York’s panto legend Berwick Kaler: ‘Playing the dame is terrifying, you know you have to deliver’
Having delighted audiences at York Theatre Royal for four decades, the veteran dame is bowing out. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about getting into the business, overcoming illness and the importance of keeping pantomime fresh and topical
To the people of York, Berwick Kaler is not so much an actor as a seasonal institution. For the past 40 years, he has delighted audiences at the Theatre Royal with a succession of outlandish pantomime dames. But this year will be the last in the role.
When Kaler steps out on stage in The Grand Old Dame of York on December 13, a great cheer will go up, as it does every year, such is the affection for the unassuming yet exuberant Sunderland-born actor.
“It always terrifies me,” he says, unconvincingly, “because you know you have to deliver. For an ordinary working actor who isn’t known for anything in particular, that kind of reception makes you feel like you’re a big star who has just walked on to the stage of the London Palladium. It’s a great feeling.”
There will be extra emotion to it this year. A few weeks after we meet, he announces he is hanging up his wig after this season’s run. What has kept him going, he says has been his relationship with the audience and the feeling that he is performing “just for them”. He adds: “I never talk down to the audience and I won’t do any material that is likely to offend or upset anyone.”
As well as being the star turn, Kaler also writes and co-directs the York panto. He normally starts thinking about it in March, although he continues to tweak the script right up to the opening night – “otherwise there is danger what you wrote back in March will be out of date by the time you get to December”.
His co-director, York’s artistic director Damian Cruden, believes Kaler “stands equal with the panto greats like Dan Leno, Stanley Baxter and Jimmy Logan”.
Speaking of this year’s show, Cruden jokes: “Once again, we await any sign of a plot for our ensemble to get to grips with, but what we can be absolutely sure of is Berwick’s commitment to high production standards and giving our audience the best possible evening out.”
Indeed, Kaler generously attributes the enduring success of the York panto to the work of the resident creatives, notably set designer Mark Walters and lighting designer Richard Jones. “It’s all about the team. What they do on the modest budget is astonishing,” he says.
No less astonishing is the fact that 72-year-old Kaler is doing panto at all this year, having gone through a four-hour, double bypass heart operation a year ago. It took him six months to fully recover, at the end of which he went straight back into the 2017 panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, determined not to disappoint the devoted York audience.
He says: “I’ve never missed one panto performance in 30 years and although the heart operation was a shock to the system, I didn’t see any reason to give up my regular gig.” In retrospect, however, he decided that 2018 would be his swansong as the dame.
Kaler himself had no early experience of pantomime, or any other kind of theatre. “It was just my mother and me and we couldn’t afford to go to the theatre,” he recalls. “She died when I was 11 and I was taken in by my older brother Fred and his wife.”
They moved to London from Sunderland when Kaler was 15 and he became a painter and decorator. “I met the actor Laurence Harvey when I was painting some producer’s house and I asked him how you became an actor. He said: ‘Just go along to an audition and show them what you can do.’ So I did.”
His brother Fred bought him a copy of The Stage. Kaler took Harvey’s advice and went along to an audition. “I’d had no training, I didn’t know anyone in the business and I still had a thick Wearside accent. I was so naive. I never realised at the time that I was breaking all the rules. Don’t ask me how but I got the job, touring schools in a van for the Argyle Theatre Youth Company. I worked on my accent because nobody could understand me. Luckily, I was a good mimic. I used to say I was from West Kensington.”
Q&A: Berwick Kaler
What was your first non-theatre job?
Painting and decorating.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Argyle Theatre Youth Company, based in Birkenhead, doing a bit of everything.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To take negative criticism with a pinch of salt.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
Nobody is allowed to touch my dame boots.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. He recalls auditioning for a West End musical. “I got about three lines into my song, Pass Me By, and I heard a dismissive ‘Thank you’ from the stalls. Nobody had warned me about the routine humiliation and rejection of auditions. That was something I had to learn from bitter experience. I had nobody to mentor me, apart from my brother Fred.”
He landed the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a production of Twelfth Night at York Theatre Royal in 1976. “When it was over, Michael Winter, who was running York, asked me if I’d like to play one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella. I’d spent a lot of time playing villains in Delfont pantomimes but I’d never played a dame before. It had never crossed my mind. Anyway I picked up an old ginger wig in wardrobe, found a frumpy frock and put on a pair of black working men’s boots, and that was it.”
His first York pantomime was not a great success. “The script was crap and the costumes were terrible,” he remembers. “I went off script and told the audience what I thought of the show, which I shouldn’t have done. Michael called me into his office the next day and told me how unprofessional I’d been, so I assumed I would never be asked back.”
But a few years later, in 1981, Winter invited him to return to York and not only play the dame but also write the script.
Plots are for cemeteries. The main priority is to make it fun and relevant
Kaler says: “I was astonished. I’d never written anything besides a letter. I tried to avoid doing the same tired old jokes, and it’s true that I’m not big on plots. For me, plots are for cemeteries. The main priority is to make it fun and change things to make it relevant. The audience soon tells you what works. They’re as anarchic as I am. They spur me on. I guess they like my honesty.”
They also like his costumes – “surely the best in pantoland”, wrote the critic in the York Press last year – which never cease to surprise the audience, whether it’s a Walnut Whip, a greenhouse or the entire solar system embodied in cloth. He never wears make-up and he doesn’t put on a funny voice. “When I first came to York, I tried to do a Yorkshire accent, but the reviews said I sounded like a Geordie, so I didn’t bother trying that again.”
Clearly, Kaler is a great company man and he is justly proud of the fact that the York pantomime has become a mini-repertory company. “We’ve made little stars locally,” he says. “I’ve given kids who started in the chorus a chance to play bigger roles. By the same token, if the audience doesn’t warm to someone, they don’t get invited back.”
After his health scare, Kaler is in two minds as to whether or not to retire from acting altogether. “I’d quite like just to potter around with my dogs,” he says. “I’m getting a bit lazy…. I don’t need to travel miles down to London to do a bit part in a TV series. I’ve always said I’d crawl on to that Theatre Royal stage if I had to, whatever my state of health, but I don’t want to die on it.”
CV: Berwick Kaler
Born: 1946, Sunderland
• Kiss Me Kate, Royal Shakespeare Company (1987)
• The Pope and the Witch, West Yorkshire Playhouse and West End (1991)
• Privates on Parade, Leicester Haymarket (1996)
• A Very British Coup (1988)
• Spender (1991)
• The Worst Witch (1998-2000)
• The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (2001)
• Michael Grade’s History of the Pantomime Dame (2012)
• Moving On (2013)
The Grand Old Dame of York runs at York Theatre Royal from December 13 to February 2