Nothing like this dame - but don’t call him a drag artist

Michael Grade and Berwick Kaler. Picture: Karl Abdre Photography
Michael Grade and Berwick Kaler. Picture: Karl Abdre Photography
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HE may be the UK’s longest-serving dame but he hates the word “drag”. Berwick Kaler, who has entertained countless audiences for more than three decades, says he is not keen on make-up either.

But it is a point he could not quite get over to former BBC and ITV chairman Michael Grade, while they were making a new documentary Michael Grade’s History of the Pantomime Dame, which is on the TV tonight.

He said: “I said to him you don’t need make-up - he was getting into one of my frocks - and what does he start doing he puts on make-up, he looks hideous. It’s not panto, it’s female impersonation.

“He is never going to get a laugh on stage by doing that.

“Your face has to fit and your personality, otherwise you will make people uncomfortable and you won’t get the laughs.

“I am not a comedian but I get the laughs. He should stick to running TV or whatever he does.”

Berwick Kaler knows just a bit about tickling funnybones - this panto season is his 34th in a frock at York Theatre Royal in Robin Hood and his Merry Mam! which he has written and co-directed.

Every Christmas he steps into the spotlight before a fanatical army of devotees, some who cross oceans to see him.

He has been honing a winning formula for panto ever since his first experience of an awful script - like the panto in which he had to use the immortal line: “Hello children - do you like my velocipede?”

He snorts: “I had to look it up - it was a bike.”

The first year Kaler donned a frock he did his own ad-libbing - persisting despite being told not to do it again - and other actors asked him for pre-improvised gags of his own. “The third year they said ‘Write it’ - I’d never written in my life,” he said.

More than three decades on, he is still delivering traditional panto with a modern twist.

This year has him flying, in a fat suit “in which he loses about 2lb a night” - and appearing as Jessica Ennis.

The humour transcends age, gender and background - even if the nuances don’t always: “There was an American one year who I got to stand up and I said did you understand anything - and he said, ‘Garsh not a word. I loved every minute of it’.”

Kaler - who is 66 - says he’s now in semi-retirement and won’t travel up and down the country for the odd TV part to earn a few bob.

The physical and mental challenges involved in writing - he is forever updating the script - co-directing and performing, come as a shock when the season comes round, but he feels really lucky “to have found this little niche”.

Walking on the stage to see his “family” - his “babbies and his bairns” - makes it all worthwhile. He said: “If you ring me in a fortnight I will say I am retiring - I can’t do it - but it’s just the joy of walking on there and seeing the family.”

He modestly says he has “no idea” why he was picked to appear in tonight’s documentary - which is at 9pm on BBC4 - along with another panto in Stratford, London, and says his worry is that people will start expecting too much: “We are a repertory theatre, we don’t have money to spend on huge things.”

But he is pleased it flies the flag for his adopted county: “I love Yorkshire I am not from here, but I love it and I love the people. I think people will be proud we have been selected.” At the end of the day, though, panto, simply can’t be taught: “You can only do it by facing an audience and doing it. A lot of people think we string a few jokes together from Christmas crackers, but that would never do for our audience.

“Some of the gags might be old but we give them a new twist. You’ll get ‘He’s behind you’ but you won’t get it every two minutes.

“It appeals to everybody and all age groups; they are all laughing at the same gag; no one is excluded. It is a family entertainment and the humour should be as if you are entertaining your family, you really shouldn’t swear, have any smut, or racially abuse anyone. There is nothing to upset an individual or an organisation - you come in those doors and you feel in safe hands. Yet we are rather anarchic - we walk the line in comedy but we don’t go over it.”