The talk in York at the moment is not about Brexit, I’m A Celebrity or even Strictly, it is far more important than any of these. It is quite simply this, that after performing as Dame in 40 pantos at the City’s Theatre Royal, the much loved and revered Berwick Kaler has decided at the age of 72 to retire and for many like me, who year after year have enjoyed his wonderful annual slice of anarchic comic ‘rubbish‘, life is never going to be the same again. Outside of York, Berwick Kaler is relatively unknown although he has appeared in many acclaimed stage productions and TV programmes including Crocodile Shoes and Spender both with his good friend Jimmy Nail. In a distinguished stage career that has been firmly rooted at the Theatre Royal, Kaler has still found time to grace the stages of many West End theatres, memorably stealing the show in both Annie Get Your Gun with Suzi Quatro and as one of the two Gangster’s in the RSC’s multi award-winning revival of Kiss Me Kate.
It is however as the Dame of the annual York Theatre Royal panto that Kaler has made his mark, acknowledged by many in the business to be the ‘guvnor’ and the ‘Dame’s Dame’. There can surely be few professional actors who have received Honorary Doctorates and the Freedom of the City for donning a pair of workmen’s boots and an ill-fitting Old Mother Riley wig. These are Kaler’s just rewards from a grateful public who over four decades have revelled in his quirky, family-friendly humour and hilarious on-stage antics with long-standing co-stars Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and David Leonard. Over the years, his catchphrase, “Me babbies, me bairns,” has become embedded in York folklore and has been passed down from generation to generation of eager panto goers. The Wagon Wheels that Kaler throws into the audience at the climax of each year’s panto are so keenly fought for that for a few years they were banned by Health and Safety before a public campaign successfully saw them reinstated.
On the eve of his retirement, Kaler spoke to The Reviews Hub’s Richard Hall about preparing to play Dame for the very last time and also why the City and the people of York are so important to him.
Having appeared in 39 previous York Theatre Royal pantos what do you think, (apart from your good self of course), is the secret of their enduring success?
What makes a good pantomime is team effort, a good dame, a great villain and great production standards. The secret of a good pantomime 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 York audience very much in mind.
When you first set out to play Dame were you inspired by anyone who you had previously seen play the role?
I didn’t see any pantomimes as a child because we couldn’t afford it. My first experience of pantomime was actually being in one. My panto hero and inspiration is Dan Leno – the epitome of pantomime; he was everything a dame should be. Before York, I had played villains in commercial pantomimes. Then I was cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at York Theatre Royal and the director asked me to stay on and play an Ugly Sister in Cinderella in 1977. The panto was terrible – the script was awful and had been around for years. I started ad-libbing, which the audience loved although the director told me off afterwards. After a few years, I started writing the pantomime – Aladdin in 1981 was my first – and I thought, yes, it will be rubbish, but at least it will be our own rubbish.
You have built up a magical rapport with your babbies and bairns. What is it about performing in front of a York audience that brings you back year after year?
What has kept me in panto at York for 40 years is the loyal audience. 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.
As well as starring in the York pantos you also write and direct them. How do you manage to look after all the different elements and do they sometimes conflict?
I’m not a great director because I’m so inarticulate that I have to get up and do it for them. I love the writing and it’s becoming more and more difficult the older I get. But I think the writing and performing go together as my first loves. But you can’t get too precious about it. Before the York panto the only thing I wrote was the odd letter.
How involved are you in choosing the music and coming up with ideas for the sets and costumes?
The music is chosen in consultation with the musical director. Sometimes I write new lyrics for old songs. As for costumes, I just wear them. I give the odd suggestion of a comic approach to them; otherwise it’s in the gifted hands of our wonderful designers. My favourite costume is Queen Victoria. I met Princess Beatrice (a patron of York Theatre Royal) dressed as Queen Victoria. Apart from the costumes, I wear a ‘mobile’ ginger wig, no make-up, tights (one red leg, one yellow leg) and workmen’s boots I bought 40 years ago. No one is allowed to tie the laces (also one yellow and one red).
Have you ever missed a performance in 40 years?
No, although the interval for one performance was longer than usual as I had to go to hospital with a gashed shin which needed stitches. But I returned for the second half. Other injuries while playing dame have included broken nose, choking on shaving foam and sprained ankle but I’ve never missed a show.
Now that panto is big business, what do you think of celebrity casting and commercial panto in general?
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. Yes, it’s a man in 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 ginger wig on, she becomes the dame. I don’t stand there saying, ‘I’m a bloke in a frock, laugh’.
Having spent a large amount of your career working at the Theatre Royal what does it and the City of York mean to you?
York means everything to me. I live here and I work here. I wish I had been born here.
Why did you start throwing the much sought after Wagon Wheels into the audience?
That came about because when I first arrived to do Cinderella, I asked what they used to throw 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 was Wagon Wheels. I remembered them from when I was a bairn. 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.
Finally, as you celebrate your 40th panto and prepare to retire do you have a special message for all your babbies and bairns?
I’d like to say that The Grand Old Dame of York is a culmination of every pantomime I have ever done at York in as much as it has no story, no plot – and its absolute rubbish. It’s true this will be my last pantomime at the Theatre Royal. I’m 72 and would quite like to just potter around with my dogs.
The Grand Old Dame of York is at York Theatre Royal from 13 December to 2 February. Box office 01904 623568 and yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
Richard Hall | Image: Anthony Robling