The Big Interview: Berwick Kaler

Christmas Dame Berwick Kaler
Christmas Dame Berwick Kaler
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Berwick Kaler recently broke one of acting’s unwritten rules.

In a world of fragile egos where the next part brings the possibility of being catapulted into the A-list or promotion to national treasure status, no one ever retires. Appearances on stage and screen may become less frequent and cameos may replace lead roles, but for most stepping out of the limelight is simply not an option.

However, a few years ago, Kaler did just that. Aside from writing and starring as the Dame in York Theatre Royal’s annual pantomime, a role he has performed for the last 33 years, he announced he was going into semi-retirement. He’s now 65 and so far has stayed good to his word.

“In the last 10 years, the business has completely changed. In the early days, you would turn up to the set of a TV show and you’d know the director and most of the crew just from having done the rounds. I never got paid a fortune for something like Spender [in the early 1990s Kaler was a regular in the Jimmy Nail series], but I used to be able to live off the expenses.

“These days, the money is dreadful and when you take off the 12.5 per cent you have to give to your agent you’re not left with very much. I just thought, I don’t need to do it. I wasn’t enjoying it and at my age there’s no point doing things you don’t enjoy.

“I have friends who are much bigger names than me, but who envy my career because I never got trapped by the celebrity. I never bought the big mansion or the flash car, I’ve never had a lifestyle to maintain.”

There was a little more to it than that. Back in 2005, Kaler was cast as Henry Hobson in Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice. The part of the world-weary cobbler who only realises what he has when he’s almost lost it should have been perfect for Kaler, but the whole production left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“It was a very bad experience,” he admits now. “It wasn’t right from the start. I didn’t get on with the director and looking back I wish I had said something, but I didn’t. I kept going with it, but by the end of the run I promised myself that I would never put myself through something like that again. Now I only do the thing that gives me a real buzz and that’s the panto.”

When we meet, it’s week two of rehearsals of York Family Robinson. The cast still haven’t learnt their lines, Kaler is rewriting the script as he goes along, but it’s clear that among the company of fellow panto regulars – sidekick Martin Barrass, principal boy Suzy Cooper and arch villain David Leonard – is where he is happiest.

“Until this year, we used to lock ourselves away in a little rehearsal room on the other side of the city and for those few weeks we became like a little family,” he says. “This year we’ve had to move into the theatre’s own rehearsal space, it’s much more open and with far too many distractions for my liking, but I hope it will all work out just fine.”

Evidence from the last three decades suggest he needn’t worry. Kaler first arrived in York in 1977 to play Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a production of Twelfth Night and the theatre asked him to be an Ugly Sister in that year’s panto.

“I can honestly say that it was atrocious, the scripts were dire and the costumes were even worse. I started ad-libbing because the lines were so bad, at one point I remember turning round to the audience and saying, ‘I’m sorry this is rubbish’.”

Agreeing to stay on, but only if he could write the following year’s production, Kaler’s love affair with the panto began and, much like the rest of his career, it was by happy accident rather than design.

Growing up in Sunderland, Kaler’s father died when he was two and when his mother passed away nine years later he went to live with his eldest brother. At 15, he left school and found work as an apprentice painter and decorator. Nine months later, he had moved to London unsure what he wanted to do, but certain he was destined to be more than an odd job man.

“Who can say what would have happened if things had been different, but I’m pretty sure if my mother had lived I probably wouldn’t have moved away. I didn’t know anything, but I was full of confidence. One day I happened to be painting the door of the actor Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top, The Manchurian Candidate) when one of his friends, who was a producer, came to visit. I’d always sing and tell jokes while I worked and I turned to him and said, ‘You know what? I wouldn’t mind being an actor’. He told me to just buy a copy of The Stage and turn up to an audition.

“Looking back, they were clearly trying to shut me up, but at that moment thought, ‘Ok, that’s what I will do’.”

At the time received pronunciation ruled and Kaler with his strong North East accent wasn’t quite an overnight success. However, despite bypassing drama school, he was canny enough to persuade a few casting directors to give him a go and following a long spell in music hall, where he learned the importance of comic timing, by the 1970s the money had started to come in.

“I knew there was no one who sounded like me on television so I would turn up to auditions as a cockney and when they asked where I was from I would tell them West Kensington. Well, if you are going to lie, you might as well lie big.

“Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in training, but while you can teach someone how to project their voice and how to have a greater presence on stage, I don’t believe you can teach anyone how to act. They’ve either got it or they haven’t and sometimes drama schools can destroy people, especially in the 1960s when a string of people went in perfectly normal and came out with a plum in their mouth.”

While Kaler’s accent has softened a little over the years, on stage as the Dame it’s like he never left Sunderland and the audience will always be his babbies and bairns. The easy familiarity is partly what brings audiences back each year – some have seen every one of Kaler’s performances.

“We don’t have soap stars and we don’t have X-Factor runner-ups, all the money goes on the sets and the costumes. We are lucky really, the truth is that we are just a bunch of nobodies, but fortunately the audience seems to like us. They are very loyal, but you can’t forget that there will be a large number of people who are coming here for the first time and they musn’t feel excluded. I do worry about that, but every year it always seems to fit into place. We don’t aspire to be a West End production. We’ve all got talents and we’ve all got weaknesses, but the beauty of having the same cast each year means that I can write specifically for them.”

As well as Barrass, Cooper and Leonard, the panto also stars regular AJ Powell, but on stage time served counts for little and no one gets special treatment.

“The team here works wonderfully well, and despite our combined age we still behave like children, but when you have a cast who come together each year you do have to work hard to keep it fresh. If I think anyone is in danger of settling into a long run, I’ll throw in a line that’s not in the script just to keep them on their toes. People think it’s easy to write a panto, they think it’s just a question of stringing together a few lame jokes and using words of no more than one syllable. I’m not saying it’s Shakespeare, but it is a lot more subtle than that. The real trick is producing a script which sounds like it has just been made up on the spot. There is a hierarchy, you can’t give everyone the freedom to do what they want and ad lib whenever they like because it just doesn’t work.

“With David, I will give him the most wordy speeches and sprinkle them with obscure words, some of which will be explained and some of which won’t. I’m not saying panto has to be educational, but it doesn’t have to play to the lowest common denominator.”

Running to the first week of February – York Theatre Royal has one of the longest panto runs in the country – and with more than 70 performances, it’s a gruelling schedule, even for someone who is semi-retired. As he grabs a slice of quiche, a can of full-fat Cocoa Cola and a couple of cigarettes on a quick lunch break between rehearsals, the reality of what lies ahead is just beginning to dawn for Kaler.

“I know, I know I really should do more to keep in shape. I haven’t done anything physical since I painted my front door in April. Every year about October I tell myself I should sort out membership of a gym, but I don’t and then before I know it we are back in rehearsals. But I don’t do too badly, the knees creak a little, but I get by. Plus, I really do have a ball.

“Actors never think too far ahead, but if pushed they will always say that in 12 months’ time they will be off doing something completely different. That’s not how it worked out for me, but you know what? I couldn’t be happier.”

York Family Robinson, York Theatre Royal, to February 4. 01904 623568,