Pantomime Dame Berwick Kaler talks to Yorkshire Life

PUBLISHED: 23:54 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013

Berwick Kaler

Berwick Kaler

Berwick Kaler is nothing like a Dame until he puts on the wig, the dress and the make-up. And then anything can happen and it often does. Tony Greenway meets him

If there's one thing Berwick Kaler hates, it's putting on women's clothes. 'I hate drag!' says Berwick as we sit sipping a coffee in the foyer of the York Theatre Royal. 'God, I can't stand it.'

This is more of a problem than you might think, because Berwick is the country's most famous pantomime dame. As a jobbing actor (which he is) he's appeared in lots of TV and film productions: Heartbeat, Distant Shores, Spender with Jimmy Nail and Grafters with Robson Green - and he's just finished filming a movie with Sean Bean.

'Also,' he says, 'I'm in the new Jimmy Nail BBC drama... playing his father.' He mock bridles. 'Do you know what an insult that is? I'm only eight years older than him.'

But it's the York Theatre Royal panto that Berwick is most famous for. Such is its reputation that the national press review it and audiences come from the other side of the world to see it. It's an institution. This year, it's also a significant anniversary for Berwick: this will be his 30th York panto playing the Dame. He is always modest about the panto which he also writes and co-directs. 'It's rubbish,' he says flatly. 'But it's our rubbish. And people look forward to it nearly all year. All they are expecting is a laugh.'

Sunderland-born Berwick is an adopted son of York. He first came to the city in the 1970s to play Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, and was asked if he would like to stay on for the Christmas show. 'The YTR's resident director knew that I'd done commercial pantomimes as the villain,' says Berwick, 'and I just automatically assumed that he wanted me to do the same sort of part. But he said: "No, no. I want you to play the dame." I agreed, but it was just another role for me. I certainly didn't think I'd be doing it all these years later. I never seek work. I never have, and I've never been ambitious. I could have taken more offers; but I've never regretted one minute of my career.'

Q: I remember speaking to you nine years ago, Berwick, and you told me: 'I might get to my 25th York panto - but there definitely won't be a 26th.' And now here you are about to celebrate your 30th. Would you care to explain?

A: Bloody actors! They can't retire. Actually, I want to be the world's first actor to retire at 65, so I've still got three years to go. I will explain. I thought that, in my sixties, I'd be too old to do this: I'm a physical dame. I want to be able to jump through windows and fall down stairs. But then when your face gets craggy, you become funnier. Last year, I let Martin Barrass (Berwick's constant co-star) fall down the stairs. It's quite amusing to see an old woman - or an old man dressed as an old woman - just standing there commenting on things happening to other people.

Q: What is it about York that you love so much? Why did you decide to stay?

A: I may be an adopted son of York, but this is the only place I want to call home. The architecture was a bonus, but over the years I've bonded with the people. I've travelled far and wide, and the most memorable characters I've ever met come from Yorkshire. I got the Freedom of the City - but I'm still working on the passport.

Q: Can you learn pantomime acting?

A: It's not taught at drama schools, which is bizarre because panto is likely to be your first-ever job as an acting professional. It's taken me 40-odd years to work this out, but the reason why they don't teach it is that it can't be taught. You can only learn it by facing an audience and doing it. You have to go on stage with boundless confidence. You acknowledge the actor next to you, but you say your lines to the audience. The whole point of panto is that you are inviting a response from the crowd. Young actors who are going on for the first time can be terrified of that.

Q: When you do the same jokes matinee after matinee, don't they become a chore?

A: Put it like this: If I go out on stage and see a look in an actor's eyes - you know, the one that says: 'I've done this 50 times before' - then I'll deliberately start trying to throw them. I'll quote Ibsen or Shakespeare at them. Suddenly they become alive!

Q: What are the best jokes this year?

A: If you read a pantomime script, it isn't funny. It's the way you do it and say it and angle your body that gets the laughs.We're doing Dick Turpin this time and it's been the most difficult panto to write. Someone could have told me he was a murderer and a thief. I just thought he rode a horse.

Q: It's your 30th year at York. Is it a milestone for you or business as usual?

A: I'm a bit modest about it. It's my 40th panto, my 30th as the Dame. And David Leonard, who plays the villain, is celebrating his 21st. And he is the greatest panto villain in the country, without a shadow of a doubt.

Q: How do you rate fame?

A: I've got a funny sort of fame. People in York might know my name even children, bless 'em. In London or anywhere else, people look at me and I know they're thinking: 'Now, I know you.' They don't know the name, but they know the face. I've loved it like that. I've never craved fame. I've never needed that affirmation.

Q: Most actors do, though.

A: Well, I don't know if I did when I was younger. I don't think, in my day, I needed to be famous. It was more about wanting to be in work. In the 1960s, I remember auditioning for Hair with David Bowie, who was called David Jones back then. Neither of us got the part but a couple of years later he's on the road to stardom and I'm on the road to Margate. But I learnt more from the show that I ended up doing - old-time music hall - than years at drama school.

Q: Is there anything about Yorkshire you don't like? Be honest.

A: The fact I wasn't born here - honest!

Q: Do you have a favourite restaurant in Yorkshire?

A: Plunketts restaurant on High Petergate. They opened the same time as I arrived in the city in the mid-1970s. It's just around the corner from the Theatre Royal, it's roomy, informal, reasonably priced, the food is excellent and I have never had a mediocre meal there in over 30 years. I cannot abide restaurants that are hit and miss with their food.

Q: Your favourite shop in Yorkshire?

A: Browns on the corner of Davygate in York. It's a department store selling quality goods you don't see in other shops. I bought a sofa there which is covered with an imprint of the Bayeux tapestry - the price I paid it should have been the real thing.

Q: Your favourite place in Yorkshire?

A: Spoilt for choice here! When I go out for a drive I inevitably end up in Haworth or Helmsley. A day spent on the breathtaking expanse of the North York Moors and you return revived, stimulated, and ready to tackle anything life slings at you. On the coast it's Whitby and Scarborough for me - I'm sure I was born with a candy floss in one hand and fish and chips in the other.

Q: How has York changed in your time?

A: In the late-1970s life inside the walls closed with the shops at around 6pm. Now, no matter what time of the evening it's buzzing with people.We have an abundance of decent restaurants, theatres, clubs and cinemas, and yet these new business ventures have all been accommodated by renovating the interiors of old buildings. So York still keeps its architectural inheritance apart from the odd modern eyesore which makes you wonder how they got that past the planning department in such a beautiful city.

Dick Turpin December 11th - January 31st The York Theatre Royal www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

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