Berwick Kaler: Grand old dame of York

Berwick Kaler's pantos draw tens of thousands from all over the world, and tickets are snapped up from April. Rhoda Koenig meets a cult figure who has been donning the dress for 25 years

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 January

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas