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Interview: Pantomime Dame Berwick Kaler | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Pantomime Dame Berwick Kaler

Interview: Pantomime Dame Berwick Kaler

The longest-serving dame in the business is still going after 33 years in frocks

'I'm nothing but a man and that's where your comedy comes from': dame Berwick Kaler

To just about everyone, the name will mean absolutely nothing. "I'm a jobbing actor," he says, and for most of the year it is true. He does little bits of telly, the odd tiny film role, a certain amount of provincial theatre. Every Christmas, though, Berwick Kaler strides forward into the spotlight of the ravishing, intimate York Theatre Royal and bids welcome to a fanatical army of devotees.

The majority are local, but some cross continents, cross oceans, to see him transmogrify each year into the longest-serving pantomime dame in the business.

"I'm the only one in the theatre who remembers that opening night of Cinderella in the 1970s," he says. This year will be Kaler's 33rd in a frock. It would be his 35th but early on he took a couple of years off to do a West End show. Nowadays, even a summons to give his Lear at Stratford wouldn't prise him away from his annual residency. This year he stars in The York Family Robinson (pictured below), which as ever he has also written and co-directed. Even if panto is not your bag, Kaler has incrementally become a great theatrical institution.

It was his Andrew Aguecheek in a York production of Twelfth Night that persuaded the then artistic director to offer him a pantomime. He was 30 at the time (he's now knocking on 65) and had been playing the villain for a dozen years in big splashy pantos produced by Bernard Delfont.

His theory about successful panto is simple: the audience has to like you

"I really didn't want to do it. I'd never worn a frock in my life. I went on that stage with the scenery falling around me, and this awful script. About halfway through I started to ad-lib. Suddenly, the audience were interested in what I was doing on stage. They began to listen and laugh. The next morning, I was called into the office and told, 'That was the most unprofessional performance I've ever seen in my life. There will be no more ad-libbing. If you do, you will never work in this theatre ever again.'"

The ad-libbing became a sort of compulsion and a selling point. Other actors asked him for pre-improvised gags of their own. One year, to improve on the tawdry scripts that had been doing the rounds for decades, the Theatre Royal got in a writer, and Kaler swore he would stick to the lines supplied.

"I came on with a penny-farthing. My opening line to the audience was, 'Hello, girls and boys, do you like my velocipede?' Silence. He'd written a Victorian script." Before the interval Kaler had re-offended. The writer and his agent exploded out of their seats in a fluster of outrage, which is of course fatal in a panto. "They were saying, 'Ridiculous!' I couldn't let that pass. And I stopped the whole show and said, 'Meet the writer!' The whole audience went 'Booooo!'"

After taking over the writing, Kaler was soon in charge of rehearsals, too. He had become tired of directors who didn't understand the rites and sinews of panto. "We had a few bummers. Finally, we had one that was supposed to help me write the panto. He didn't do a bloody thing. You are lucky if you have two weeks' rehearsal. We are doing 14 set changes, 10 or 12 numbers. You can't afford to be that nice. So I slung him out of the rehearsal room and started doing it myself."

There's little in Kaler's background to explain his affinity with pantomime. He was the youngest of seven, and the family was too poor for regular trips to the Sunderland Empire. Both his parents had died by the time he was 11. At 15, he absconded to London. A couple of years later he was painting the outside of a producer's house when the actor Laurence Harvey started visiting.

"One day I just said to him, 'I wouldn't mind being an actor.' I think just to throw me off he said, 'No one will understand a word you're saying, but you could perhaps sing and dance. Don't speak.'" He answered an ad in The Stage for a summer season in Margate blacking up as a minstrel. As the accent faded, the work picked up.

His theory about successful panto is simple: the audience has to like you. "An actress could have the most beautiful voice in the world, but if the audience don't like you you're no good to me. It's to do with the personalities hitting the back of the gods. The bad pantos ignore the audience. I tell the cast, 'You're not doing a play.'"

His other rule of thumb is that not everyone can ad-lib. "I've seen a lot of actors suddenly do an ad-lib just for the sake of it, and it's awful, and I've had to save them." (Once he even made one actor apologise on stage for a particularly tasteless one.)

Kaler is about as camp as a monkey wrench

Over the years, Kaler has accumulated a cast who understand and value these precepts. From the evidence of the hilarious rehearsal I sat in on, they know how to play to the gallery far more winningly than the Antipodean soap stars and charisma-free graduates of reality TV who infest theatres up and down the land at Christmas.

At 64, how long can he keep going? "I started too young. But, because I was young, I became very physical doing all the stunts. The dame has always been an old woman. The fun has been that this old woman can suddenly run up a ladder, jump through a window. It's a bloke," he adds. Kaler is about as camp as a monkey wrench. "I'm nothing but a man and that's where your comedy comes from."

Every year the panto accounts for the largest chunk of the Theatre Royal's annual budget. But it more than pays for itself. Tickets go on sale in April; the queue starts forming at 3am. Some fans buy up hundreds of tickets at a time. Others will make an annual pilgrimage from Japan and America.

"They come back to see our annual rubbish. It is rubbish. But it's our rubbish."

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