Spotlight On… Berwick Kaler

by Imogen Smith
Published: Last Updated on

Pantomime legend Berwick Kaler is bowing out after 40 wonderful years as York Theatre Royal’s Dame. This year’s production The Grand Old Dame of York will be his last panto at the theatre.

Here’s what Berwick had to say about pantos in York…

Did you see a lot of pantos as a child?

I grew up in the slums of Sunderland and we couldn’t afford to go to see pantomimes when I was a child. My first experience of pantomimes was when I appeared in one as a performer.

When did you play your first Dame?

In 1977 at York Theatre Royal where I have been ever since, apart from a couple of years when I was appearing in the London West End. After playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at York Theatre Royal, I was asked to stay on and play one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella in 1977. That panto was terrible – the script was awful, and had been around for years. I started ad-libbing, which the audience loved, but afterwards, I was told off by the director. I started writing the pantomime a few years later.

What makes a good pantomime?

Team effort, a good dame, a great villain and great production standards. My panto hero and inspiration is Dan Leno He was the epitome of pantomime, he was everything a Dame should be.

What is behind the enduring appeal of pantomime?

The secret of a good panto is simple – it’s not just for adults, nor is it just for kids. The gag, the joke, the routine, has to work for everyone. The York pantomime is written and performed with the audience very much in mind. What has kept me in panto at York for 40 years is the most loyal audience in the country. What we now recognise as our panto has been written by me and the audience. Every line is written with them in mind. It’s just become a unique part of their life and my life.

What can you tell us about your 40th York pantomime The Grand Old Dame of York?

The Grand Old Dame of York is a culmination of every panto I have ever done at York in as much as it has no story, no plot and its absolute rubbish.

Have you ever missed a performance in 40 years?

No, I’ve never missed a performance although I did once go to hospital during the interval to get stitches after gashing my shin. But I came back for the second half. I’ve had a gashed shin, broken nose, nearly choked on shaving foam and a sprained ankle.

Tell us about your audience?

We get generations of the same families coming – children, mothers and fathers, grandparents. Over 40 years we have created what is a rather unique anarchic pantomime which was created by – okay, pat on the back – mainly me but the audience has come with me. Forty years after that first awful pantomime they are still with me.

Your costumes are always a real highlight – how many people does it take to create them? Do you have some favourites from past pantos? Why are you fond of Queen Victoria?

I just wear the costumes. I give the odd suggestion of a comic approach to them, otherwise it’s in the gifted hands of our wonderful designers. I wear a ‘mobile’ ginger wig, no make-up, tights (one leg red, one leg yellow) and workmen’s boots bought 40 years ago. I have two pairs of them, one with red laces and one with yellow laces, and no one is allowed to tie the laces. My favourite is Queen Victoria.

You’re known for not wearing make-up or trying to be ‘feminine’ onstage; can you explain why this is?

I don’t wear make-up as the Dame. I don’t believe in glamorous dames. I don’t think you can be a dame if you just put clown’s make-up on your face and use a high-pitched voice which takes the mickey out of women. Women do not talk like that. Yes, it’s a man in a frock but there is a mother character behind her. If you need make-up to be a dame, then don’t do it. Your face should say it all. For me, when I put that mobile wig on, that’s it I become the dame.

Is it true The Grand Old Dame of York will be your last pantomime?

I wasn’t thinking about retiring when I finished Jack and the Beanstalk last year. I really enjoyed it but a lot happens in a year when you’re my age and I’ve always known that you’ve got to give the management time to plan for the future, to decide what they’re going to do next. I’m 72 and would quite like to just potter around with my dogs. I’ve got a 20 volume set of Dickens novel to read and I like jigsaw puzzles.

Why do you throw out Wagon Wheels biscuits into the audience?

That came about because when I first arrived to do Cinderella, I asked what they used to thrown out to children in the audience. The management said nothing – they used to throw boiled sweets to the audience but the audience used to throw them back. I said why don’t you throw out something they’ll want to keep, that won’t hurt them – or, if they throw it back, won’t hurt us. So I went to a nearby shop and the first thing I saw was on the shelves were Wagon Wheels. I bought eight and threw them out into the audience that night. Flying Wagon Wheels were born. They were great flyers, were mentioned in reviews and caught on.

The Grand Old Dame of York is at York Theatre Royal from 13 December to 2 February 2019.
Box office 01904 623568.

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