Life’s no drag for panto king Berwick Kaler

Berwick Kaler is a panto legend in York
Berwick Kaler is a panto legend in York
  • He’s best known as York Theatre Royal’s veteran panto dame, so what does Berwick Kaler do during the summer months? Julian Cole finds out.
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SOMETIMES the middle name tells a hidden story. Raymond Berwick Kaler was born in Sunderland in 1946, the youngest of seven. The boy who would grow up to be the highly regarded pantomime dame at York Theatre Royal did not have a gilded start in life.

“I was born to a different father to the rest of my brothers and sisters,” says Berwick. “There’s a touch of Catherine Cookson there and in those days that wasn’t great.”

Berwick Kaler is a panto legend in York

Berwick Kaler is a panto legend in York

Berwick had always assumed that his father was William Kaler, who died when he was two. Then in his mid-twenties he looked at his birth certificate and under “father’s name” there was just a stroke of the pen. Berwick’s eldest brother, Fred, who looked after him from the age of 11 after their mother died, had to explain that Berwick had a different father. He had often wondered about the name, but no one would tell him anything.

“Then when I found out about my real father, he was a Geordie and he was called Berwick. Ironically, William Kaler, who I thought was my father, and my real father died within six months of each other.”

At the age of 15, Berwick went to London. Did he know that he wanted to act? “I had an inkling of wanting to be an actor, but I was so naïve. Naivety is a great thing. All I had at 15 was a likeable personality and it got me through everything.”

He had trained as a painter and decorator, so did that in London while looking for stage work. Berwick’s first acting job was at Dreamland in Margate, which coincidentally has just reopened as we speak.

“It was an old-time musical and I was expected to dance, sing and feed lines to the comedian. I’d never been in public in my life and I had no training. All I had was the confidence of naivety.”

He soon lost an accent that most people couldn’t understand and even began turning up at auditions pretending to be a Cockney.

Berwick also writes and co-directs the Theatre Royal pantomime, has had his name up in lights in the West End and happily describes himself as a jobbing actor.

He has lived at Acomb Green in York for 17 years. He shares his life with a partner and two Cavalier King Charles spaniels. The house was built in 1750 and was once called Danebury House, when it was the only one on the hill. In its time this tall house with fantastic views has been an asylum and was once bought by an owner of the Theatre Royal.

Berwick writes the pantomime in his study, where there are two computers. 
One of them isn’t connected to the internet. This is for the slightly eccentric reason that Berwick fears the internet might get its hands on his pantomime script somehow.

As we talk he is relaxed and wearing comfortable clothes, yet even without the eye-bruising costumes and the cartoon exuberance, he has an actor’s resonance. We sit in the lounge and the front door is open. The unseen traffic rolls up and down the hill and warm air from outside mixes with the smoke from Berwick’s cigarettes. A hot summer’s day might seem an odd time to be talking pantomime, but there are good reasons.

York Theatre Royal is closed for renovation and will not reopen in time for this year’s pantomime, which is instead being staged in a purpose-built, 1,000-seat theatre across the city at the National Railway Museum – the same space that is being used for the return of The Railway Children, in which Berwick has a cameo role playing the Old Gentleman. He had ulterior motives for the role: he wanted to see how the space would work for the pantomime.

“Yesterday I finished the pantomime synopsis,” Berwick says. “Normally they get the synopsis in April and it’s a bit of paper which nobody takes any notice of. They think. ‘Oh, he’ll change his mind on everything’.”

So has he had to alter his plans this year? Listening back to the recording, Berwick makes a few exclamatory noises at this point, huffing and exhaling.

“Oh! I don’t know how you can get this over to people, Julian, have you seen The Railway Children?”

He jumps up and draws a plan of the temporary theatre, with a railway line in the middle and ten rows of seats on either side.

“You try and do a pantomime where you cannot throw a bucket of water, when you cannot have any scenery. In pantomime you have that proscenium arch and you can come on and do this and do that.

“But I have really worked hard on the synopsis and there is a way of giving the audience a rollicking time.”

So while he is playing the old man, Berwick will be watching and thinking and writing. “That’s how much I love this pantomime. I could be looking after my roses for the summer and just writing.”

Instead he is appearing in The Railway Children in the name of undercover pantomime research.

Dick Whittington (and His Meerkat) opens on December 10. As pantomime stories goes, Berwick says: “It’s not one of my favourites and, believe you me, and you can put this down, if I’d known we were doing it in a bloody tent I wouldn’t have picked Dick Whittington which is all about going into foreign lands and a sea voyage.”

How many pantomimes has he appeared in now? “I think this is my 38th here, it would have been 40 but there was a two-year gap when I was in the West End. I’d say that we are going on to the 47th pantomime I’ve ever done.” That figure includes his earlier stints in various shows as the baddie, not the dame.

Berwick arrived in, he thinks, 1976 to play Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at the Theatre Royal. The director, Michael Winter, then also offered him a role in pantomime as the dame. At first he refused.

“But then I found this wig for about nine-and-six that was a ginger bun and I put that on my head, went to the wardrobe and put a frock on and I just noticed that people were laughing. I thought I’d give it a chance.

“You know I did everything wrong, I had a Geordie accent for the dame, I was throwing Wagon Wheels which were not made in York and it was definitely chocolate city then, and I introduced Newcastle Brown Ale.”

Berwick wouldn’t be back, he told himself. “I hated the script, the sets, the costumes and everything else. But I did come back the next year and started adlibbing and literally saying to this audience: ‘This is rubbish, isn’t it?’”

Declaring the pantomime to be the same old rubbish has become a Theatre Royal tradition. But don’t be fooled: Berwick does take everything very seriously – so much so he has at times had notable fallings-out and rows, even ejecting artistic directors from rehearsals. “I will not tolerate anyone walking on that stage and not giving it 100 per cent.”

So is he difficult to work with?

“I’ve had a terrible reputation.” Berwick says, laughing.

“I’ve heard things,” I say.

“Yes, everybody’s heard things, most of them are true. But it’s mainly been with the management. I can’t stand people who don’t know their job. My arguments and temperaments have been with people who did not understand the pantomime and what we have here in York. What you don’t want in charge of a theatre is someone who’s a snob about pantomime.

“I have never, ever been big-headed. Whatever the rumours are, I admit to 90 odd per cent of them – some of them have become myths – but it’s always been for the good of the pantomime.”

It is important to say at this point that Berwick was at pains to exclude present artistic director Damian Cruden from any such criticism.

As for the rest, Berwick loves the pantomime and will continue to be part of it for as long as his health holds good. “I’m amazed that I’m sitting here, smoking and drinking as I do. But honestly I’m as fit as a fiddle. And this pantomime for me is ace. I’m more proud of it than any other work I’ve done.”

He has been offered other pantomimes in the past. “I’ve always refused for one reason: because I can’t take the audience with me. And I can’t. I’m not going to get this kind of reaction anywhere else.”

Berwick does have one final demand: he wants to be around to star in next year’s show back in the reopened York Theatre Royal.

“I’m not bloody going out in a tent, sorry. I’ve got to do another one. I am not going out under canvas.”

The Railway Children runs from July 31 to September 5 at The Signal Box Theatre @ National Railway Museum.