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
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
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
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone