STOCKPORT, ENGLAND -- The female lead is always played by a man, with campy clothes and hairy legs; the male romantic hero is played by a woman. The jokes are corny, the songs loud, and the players and audience carry on a rude dialogue throughout much of the performance.

Welcome to the world of pantomime, a raucous and ritualized form of theater with tangled roots in Italy's legendary commedia dell'arte, the Victorian music hall, and the eternal British love of broadly played farce.

Far from Stratford-on-Avon or London's West End, "panto" is Britain's real native theater. Usually staged only in December and January, beginning with the Christmas season, panto productions currently are underway from the Scottish Highlands to the English Channel. So popular are the shows that major musical comedy performers and sometimes even rock stars vie for leading roles.

This year, even the Royal Shakespeare Company is doing what could be loosely described as panto, though it has strayed from tradition in its choice of production with "The Wizard of Oz."

According to real connoisseurs of the genre, there are only half a dozen or so true panto plays. They include "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Aladdin," "Cinderella," "Puss in Boots," "Babes in the Woods" and "Dick Whittington." Producers take great liberty with even these classic tales, creating new characters, inserting popular songs and frequently interrupting the action for a set-piece gag or series of jokes.

Youngsters, encouraged to yell at the players and sometimes pelted with sweets thrown from the stage, make up a major portion of the audience, especially at matinees, and by some estimates one out of every three British children sees panto each season. But adults pack the theaters for evening performances, when the jokes and songs are raunchier.

In many regional houses outside London, an eight-week panto run can bring in enough profit to subsidize other live productions the rest of the year. Although London-based theater chains and big production companies, which know a sure thing when they see it, have moved into panto in a big way, purists mantain that the genuine article today is found only in the industrial heartland of northern England. A region of cavernous family-owned theaters and "working men's clubs," the north churns out a steady flow of stand-up comics and song-and-dance men who satisfy an apparently voracious local appetite for vaudeville-like humor and "traditional" entertainment.

In Stockport, just south of Manchester, highlights at the 1,700-seat Davenport Theatre over the next several months include Roy (Chubby) Brown, a baggy-pants comedian with a beanie; slick blond songster Freddie Starr; and the Red Army Ensemble, "direct from the U.S.S.R."

"We have a lot of mostly one-nighters," said Davenport owner Jack Edge, 61. "We have all the big American attractions, the Jack Joneses, the Andy Williamses. Freddie Starr is a big attraction. But the panto is our biggest all year; it's the one everybody concentrates on."

Weekly production costs run from $25,000 to $35,000. But in a good week, with 10 performances and every seat filled, the Davenport can take in as much as $175,000 in panto ticket sales. It's had some very good weeks this year, Edge said.

The Davenport, like most of the big theaters of the north, rarely strays beyond the six classic panto stories. Last year it was "Cinderella," this year "Puss in Boots." "The important thing is to book the artist, the star," said Edge. "The production, whatever it is, is secondary. You get the artist, then he or she says I'd like to do X, Y or Z, and then you put it on. Unless it's what you had last year."

This year, Edge managed to book one of the biggest panto stars, Liverpool comedian Ken Dodd. "He's the best in the country," Edge said. "If there were such a thing as a court jester today, he would be it. Every performance has been full."

Buck-toothed and goggle-eyed, with a rapid-fire delivery and a penchant for double-entendre, Dodd started in the entertainment business as a ventriloquist, but has spent most winters of his career doing panto, beginning with "Aladdin" 30 years ago. On stage at the Davenport, he is a joke-a-minute madman.

"Pantomime draws on all the different branches of show business and the theater in one show," Dodd said. "In any decent panto, you'll have people who earn their living acting the rest of the year in plays. Straight, legitimate actors. You might find an occasional opera singer, you get people from Gilbert and Sullivan. You get musical comedy people ... people trained in ballet, modern dancers who do television work."

Dodd makes no apologies for the fact that panto uses the same stories and gags year after year. Fans maintain that the element of ritual, binding together generations of Britons, is one of the principal panto attractions.

Although aficionados disagree over the details, it is generally assumed that today's British pantomime originated with the short, humorous entertainments of the early 19th century, called harlequinades and starring a buffoonish clown, that often followed set theater pieces. It was only in the Victorian period, with its notions of family values, that panto came to be associated with the Christmas holidays and began to center on the handful of traditional stories still around today.

But additional components of panto also are said to be drawn from the Roman Saturnalias, in which slaves and their masters joined for raucous feasts that frequently involved the interchange of clothing among the sexes and classes; the medieval mystery plays; and the Italian commedia.

Whatever its origins, panto has never seemed to travel very well abroad. Most continental Europeans consider it silly and attempts to send touring companies to the United States have generally met with failure.

At the same time, not everybody in Britain is pleased with the yearly panto productions. Critics inevitably complain that the jokes and routines often are sexist and ageist. Some protest that they damage youngsters by confusing sex roles, others that a usual smattering of gay jokes are antihomosexual.

Nevertheless, a recent Saturday afternoon at the Davenport found the house filled with hundreds of children whose parents had signed up for the performance weeks ago at their factory work places -- MacPherson's Polymers, Blue Circle Cement, Kellogg's Cereals. The show began with a clash of cymbals and a puff of smoke that cleared to reveal an extensively camped-up, green-garbed witch with five-inch metal fingernails. An audible chill of horror swept through the audience.

Perhaps by instinct, or the advice of an older sibling, British children seem to know from their first panto what their own lines are. "Ah, my little stubs of pig bristles ..." menaces the witch. "OOOOOOOOOOhhh," respond the kids and their parents, loudly.

The story -- a basic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy slays dragon and various other ogres and gets girl in the end -- is relatively loose and easy to lose track of. There is a puss who gets some boots, a queen looking for a husband, a beautiful princess and two brothers, one of whom is Dodd.

Far more important than the story line are the stock components that make a panto a panto. The female lead, called the "dame," must be a man in drag. The romantic male inge'nue, called the "principal boy," must be a woman. There must be singing, dancing, jokes that range from the contemporary political to the ancient cornball and set-piece gags that often have nothing at all to do with the action of the story -- reusable classics like the old money-changing routine, the schoolroom scene or variations on the pie-in-the-face gag. There must be a "song sheet," a huge slab of paper carried on stage with the words of a song the star leads the audience in singing, the louder the better.

A scene with a ghost is obligatory, usually taking place when the principal players are lost in a woods or otherwise preoccupied. As they worry among themselves on stage, a ghost stalks them from behind, visible only to the audience. This is the cue for the audience to yell a warning -- "GHOST BEHIND YOU" -- to which the distracted players, glancing around for the suddenly hidden ghost, respond "Oh no there isn't."

All over Britain, from Glasgow to Gloucestershire, audiences recognize their cue to yell "OH YES THERE IS!"

The "oh no, oh yes" exchange appears at several other points during a panto performance, with adults often screaming louder than their kids.

Panto veteran Cilla Black, a leading pop singer in the 1960s and 1970s and now a television star here, tells a story that illustrates the pitfalls of audience participation theater. Playing the principal boy, she was wrestling with a bad guy on stage and finally pinned him to the ground. "How should I kill him?" she asked the audience. Right on cue, they yelled, "Sing to him, Cilla."

There are several theories about why Britons, normally subdued and proper in public, are addicted to this particular form of lunatic behavior. One is that it provides an acceptable opportunity to scream at the top of their lungs and go "over the top," as they would say. Another is that panto, with its unchanging rituals, is the ultimate public conformity.