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

Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
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.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?