky along the way in that I’ve had power since I was 29. I’m also seen as being cheeky and garrulous. But what people in positions of power, the [Kevin] Spaceys or the [Harvey] Weinsteins, do is pick on young, vulnerable women and men.”

Smith rewinds to the days before personal power arrived. “Before I became well known I could give you, like most young women, about 40 incidents of abuse. You see, there I was in my twenties with big tits and Farrah Fawcett flicks and seen to be fair game.

“I remember going to have my photos taken once by someone who was doing lots of theatre shots, and I went to his studio, which was in his house.

“I was asked to bring different outfits to change into, and went into another room. But while I was changing I turned around and suddenly there he was, asking ‘Can I touch your tits?’ I was in this place on my own. His wife wasn’t there. I was terrified. He begged: ‘Just let me, I won’t tell anyone.’ Christ, I panicked. But somehow, I managed to get him out of the room saying something like ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

"But then I carried on with the photoshoot. What else could I do?”

It would be easy to say boot him in the tripods and run for the door.

“But what if you’re 23 and keen to please and not looking to create upset? And in the days before mobile phones.”

Yet, there was payback. A few months later, Smith found herself working with Wildcat Theatre Company. The same photographer turned up to take pictures.

“I was shaking,” she recalls of the realisation. “And what made it worse was this photographer was so blase: ‘Hi, Elaine!’ Suddenly I was blazing mad and Wildcat boss David MacLennan picked up on this and took me aside. He asked what was up and I told him, and he was absolutely furious. Dave marched over to the photographer and told him to f*** off. As far as I know, this guy never took theatre pics again.”

Two years later the actor Juliette Cadzow, who plays the Wicked Queen alongside Smith, revealed the same photographer had propositioned her in exactly the same way. Smith however never figured for an instant to report the incident to police. “They’d have said: ‘Can we have a wee feel as well.’” And she isn’t delivering the line for comic effect. Smith's faith in the justice system was severely dented in her early twenties.

“When I was 22 I was out with my pal one Saturday night in Edinburgh’s Princes Street, wondering where we were going and dressed up for a night out.

“Right then, a guy ran past and put his hand up my dress, which had a split, ripped the dress off me and ran away. His pal, running behind, then shoved his hands between my legs. I was humiliated and degraded.

“The positive to the story however was a group of punks on a passing bus saw this happen, jumped off and gave me their Sid Vicious badges to help me hold the dress together.”

Smith then took to the nearest police station to report the attack. “The desk sergeant took down the details then said: ‘Don’t you worry, hen. When we catch him we’ll let you pull his trousers off.’ I said: ‘I don’t think that’s what it should be about, do you?’ It was only later when he found out I was a teacher at the time detectives came to the school to take full details.”

It wasn’t the last attack Smith was to suffer. “I was working one year in Kirkcaldy with Scottish Youth Theatre summer school, as a sort of warden, looking after the kids.

“One day I was in the dressing room, brushing my hair in the mirror, and a guy came out of nowhere – I hadn’t noticed the window was up – and grabbed me by the throat. It was like a scene from a Hitchcock movie and I didn’t know what to do as he tried to drag me to the floor. Somehow, I got free from him, I punched him and pushed him off and ran out down a corridor, screaming all the time. The kitchen staff came out and called the police.”

But again, the response was far from what she’d hoped for. “The police said: ‘Was it your boyfriend who did it? Have you had some sort of fall-out?’ Again, it was only when they found out I was a teacher they reacted differently.”

Smith acknowledges how difficult it has been for some female actors to report sexual harassment crimes. But she believes that “sometimes women are their own worst enemy”.

“Is there such a desire to get a job, and so few roles for women, that they take on dodgy roles?” Smith cites by way of example the recent BBC drama Gunpowder as “torture porn”.

“Even [BBC crime drama] Shetland has a rape in it that isn’t in any of the books," she says.

“But as a proud feminist that doesn’t make me turn a blind eye to some things women do. There are women you and I know who have made careers out of marrying very carefully the men who will look after them. And I know of situations that have taken place in Hollywood whereby top actors ask to have the extras brought to their trailer.

“Yet here’s the thing. Do you blame the women for going along? Who knows? I thought the days of having Charlie Drake grab your tits or lifting your skirt for the likes of Reg Varney to see had gone. But there is still real pressure on women.”

Smith highlights the dilemma by recalling an old Rab C Nesbitt episode. Mary Doll, desperate for cash, becomes a cleaner, but finds herself being sexually harassed by the boss.

“That’s the women I worry about,” she says. “Woman having to contend with some smelly wee guy who happens to be the chief cleaner. And yet they desperately need the job.”

What’s the answer? Smith says it’s not about reporting incidents of someone putting their hand on your arm. “The theatre is a very tactile place anyway. But if someone at a dinner tries to put his hand up your skirt? That’s different. However, actresses have long been wondering: ‘Is this how it works?’ yet I feel young people these days are more aware of inappropriate behaviour.”

And they should report it. “The men usually carry out these acts because it’s about power. The answer is to put more power in the hands of women.”

And offer women all kinds of roles, ones in which they keep their clothes on, roles they can find laughs in. But women should play their part, Smith believes, and be prepared to be less attractive.

“If you ask me would I rather have been the lovely, pretty, nice girl that everybody liked when I was young? Oh yes. But here’s the thing. In my very first panto I played Cinderella, aged 23, in Motherwell. And at first I loved the idea of it.

“Then they gave me an Empire line [dress] – all wrong in a busty woman – and a big, dark wig. I looked like Elsie Tanner. And the prince was a woman with a higher voice than me. It was awful.”

Now she’s playing the fun roles, sending herself up, getting big laughs. “I’m prepared to do what I have to do,” she says, and you know she will do it.

Sleeping Beauty, the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until January 7, 2018