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
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game