Berwick Kaler

Berwick Kaler (born 1947) is a British actor most famous for playing the dame in York Theatre Royal's annual pantomime, which he also writes and directs. He has been awarded the freedom of the city.

In 2002, Berwick Kaler received an honorary degree from the University of York.

The 2007-08 pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor, was his 29th at the Theatre Royal.

Early years and TV work

Having grown up in "the slums of Sunderland", Kaler left school at 15 to seek success on the London stage. He got taken on at Dreamland in Margate to learn his trade.

He has had TV roles in such shows as The New Statesman, Crocodile Shoes,Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Spender as well as steady theatre work. However, it is his role in the York pantomime that has won him the most acclaim.

The York Panto

Many pantomimes in recent years have relied heavily on celebrity guest stars (often soap stars or comedians attempting to revive a flagging career) and risque humour. Kaler's pantos reject this ("I want everyone to laugh at the same joke," he says) and hark back to a more traditional form of pantomime. Instead of guest stars, a regular cast of actors has been assembled who return (nearly) every year:

  • Berwick Kaler has played the dame since 1978 - though he played an Ugly Sister in his first York panto Cinderella) in 1977 and again in 2006. He also took two years off early on to appear in a West End play.
  • Martin Barrass plays the dame's son (since 1985) (apart from 2006 when he played an ugly sister with Kaler)
  • David Leonard plays the villain (since 1985; took a year out in the nineties)
  • Suzy Cooper plays the Principal Girl, or occasionally the Principal Boy (since 1993, except the 2000-01 and 2007-08 seasons)
  • Joanne Heywood (seven pantos between 1985 and 2004) and Juliet Howland (six between 1995 and 2000) have each made multiple appearances as Principal Boy.
  • Kaler's own nephew, Vincent Gray, whose throbbing role has increased in size since his first appearance in 2002/03.
  • There are normally one or two other characters, plus six chorus members/dancers (three women and three men). Many of the actors filling these roles have also made return appearances. There are also 2 teams of energetic younger chorus members - these teams split the busy performance schedule into 2.

A Postmodern Pantomime?

While in some ways a 'traditional' pantomime, the York production is in some ways very up-to-date, and Kaler has been credited with reviving and reinventing the genre. While nominally based around the established panto stories such as Cinderella, the plots are often almost non-existent, and Kaler's ad-libbing has been known to hold scenes up for several minutes.

Full use is made of modern technology. There is usually a pre-recorded video sequence that complements the action in some way. In The Lad Aladdin (2006) it took the form of a prologue featuring Jimmy Nail as a fortune teller; in Mother Goose (2004) there was a high speed chase around York; for Jack and the Beanstalk (2003) it employed the use of 3D glasses while in Dick Whittington (2001) it was a dream sequence. There is also generally a brief segment featuring UV light and puppets.

Other running themes include:

  • A spectacular entrance from the dame in a ridiculous costume.
  • Kaler's catchphrases "Me babbies, me bairns!" and "I've been Humiliated!", delivered in his distinctive Mackem accent.
  • A slapstick scene between Kaler and Barrass involving a water tank.
  • Kaler and Barrass fooling around in a water tank, with gunge, custard pies and buckets of water being thrown about.
  • Kaler's wig slipping off to reveal his distinctive bald pate.
  • A singalong with Kaler and Barrass and the audience. Letters from the audience are also read out in this segment, and Wagon Wheels and Newcastle Brown Ale are expertly distributed by members of the Chours.

Recent Kaler Pantomimes

Year Panto Dame (Kaler) Dame's son (Barrass) Villain (Leonard) Principal Boy Principal Girl Notes
2008-09 (announced) Dick Turpin Dame Betty Turpin Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown This will be Berwick's 30th Panto and Leonard's 21st!
2007-08 Review Sinbad the Sailor Nelli Fatardo Binbag Jack Warlock Vincent Gray (Sinbad) Julie-Anna Castro (Donna Kebab) Suzy Cooper did not appear this year as she had just given birth to a baby boy.
2006-07 Review Cinderella Thelma Louise* Baron Stonebroke / Baroness Von Pratt Anne Marie Lawton (Prince Charming) Suzy Cooper (Cinderella) *Barrass played the dame's sister not usual son role in his 21st York Pantomime.
2005-06 Review The Lad Aladdin Widow Twankey Wishee Washee Abanazar Suzy Cooper (Aladdin) Elianne Byrne (Princess Su Doku)
2004-05 Sleeping Beauty The Queen Vic Prince Albert* Evil Edna Lucy Hunter-James (Watson) Suzy Cooper (Beauty) *Barrass played the dame's husband rather than his usual role as son.
2003-04 Mother Goose's Silver Jubilee Mother Goose Jack D-Man Joanne Heywood (Squire Knavesmire) Suzy Cooper (Kelly) Kaler's 25th York pantomime
2002-03 Babbies in the Wood Ariadne Oddbod Noddy Oddbod Sheriff of Rottingham Joanne Heywood (Robin Hood) Suzy Cooper (Marian Oddbod)
2001-02 Jack & the Beanstalk Fanny Shufflebottom Willy Shufflebottom Egostein Joanne Heywood (Jack Shufflebottom) Suzy Cooper (Jill)
2000-01 Dick Whittington Cissy Sessay Stanley Sessay Ratemon Joanne Heywood (Dick Whittington) Deborah Winn (Alice)** **Suzy Cooper was absent this year.
1999-2000 Old Mother Milly Milly Hinnyhum Hillary Hinnyhum Bugman Juliet Howland (Obiokidoki) Suzy Cooper (Valerie Fitzackerley) A new pantomime plot based around the millennium.
1998-99 Beauty & the Beast Dilly Dumdum Dickie Dumdum Wolfgang Amalieus Juliet Howland (Prince Percy) Suzy Cooper (Beauty)
1997-98 Aladdin Widow Twankey Wishee Washee Abanazar Suzy Cooper (Aladdin) Juliet Howland (Princess Peekaboo)
1996-97 Mother Goose Mother Goose Eli Goose The Dreaded Lurgi Juliet Howland (Bradley Bradshaw) Suzy Cooper (Cindy Goose)
1995-96 Cinderella Bazooka Buttons * Juliet Howland (Prince Charming) Suzy Cooper (Cinderella) * Leonard absent this year
1994-95 Sleeping Beauty Geordina II, Queen of Acomb Mordecai, Prince of Dales Evil Eva / Rocula Juliet Howland (Prince Stephen of Scarborough) Suzy Cooper (Princess Beauty)
1993-94 Jack and the Beanstalk Haricot Hasbean Willy Hasbean Dr Evilstein Karen-Jane Tomlinson (Jack Hasbean) Suzy Cooper (Jilliana)
1992-93 Babes in the Wood Dame Nanny Nutter Norma Nutter The Sheriff of Nottingham Julie Anne Blythen (Robin Hood) Julia Howson (Maid Marion)
1991-92 Dick Whittington Dame Bertha Dogsbody Jack Dogsbody Ratman Alison Reddihough (Dick Whittington) Gemma Page (Alice Fitzwarren)
1990-91 Mother Goose Mother Girty Goose Jesse Goose Lucifer Dreddark Trilby Harris (Henry Knavesmire) Alison Reddihough (Cisse Goose)

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