by Sam Musguin-Rowe
For some, watching a pantomime is an annual Christmas tradition – right up there with watching Home Alone 1 and 2 (but not 3), and opening (though not drinking) a bottle of Advocaat that will gather dust until next August. It’s a realm deliciously free from political correctness – no joke is too rude, no performance too hammy, and if you just so happen to be sat in the front row, there’s a chance you might get soaked from water or gunge.
For others, panto represents an annual test of just how desperate Z-list celebrities are for cash, achieved via the ritualistic humiliation of old fairy tales, shit songs and very questionable humour. Some have gone so far as to claim the dame character – a man in drag, often with campness up to 11 – is akin to latter-day blackface.
Yet Berwick Kaler stands alone, as pantomime’s last bastion of authenticity. Flipping the bird to celebrity co-stars, he has written, directed and starred in the York Theatre Royal’s annual panto for 39 years, with the show achieving near-mythical status.
Where many pantos (featuring the likes of Ian Beale, Christopher Biggins or Stacey Solomon, say) struggle to fill seats, every year people queue overnight to score tickets for the York show, as if it were a new iProduct. This year it’s Jack & the Beanstalk, a production that contains a little extra spice given Kaler underwent triple heart bypass surgery all of three months ago, while his co-director, Martin Barrass, somehow beat ‘1% odds’ of survival, having been in a motorcycle accident last year.
We got Berwick – affectionately known as The Grand Old Dame of York – on the phone, ahead of a Friday matinee, to fight the corner of the modern-day panto. Although be warned, if you are reading this and just so happen to be a reality star, you may wish to click back to the Daily Mail sidebar for a while.
Hey Berwick – panto has seemingly been around forever. All these years on, what makes it special?
The thing with pantomime is, it isn’t taught in drama schools or anything like that. You can be the greatest actor in the world and be lousy in pantomime. It’s a question of personality, and getting that personality right to the back of the gallery. People have to instantly like you, and you can’t teach that. What we’ve done here is make little local stars of me and a few members of the cast, and [the community] have grown up with us. Most theatres can’t do that – they need star names to sell tickets. That’s OK, but the majority of them aren’t capable of performing.
Is it true that throughout your four decades at York Theatre Royal, you’ve had an outright ban on celebrity co-stars?
Yes! Well, Gary Oldman played my cat. Pierce Brosnan was an ASM [Assistant Stage Manager]. So we’ve had lots of people that have become names, and whenever they’ve come back to see us, they all say that they’ve never experienced anything like working at the Theatre Royal.
People queue overnight for York tickets, yet many theatres struggle to fill seats. What are they doing wrong?
Management, management, management. They spend on the names, not the production. Many theatres are just robbing the public. I’m not going to knock them, but I cannot abide people who, oh what are they called? They’re not celebrities…
Yes! Reality ones. I cannot abide. If you are a plumber and you can do pantomime – you’re welcome. But I have never known anyone [from TV] to do it, they’ve got no technique! They breathe down microphones, and think that’s a performance. You’ve got to work every line with every fibre of your body! It is the most arduous and energetic experience for anybody in this business, and they just don’t know!
Panto is viewed by some as an outdated, dying art form, crammed full of questionable humour. Do they have a point?
Well, I saw Ken Dodd many years ago, bless his heart, in a pantomime. Very funny man, but for some reason he jumped on the back of the villain and did about a quarter of an hour of homophobic gags. I looked around at the kids and they were totally bored. It’s not the way forward. We get all our humour by not making anyone embarrassed, and the fact is it doesn’t need to be outdated – you have to write a script every year, make it relevant! What actually makes it harder is if you want to do a Disney song or something, as they want about 20% of the royalties.
This year marks your 39th straight year playing the dame, yet some critics argue the role should be retired…
Ah! Now you’re talking. Take the dame out of the pantomime and you do not have a pantomime. The thing is, children won’t accept a woman playing the dame. It’s just not… funny! The thing where most dames go wrong is – I wear no makeup – they’ll put on clown like makeup, do a squeaky voice, put their arms together, big fake boobs and embarrass most of the audience. When I go out wearing the frocks and everything else, not one man or woman out in that audience is embarrassed by me. They’re all pissing with laughter, not uncomfortable at all. If you make one person uncomfortable, you are not a dame. You do not need to mince!
Finally, as we approach 2018, what is panto’s place within British culture? A wheezing relic of yesteryear, or something that should be cherished and preserved?
I love you! It should be absolutely treasured, it should be protected – my life would be over if it wasn’t. I don’t live for pantomime or anything, I’ve had a good career in other things, but it’s the most joyous thing ever to see that audience laughing at the same gag, going out that theatre happy as anything. It’s that wonderful British thing of, ‘We’re going to have a good night tonight’, and that’s what comes through the door on every performance. Hopefully, we don’t let them down.