Published on December 10th, 2013 | by Alastair Gilmour0
A pantomime legend and a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale have them rolling in the aisles, says Alastair Gilmour
The song from South Pacific urges: “There is nothin’ like a dame.” And there sure isn’t if you take one brown ale-swigging, Wagon Wheel chucking pantomime star into consideration.
Sunderland-born Berwick Kaler has been playing panto dames for 41 years – 35 of them at York Theatre Royal – and holds the distinction of being the UK’s longest-running servant in the role. Berwick writes, directs, stars and does his own stunts (at the tender age of 67) to an audience of more than 50,000 people every year, most of whom have visited the panto since they were children and who start queuing for tickets nine months before the show opens.
So, Berwick Kaler isn’t your average Widow Twankey, he’s quite the glittering star.
“I only came here to do Shakespeare,” he says. “But I just found a niche, this audience. We’ve developed over the years.
“I’ve got to entertain the same audience in the same theatre in the same city year after year. When you think some people do a television series that’s very, very popular for a while and then you never hear of them again. So I think I’ve done amazingly well.”
And Berwick – his real name (Raymond Berwick Kaler) – should know; he played the long-suffering detective sergeant Dan Boyd in Spender, the early 1990s television police drama series that starred Jimmy Nail, and appeared in the first series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as the new boyfriend of the wife of character Dennis Paterson (played by Tim Healy).
“I was a reporter and Alan B’Stard – Rik Mayall – would say, ‘aah, Mr Dickhead’,” says Berwick. “Diquead started off as a sports journalist then worked his way down until he got to Exchange & Mart.”
This year, York Theatre Royal’s pantomime is Aladdin And The Twankeys which runs for nearly two months and attracts an audience from not only all over the country but regular visitors from Japan and the US. But what is particularly important to Berwick Kaler and the York panto-going public is that his productions feature no soap stars or reality TV “celebs” and he adheres to the tradition of what pantomime is all about.
“It’s not ‘behind you’ 50,000 times,” he says. “We work a fine line in pantomime; it’s the humour, it’s not twee, it’s got a reputation for being anarchic, but it’s for all the family.
“It’s a little local pantomime but it’s accessible to all and it’s your pantomime whether you come from Timbuktu, Wallsend or Sunderland.
“And we’re the only pantomime in the world that gives out Newcastle Brown Ale and Wagon Wheels to the audience. York was Chocolate City when I first arrived – and they didn’t even make Wagon Wheels. Now ironically Newcastle Brown Ale has followed me down to Yorkshire – it’s brewed in Tadcaster now. I get a lot of laughs with that.”
The next question goes along the lines of does he like Brown Ale? He taps his nose and gives that “I have been known to partake…” look.
“They all think I’m a Geordie anyway,” he says. “When I first came on to do the dame I thought ‘I’m in Yorkshire, I’ll do a Yorkshire accent’, and the next day the press said ‘what a wonderful Geordie dame.”
“I only came here to do shakespeare but I just found this niche, this audience.”
Berwick reveals that when he worked with him on Spender, Jimmy Nail had the reputation as being “a bit of a diva”, though he just let him get on with it and the pair remain firm friends to the extent that Nail visits the panto every single year.
He says: “I remember Jimmy once said, ‘It’s not like a pantomime, it’s more like an event’. Suzi Quatro too. Suzi comes every year. Sometimes there are more stars in the audience than on stage.
“I always say if you don’t like pantomime, I suggest you come here, because you’ll get pantomime as it used to be and how it got the reputation it did, not some tired old formula of sex and costumes.
“As a jobbing actor I’ve done very well for myself. I’ve had young mothers pushing prams with two-year-olds in and they’ve come up to me and said, ‘You won’t die will you before he’s seen you?’
“About five years ago when I was in B&Q with Suzi Quatro – imagine, Suzi Quatro in B&Q – and this guy was serving me when the pantomime was mentioned. He said, ‘Oh, I’ve never been to that pantomime for years, ever since that bald-headed fella left’. I said, ‘It’s me, I’m still doing it.’ He said, ‘I thought you were dead’.
“The strength of pantomime is when you’re walking down the road with somebody famous and people are staring at you, the dame. They’re not expecting to see Jimmy Nail or Suzi Quatro in the street, but they are expecting to see me.”
Berwick Kaler’s central role in writing, producing and directing led Dominic Cavendish of The Daily Telegraph to call him “panto’s biggest asset and its biggest liability”. He has assembled a cast of actors who regularly return to the production – such as Martin Barrass who has been playing his son for 28 years – “and he’s only six years younger than me”.
“I feel I’m only coming into my own as a dame in this show,” says Berwick. “Previously I used to dive about and get soaking wet, but nowadays I find I get just as many laughs from my reactions. But me being me, I never think that’s enough.
“Actors like Martin are the type of people I need to work with. He never questions anything – anything – he’ll just do it. And I never remember any lines. It’s a myth that you’ll know every line because you’ve written it – but I do know the gist of the story.
“I get a lot of laughs because of my professionalism – I’ll just stop (he shakes his head) when they’re going through a big speech or something and they love it.
“What’s unusual about all this is I’ve been in the West End 12 times; I’ve had my name over the title at three of the theatres, and here’s one person saying to thousands and thousands of people who come through that door: ‘I’ve written this and this is what you’re going to laugh at’. It’s petrifying, absolutely petrifying.
“A lot of the humour comes from outside. I always say at some point: ‘This must be something new because I’ve never heard of it’.
“I heard a couple of ten?year-olds on the Metro talking about somebody saying the word ‘evidential’. One of them said,’ What’s evidential? and the other one said, ‘ah dinna, it must be something new cos I’ve never heard of it’. You couldn’t make it up. Now I can’t leave it off the show.”
The inflatable Newcastle Brown Ale bottle has been by Berwick’s side all through the interview, so it only seems polite to ask about its role in the panto.
He says: “Writing comedy these days, I have to come up with clean stuff – OK, there are a few double-entendres there but it’s not smut. It’s so easy to write comedy and put swear words in. We get belly laughs from the most ridiculous things and not from swear words.
“In the production there’s two bedrooms with a wall in between but it’s not actually there. I’m the only bugger who thinks there’s a wall there and I’m the only one who keeps knocking into it.
“There’s a woman in the next bedroom saying things like ‘My daughter, my daughter’ and I say to the people in my bedroom, ‘There’s somebody shouting about water here. Is it something new because I’ve never heard of it. We have no water, pet, we only have Newcastle Brown Ale.’
“Then we all take a tipple and get knocked out and this, that and the other.”
Jimmy Nail and Suzi Quatro aside, is York Theatre Royal’s annual pantomime the highlight of the Kaler career? It seems like a fair but ultimately obvious line to take.
He says: “I have to watch a certain amount of crap on television to get a sense of what’s current today. I was watching Pointless one afternoon and I was one of the questions.
“It was the highlight of my career – the question was, ‘How many actors have done the most episodes of The New Statesman?’ My name was at the top. Only, the presenter (Alexander Armstrong) said Berwick Kaller instead of Kaler, but never mind. That to me was fantastic, the highlight.”
There is something like a dame then, but nothing quite like Raymond Berwick Kaler.