Berwick Kaler has played the pantomime Dame at York Theatre Royal for 40 years. After recently announcing his retirement, The Grand Old Dame of York will mark Berwick’s possibly very last pantomime. Here’s a Q&A with the Dame we all know and love:
Did you see a lot of pantos as a child?
I grew up in the slums of Sunderland and we couldn’t afford to go to pantomimes. My first experience of pantomimes was being cast in one as a performer.
When did you play your first Dame?
After playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at York Theatre Royal, I was asked to stay on and play one of the Ugly Sisters Philomena in Cinderella in 1977. That panto was terrible – the script was awful, and had been around for years. I started ad-libbing, which the audience loved, but afterwards I was told off by the director. I started writing the pantomime a few years later.
What is behind the enduring appeal of pantomime?
The secret of a good panto is simple – it’s not just for adults, nor is it just for kids. The gag, the joke, the routine, has to work for everyone. The York pantomime is written and performed with the audience very much in mind.
What can you tell us about your 40th York pantomime?
The Grand Old Dame of York is a culmination of every panto I have ever done at York in as much as it has no story, no plot and it’s absolute rubbish.
Have you ever missed a performance in 40 years?
No, although I did once go to hospital during the interval to get stitches after gashing my shin. But I came back for the second half. I’ve had a gashed shin, broken nose, nearly choked on shaving foam and a sprained ankle.
Tell us about the Dame’s fabulous costumes.
I just wear the costumes. I give the odd suggestion of a comic approach to them, otherwise it’s in the gifted hands of our wonderful designers. I wear a ‘mobile’ ginger wig, no make-up, tights (one leg red, one leg yellow) and workmen’s boots bought 40 years ago (one boot with red laces, the other with yellow). My favourite costume is Queen Victoria. I wore it when I met Princess Beatrice, who is a patron of the theatre.
Why do you throw out Wagon Wheels biscuits into the audience?
When I did my first panto here I asked what they used to thrown out to children in the audience. The management said nothing – that they used to throw boiled sweets to the audience but the audience used to throw them back. I said why don’t you throw out something they’ll want to keep, that won’t hurt them – or, if they throw it back, won’t hurt us. So I went to a nearby shop and the first thing I saw was on the shelves were Wagon Wheels. I remembered them from when I was a bairn. I bought eight and threw them out into the audience that night. Flying Wagon Wheels were born.
Don’t miss The Grand Old Dame of York at York Theatre Royal from 13th December to 2nd February.
Photography by Anthony Robling.