Yorkshire panto stars reunited after heart surgery and near fatal crash

Martin Barrass (left) and Berwick Kaler outside York Theatre Royal where they have just begun rehearsals for this year's panto.
Martin Barrass (left) and Berwick Kaler outside York Theatre Royal where they have just begun rehearsals for this year's panto.
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One had major heart surgery four months ago. The other was given just a one per cent chance of survival following a motorbike crash in 2016 which left him in intensive care.

However, together pantomime stalwarts Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass are proof of that old theatre saying, ‘the show must go on’.

Martin Barrass as Mankee Twankey and Berwick Kaler as Widow Twankey in the 2013 panto Aladdin and the Twankeys. Picture: Robert Day.

Martin Barrass as Mankee Twankey and Berwick Kaler as Widow Twankey in the 2013 panto Aladdin and the Twankeys. Picture: Robert Day.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle that we are both here,” says Kaler, who not only writes the Christmas show at York Theatre Royal, but having donned a frock for the last 39 years is also the country’s longest serving panto dame. “When I heard about Martin’s crash I was in total shock, I didn’t even know the daft bugger had bought a motorbike. It happened in the September so pretty quickly we knew that he wasn’t going to be in last year’s panto.

“Of course it felt a little different without him, but to be honest by the time we got to opening night we were just thankful that he had pulled through.”

Barrass, who has played Kaler’s comedy sidekick for the last 31 years, did make a brief appearance on stage at the finale of one performance last December. However, even though his recovery from the crash, which happened as he was riding between York and Keswick, astounded medical staff at Leeds General Infirmary, he admits that it took him a full year to feel himself again.

“When I was about to be discharged they told me that I should be prepared to feel worse when I got home and I did,” says the 60 year old. “When you are in hospital, there are so many people asking how you are that artificially you perk up. Back home, suddenly you have nothing to do but think about your injuries.”

One thing which helped was focusing on this year’s panto and that first day back in rehearsals with not just Kaler, but his other long-serving co-stars, principal boy Suzy Cooper and arch villain David Leonard.

Together, the four have collectively spent more than 100 Christmases listening to the audience shout ‘he’s behind you’, but just as it seemed it would be back to business as usual, this summer Kaler was taken into York Hospital for a double heart bypass.

“I had a pacemaker fitted last year and I knew I would need surgery. The plan was to have the operation when the panto run ended in February, but it didn’t end up happening until July.

“Until a week or so ago only the first half of this year’s show is written. There have been a lot of sleepless nights there was no way I was going to pull out. I’d committed to it. The tickets went on sale in March and I couldn’t let the audience down.”

Rehearsals for Jack and the Beanstalk began this week and Barrass, who has promised his wife and two children that he won’t get on a motorbike again, knows that the seven week run will be gruelling.

“There is no let up, there can’t be because the audience know when you aren’t putting 100 per cent in. Whether it’s the opening night or a midweek matinee in February you have to be on the top of your game and anyone who isn’t soon knows about it. Berwick doesn’t let you relax, not for a minute.”

As for Kaler, next year will mark his 40th as dame and inevitably there has been talk it might be his last.

“Let’s see. I do want it to be a celebration of everything we have achieved here. And I do mean we. I might write the panto, but if you take one of the cast away it loses something.

“I am 71 though and as much as I love this place I will have to see how my health is.”

Knowing Kaler you suspect that he won’t be going anywhere soon.