Pointing out the specials of the day, the restaurant manager tells Berwick Kaler: "Look behind you." It is not the last time this year that Kaler will hear this suggestion from a member of the public, though the next people to make it will be small and numerous and will scream a lot. Kaler, 58, is a grande dame of traditional panto, and this year is his 26th heading the bill at the Theatre Royal, York. His mood at the moment is, as Ben Travers said of PG Wodehouse when not writing, that of a magician on his day off - subdued and preoccupied. In Kaler's eyes, rehearsing a panto is perhaps the most depressing activity in showbusiness. "Without the audience the panto has no meaning. It doesn't exist," he says.
Even with the audience, however, the meaning of Kaler's type of panto is rather elusive. A reading of the script induces not only puzzlement but also severe disorientation. While I am not overly familiar with the form, I feel safe in saying that in no other version of Sleeping Beauty does the heroine encounter a bunch of talking mushrooms or Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Nor, I think, would Perrault recognise as his tale one in which part of the action takes place underwater. Kaler maintains that he is no writer - he began scripting the York pantos when the author of a traditional Victorian one stormed out after Kaler, finding the audience unresponsive, remarked: "Summat different this year, eh? It's usually just rubbish, but now we've got high-class rubbish!" Whatever he is, though, Kaler is clearly the goods.
It is part of the York tradition that tickets go on sale on 1 April; this year the first buyer turned up at 3am. Well before the opening they had sold 30,000 of the 50,000 seats, many to people from Texas, Australia and Canada, who, like many home-grown devotees, will arrive sans children. Mindful of his audience, Kaler gives out bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale. The children get treats too, but boiled sweet are out. "They throw them at the artists," he says.
For half the year, Kaler acts on other stages (he has played several Shakespearean comic parts) and in TV series or soaps. But the other half is devoted to the Theatre Royal, which supports the author-director-star of its pantos with an organisation that gets cracking several months ahead. On my visit, carpenters are sawing and nailing one of the 11 complicated sets while painters spray it with turquoise glitter. In one corner stands the familiar spinning-wheel, in another a less traditional version of the Post Office Tower in sugared-almond colours. Up in the costume department, a bevy of seamstresses are testing one of Kaler's more formal gowns, a pink satin bobble-trimmed number that comes apart in wedges, like a cake. He will also be dressed as, among others, Queen Victoria and Cher. In the corner is the yellow snakeskin and black coq-feather number for the villainess, who will admonish the ruder patrons with the line: "You are not allowed to bring boos into this theatre!" The walls are lined with (very large) boxes labelled "Aprons" and "Bloomers".
Kaler himself started behind the scenes. He was born in "the slums of Sunderland", one of several children brought up by their widowed mother on what today would be one child's pocket money. After leaving school at 15, he decided (he still doesn't know why) to seek his fortune on the London stage, an ambition he retained even after he found that most Londoners could not understand anything he said. One day, while painting a set, he asked Laurence Harvey if it was necessary to go to acting-school. Harvey told him just to buy a copy of The Stage and turn up at an audition.
This the young Kaler did, and was immediately taken on at Dreamland in Margate. From the last of the music-hall comedians, whom he was often assigned to feed, he learnt timing. Like hungry lions, they would collar him after the show and growl: "I didn't get a laugh there, son. And why didn't I get a laugh? Because you didn't feed me properly!"
Kaler, though, will not employ comedians in his pantos. "I'm not a comedian. I want actors who can connect with the audience, who have voices that reach to the back of the gods." Today, Kaler sounds like a London actor, but when he plays the dame, his accent goes home for the holidays. "As soon as I enter, they wait for me to say four words: 'Me babbies, me bairns'." The response to the line is immense - latecomers, he says, beg him to say it again if they have missed the great moment.
Kaler emphasises that the job of the panto artist is not simply to crack jokes but to empathise with the characters. When pleased with a performer, he stays loyal. The same actress has been playing his principal boy for 12 years, and the same actor his baddie for five more. A more recent addition to the company is a signer for the performances attended by deaf audiences. ("Me deaf babbies are here!" Kaler announces when these children are in the audience. "Give them a round of applause!")
"The panto," Kaler says, "has been said to be dying for years. Well, some of them deserve to die." These are the ones that flout tradition by casting a young man as principal boy, or by diminishing the role of the dame, sometimes writing her out altogether. Having cast clapped-out TV stars to draw the audiences, these pseudo-pantos "make no further effort. They just don't try. I dive into a tank of water every year. Who wants to do that?"
The dame, he continues, is the heart of the panto. Whether presiding over Mother Goose, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella or Babbies in the Wood, the dame, he says, is a real person, a washerwoman whose feet hurt. She must be portrayed with dignity and respect. If a false bosom is worn (he does not always use one), "it must be worn with respect". Nor does Kaler go in for "any of that Danny LaRue stuff" - his approach, he says, is more Catherine Cookson. He is firmly anti-mincing, as well as any other indication that the male dame might enjoy his feminine role too much. "You mustn't make the man in the audience uncomfortable."
He does not do gags that demean women ("a woman will never get a custard pie in the face in my panto"), he is against hitting, and he does not approve of lewd double entendres. "I want everyone to laugh at the same joke," he says.
'Sleeping Beauty', Theatre Royal, York (01904 623568) to 29 JanuaryReuse content