Berwick Kaler tells JULIAN COLE about his unlikely life, being a Merry Mam and why he is “the luckiest jobbing actor in the world”
THE man sitting opposite does not look like the almost legendary York pantomime dame. He is not wearing a ridiculous frock for a start.
But even in a bomber jacket, green cap and jeans, something about the eyes reminds you of Berwick Kaler’s alter ego as the York Theatre Royal pantomime dame, the ad-libbing maestro with the slipping wig.
Berwick has been an institution in York for years, yet his life has followed an unexpected road. He was born in Sunderland, the youngest of seven children (“Like my hero, Dan Reno”); his father died when he was two, his mother when he was 11. He ran away to London aged 15-and-threequarters, where painting and decorating saved his life, as he puts it now, in the years before he became an actor.
Did he always know he wanted to be an actor?
“No, an actor then was just a funny person on the television, if you even had a television,” Berwick says, peering out from beneath his cap.
As a boy he gave out what might have been signals, not that anyone was looking.
“You know those drop-leaf tables that you have, where a leaf comes down,” he says. “Well, I used to sit at the table and pretend it was a piano, running my fingers up and down. But no one looked at me and thought, ‘That kid wants to learn the piano’.”
At 67, Berwick feels blessed, thanks to a life that has embraced films and television and the West End – “I have been the luckiest jobbing actor in the world,” he says.
Mostly, he feels lucky because once a year he writes and stars in a pantomime the people of York seem to have taken to their hearts.
He is semi-retired now and mostly confines himself to writing the pantomime and appearing in it for three months.
“I love this life of mine in York,” he says. “I love the people, I have lovely neighbours. I love my house; I love York and wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Does he ever think of retiring fully?
“Every year for the past four years,” he says. “Being dame in a pantomime is hard work. David Jason told me pantomime was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life and he wasn’t even the dame. It’s physically and mentally draining.
“I want to leave before I come on with a Zimmer frame, unless it’s part of a gag. I’d like to leave when I’m at the top of my game and I don’t want people whispering, ‘Oh, he’s not quite as good this year’.”
Berwick credits the York pantomime with unexpected powers. “I sometimes think this pantomime is the only thing keeping me alive,” he says. “I drink and I smoke and I don’t exercise enough, but once a year I do this for three months.”
Berwick is pleased with this year’s title. It came to him in a flash of seat-of-the-frock inspiration at the end of the last pantomime, The York Family Robinson, when tradition dictates that he should announce the following year’s show.
“I was coming to do the song-sheet and I knew I didn’t want to call it Babes In The Wood. I thought I would call it Robin Hood And His Merry Men, then I walked out on stage to announce it and ‘Mam’ came into my head.”
This year’s pantomime will be missing David Leonard, who is otherwise detained in the West End in Matilda. He has long been a staple part of the show, alongside Martin Barrass and Suzy Cooper, who are returning.
Asked how the pantomime will be without one of its regulars, Berwick says: “I have always said that David Leonard is the best villain in the country, and don’t forget that people like Martin, David and Suzy have been with me for a very long time.
“I have been in the West End and I lived in London for 40 years. I have had my name up in lights and I have been on television and in films, but I don’t want that now. David is in his 50s, like Martin, and it’s great that he can be in a West End show and he deserves it.”
Berwick believes David’s replacement is easily up to the task. “Jonathan Race is an excellent actor and it may take him a year or two to settle into being a baddie.”
A year or two – does this suggest Berwick isn’t expecting to see David back again? Berwick says he does not know and confines further comment to a shrug.
Jonathan Race told Berwick that he could put in as many mentions as he liked of him not being David Leonard. “But I said no – just…” And here Berwick holds up a theatrical finger to suggest the solitary mention.
“We acknowledge that David isn’t in the pantomime right at the beginning and it’s not a bad gag.”
Does he still get nervous before each pantomime? “No, I don’t get nervous but I do worry about the box office and letting people down,” he says.
Berwick is famed for his ad-libbing skills, a trick he partly puts down to a morbid dread of having to say the same lines over and over again, night after night.
Aged 27, when he stepped into a West End role, he was a teetotaller. “The guy I took over from said it would turn me to drink and he was right.”
That was 40 years ago and he is still here. Mind you, he does have matters of immortality flickering at the rim of his mind.
The narrative thread of his pantomime is not exactly drawn tight. Bear that in mind when Berwick points to the words he would like on his memorial – “He finally found a plot.”
And with that he smiles up from beneath his cap one last time.
• Robin Hood And His Merry Mam, from December 13 to February 2, York Theatre Royal. For tickets phone 01904 623568, call in person at the box office or visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk