Berwick Kaler is bringing down the curtain on his pantomime career after 40 long and successful years. Phil Penfold went to meet the veteran actor in York.
This will be Berwick Kaler’s last pantomime. As a performer, at least.
To those who don’t recognise his name (and there will be precious few that do, in Yorkshire at least), Kaler is the longest-serving pantomime dame ever – holding the record for appearing in a consecutive series of pantos in the same venue.
Now, after 40 years, he is finally hanging up his frocks and his familiar auburn wig.
The decision hasn’t been made lightly – far from it. He was on the verge of tears when we talked this week, but his health must come first. Only a year or so back, he was told by specialists that he really needed to take four months away from work, but he defied them, and was back on stage within weeks.
Just recently he had a pacemaker fitted, and proudly boasted of his new companion to audiences during the shows. It pulses away just under his skin, and he has nick-named it ‘Gerry’.
Kaler is retiring for what he calls a “complex set of reasons”. At the heart of them is he’s now 72 and he wanted to exit on a high note and, in doing so, observe that old showbiz maxim that “you should leave when they are wanting more”.
He pondered long and hard about his decision. “Every September, I start to look aghast at the upcoming season and now I’ve finally decided that, instead of the pressure, I want to do things at my own pace. Or perhaps that should be ‘my pacemaker’s pace’.
“I was in a quandary for months and I certainly don’t want sympathy, nor do I want an outcry. This is the very first time that I have ever thought of retiring, but there is no going back.”
One of his recent stage engagements was a long run at the hugely popular Regent’s Park Theatre, where he was visited after the show by Hollywood superstar Gary Oldman.
“He kindly took time to pop round and to see me for a chat,” says Berwick, very fondly. “Lovely chap, and he said that he had vivid memories of one of his very first stage jobs, playing the Cat in our version of Dick Whittington. That’s decades ago. I wanted to talk to him about all the blockbuster movies that he’s made, he just wanted to talk about the Cat, and about York.”
For Berwick, the popularity of pantomimes has never been a “mystery”. “It comes down to just a few essentials. Never cheat the audience and don’t play games. Everyone out there knows the story, you just have to make it more interesting – it’s pointless when everyone just does the same thing, over and over again.
“It has to have a twist. When I’m writing the scripts I just get the title and take it from there. You either buy into this panto thing – or you don’t.”
Kaler has been adopted by York and the county itself. He has been recognised with doctorates and lauded with the freedom of the City of York. He is a legend on this turf.
“My little lick of fame – such as it is – lies in this neck of the woods and I am deeply touched by it. Yes, I do get stopped as I walk around the city, and in Acomb, where I live. But it’s not ‘Oh, Mr Kaler, may I humbly beg an autograph of you?’ It’s ‘ey-up Berwick, nice day, how’s things – are the dogs OK?’ Nice things, ordinary commonplace things. Kind things.”
He chortles at a recent ‘celebrity’ moment, “The other day I was walking past the Minster School and there was a crocodile of those little lads, looking so smart and on their way to lessons.
“One of them spotted me and said in one of those lovely ‘quiet posh’ accents: ‘Oh, look, that’s Berwick Kaler, the famous dame’, and they were all very pleased with themselves... rather touching, really!”
When it comes to following rules, Berwick concedes he’s a bit of a rebel. “I was born to tear up the book that says what you can, and cannot, do. And that, I think, is why there is a such a following out there that ranges from granddads and grandmas, to sons and daughters and little kids, who come and see our show every years and I hope that will continue, I really do.
“The reason isn’t me. Never has been. It’s the teamwork that goes into our panto, and the fact that there is something for everyone.
“They come from all over the world, you know – I get letters of encouragement from the oddest places. They don’t come to be educated, they come to have a laugh and to be silly.”
There was only one time, in all those 40 years, he says proudly, when the Theatre Royal’s management employed an understudy just in case Kaler was taken ill.
“That was the year of the pacemaker”, he says, “and, you know what, the lad never went on once.”
Even when – another year – he was rushed to hospital with a serious gash sustained during one routine (it needed quite a lot of stitches) he still returned in time for the second act. “The interval was just a little longer than usual,” he jokes.
The secret of a good panto is simple. “It’s not just for adults”, he says, “nor is it just for kids. The gag, the joke, the routine, has to work for everyone”.
However, his long association with pantomimes at York’s Theatre Royal didn’t start too well. He first went on stage at there in a “terrible” production of Cinderella.
“Grim sets, awful costumes and a script that was simply appalling. So I thought ‘to heck with this’ and I started ad-libbing. The result was that I was called into the office of the Big Boss the day after, and given a right good telling-off, which finished with, I think, ‘any more nonsense, Kaler, and you’ll be out.’ Well, I look at it this way, I’m still here and I can’t remember his name.
“Oh, and that first show was scheduled to run for just a fortnight – and now, we have the longest run of any pantomime in Britain, all the way through to February. Does that tell you anything? I couldn’t give a fig about the respect of the various managements over the years, I hope that I’ve won the respect of the audiences, and, for me, that is what it is all about.”
Kaler has loved starring in all those pantomimes down the years and admits he’s not quite sure what he will do when February rolls around, and his last curtain call is taken. “I’ve got a 20-volume set of Dickens to plough through,” he says, “and I like doing jigsaw puzzles.”
Ever the joker, and with that naughty twinkle in his eye, he says that he has an epitaph ready for when that genuine final bow happens, “the one that is inevitable for us all”.
So what will be written on the stone that has ‘Berwick Kaler’ in top billing, carved into the marble? Another broad grin goes across that famous face. “It’ll say: ‘He finally found a plot’,” he says. “Now that’s rather clever, don’t you think?”
It is. But fans everywhere will be saying: “But not for another 40 years, Mr Panto!”
The Grand Old Dame of York, Theatre Royal, York, December 13 – February 02. For tickets call the box office on 01904 623568.
There is nothing like this dame...
Berwick Kaler started his pantomime career when he was 32 and over the decades has established himself as Yorkshire’s most famous dame.
He first put on a wig and frock for Cinderella, playing one of the Ugly Sisters, Philomena, in York Theatre Royal’s 1977 panto.
Apart from two years (1986 and 1987) when he was appearing in London’s West End, he has been York’s Dame ever since.
His TV credits include: Taggart, Dempsey and Makepeace, A Touch of Frost, Coronation Street and Heartbeat.
He’s also appeared in more than 30 films including Mahler, The Ridings and A Knight’s Tale.
Berwick is an Honorary Freeman of the City of York.