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Pantomime legend Berwick Kaler is bowing out after 40 wonderful years as York Theatre Royal’s Dame. This year’s production The Grand Old Dame of York will be his last panto at the theatre, he announced today (23 November).
Berwick, who writes, stars in and co-directs York’s annual family panto that attracts audiences from around the world, said: “I’ve always put York first but now I’m putting the country first and putting myself up for the job of Prime Minister representing the Monster Raving Loony Party.”
Artistic director Damian Cruden, who has co-directed the panto for the past 21 years, said: “I’d normally say something daft, we always joke about the relationship between the ‘manager’ and the ‘dame’, however today is a little more serious. Berwick has served the people of York and York Theatre Royal with absolute commitment for 40 years. He is due a rest. The pressure to recreate the panto each year is unrelenting and he takes making the ‘rubbish’ seriously.
“I have seen many great Dames - Jimmy Logan, Stanley Baxter, Kenneth Allen Taylor to name a few - and Berwick is as good as it gets. He has a sixth sense as a performer that is most rare. He has eyes in the back of his head for a joke and understands timing better than Big Ben. That he hangs up his boots this year is sad for us all. It is like a family here at York Theatre Royal and Berwick will be greatly missed.
“His legacy, however, is pantomime. Here at York we see it as a theatrical form of the highest order and we will continue to produce pantomime of the highest standard that is made with love, affection, care and skill. No, we can’t replace him but we can take his passion forward and honour his work in doing so.
“This year (when we get a script) we can look forward to a great original panto from Berwick’s pen that will truly be a celebration of all that he has achieved as York’s one and only Dame for the last 40 years. We look forward to welcoming our loyal audience to this year’s show to share in this great hurrah. As usual though the management would like to take this opportunity to deny any responsibility for the complete lack of plot, recognisable characters, quality acting, musical accomplishment, comedy or indeed anything remotely resembling a professional show... “
Followers of the York panto can rest assured that the theatre will be continuing its tradition of great family pantomimes next year. Executive director Tom Bird said: “Berwick is a phenomenon. He has made the people of York and the region laugh away their winters for 40 years with the theatre’s extraordinary pantomime. His achievement in engaging a vast section of the community is unparalleled: the city comes en masse to the pantomime.”
“Though our Dame is hanging up his wig, York Theatre Royal will continue to produce a spectacular panto that adheres to our passionate faith in pantomime as an art form. In the meantime I can only express the theatre’s boundless gratitude for Berwick’s work in our city for 40 years.”
Berwick first put on a wig and frock for Cinderella, playing one of the Ugly Sisters, Philomena, in York Theatre Royal’s 1977 panto after making his York debut earlier that year playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. His panto experience before that had been playing villains in commercial pantomimes.
Apart from two years (1986 and 1987) when he was appearing in London’s West End, he has been York’s Dame ever since. His opening words “Me babbies, me bairns” have become his catchphrase along with hurling Wagon Wheels into the audience and handing out bottles of brown ale.
He began writing the pantomime because he felt the scripts being used were awful and had been around for years. The script is now written by the audience and Berwick.
An absence of plot has become one of the hallmarks of his scripts. “Plots are for cemeteries,” he once joked. As well as variations on regular panto titles such as The Lad Aladdin and Robin Hood & His Merry Mam, he has created original shows including Dick Turpin The Panto and Old Mother Millie.
What has kept him as York’s Dame for 40 years is his relationship with the audience and their reaction to his pantos. “The audience have always given me the nod and the wink, saying that’s great or you’ve gone too far. Every line is written with them in mind. It’s just become a unique part of their life and my life,” says Berwick.
“This year’s original panto The Grand Old Dame of York is a culmination of every pantomime I have ever done at York in as much as it has no story, no plot – and it’s absolute rubbish.”