YORK’S grand old dame, Berwick Kaler, is back in panto. Oh yes, he is.
At York Theatre Royal, his “beloved home” for 41 years? Oh, no he isn’t.
Dame Berwick is switching to the other side, the Grand Opera House, to become the Grand’s old dame. What’s more, he will be bringing the rest of the Not Famous But Famous In York Five along for the ride in Dick Turpin Rides Again: villain David Leonard; sidekick stooge Martin Barrass; ageless principal girl Suzy Cooper and luverly Brummie A J Powell.
Tickets for the December 12 to January 10 run will go on general sale on February 14, Valentine’s Day, when fans can have a love-in with Dame Berwick in the box office, when he sells the first tickets at 10am.
A delighted Kaler says: “Qdos Entertainment have come to the rescue of the most lauded pantomime in the country, having found us a new home at the Grand Opera House in our beloved City of York.
“To make this a success we need you – the most articulate and loyal audience in the entire country. We can go forth with a management that believes we have enhanced the reputation of a local pantomime that has caught the imagination of young and old, from all walks of life.”
Qdos Entertainment’s managing director Michael Harrison enthuses: “We are absolutely delighted to be embarking on an all-new pantomime partnership with our colleagues at the Ambassador Theatre Group, Grand Opera House and, of course, Berwick and the gang.
“Berwick is an undeniable master in the world of pantomime, with his own inimitable style and approach and we are delighted to be working closely with him and the cast to bring back the magic for which they are best known.”
Kaler, 73, retired from playing the Theatre Royal’s dame after 40 years last February, but has signed a three-year contract with Qdos Entertainment, the pantomime powerhouse of British theatre, who are taking over the Grand Opera House panto from Three Bears Productions from Winter 2020.
Dame Berwick will write and direct the show, as well as pulling on his trademark big boots, unruly wig and spectacular frocks again, after regretting his decision to retire, breaking his run as Britain’s longest-running dame, from the moment he announced it.
Fully recovered from his double heart bypass in the summer of 2018, It was a sentiment he repeated regularly, not least on the last night of The Grand Old Dame Of York on February 2 last year, saying he “would be back like a shot” if asked.
Now the veteran dame does return, but across the city, where he has chosen Dick Turpin Rides Again for his first Grand Opera House pantomime, revisiting a show that brought him his highest ever audience figures at the Theatre Royal: 54,000 for Dick Turpin in 2008-2009.
He last appeared on the Opera House stage as fey drag artist Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols’ Privates On Parade in 1996.
Kaler made an emotional, provocative speech at the finale to last Saturday’s final night of Sleeping Beauty, the troubled Theatre Royal pantomime he had written and co-directed this winter, but whose progress was jolted by executive director Tom Bird’s confirmation, with a fortnight still to run, that Dame Berwick would not be back, as writer or director, let alone as dame.
Suzy Cooper and Kaler in The Press splash had called for the dame to return, David Leonard later backed that campaign, while Martin Barrass addressed the audience at each show post-announcement to say “this cast and this band” would not be returning. A public petition was launched too.
“I’m b****y furious,” said the dame, back on his old stamping ground, in a highly charged Saturday atmosphere, full of cheers for Kaler and boos for new panto villain Bird.
Kaler could not reveal “the truth”, but said Bird – or “one man” as he called him throughout without naming him once – was “wrong” in his decision to move on to a new creative team when the Theatre Royal pantomime “didn’t need fixing”.
“I’ll give them three days,” he said in a cryptic ultimatum that set tongues wagging that Kaler must have something up his sleeve, while Barrass rubbed his hands when reading out a letter in the shout-outs that suggested the Panto Five should move to “the Grand”.
Those three days passed, but now Dame Berwick rises again, linking up with Qdos Entertainment, whose production facilities are based in Scarborough and Beverley, 100,000 costumes et al. Billed as “the world’s biggest pantomime producer”, with 37 years behind them, they present such big-hitting pantos as the London Palladium and Newcastle Theatre Royal shows, as well as, closer to York, Hull New Theatre.
Welcoming the new partnership of Qdos and the Kaler crew, Grand Opera House theatre director Rachel Crocombe-Lane says: “Qdos bring both world-class expertise and also a Yorkshire heart, being based in Scarborough; the perfect combination together with this talented cast.
“As a venue team, pantomime is our favourite time of year because of the friendship with the company and also the joy and devotion of our audience. We are proud of these new partnerships, excited for the future of our pantomime and will be ready altogether to really blow your Christmas socks off!’
Qdos Entertainment chairman, Nick Thomas, from Scarborough, is excited too. “I am thrilled to welcome Berwick, a true Yorkshire theatre legend, to the Qdos family. Qdos Entertainment has had a long association with Yorkshire, it is my home county, and with our production and wardrobe teams based in Scarborough and Beverley, forming this new relationship with Berwick and the Grand Opera House is especially exciting.”
Meanwhile, York Theatre Royal will be launching its 2020-2021 pantomime on Monday at high noon. Rather than declaring a pantomime civil war in York, executive director Bird says: “We wish the Grand Opera House the very best of luck. As we’ve always said, we’ll be announcing our new pantomime on Monday”.
On Tuesday this week, Bird told a City of York Council meeting that no performance of Sleeping Beauty had sold out, save for the traditional last night pandemonium, compounding a decline in attendances that had started 11 years ago.
He said the Theatre Royal would “build a new pantomime for the city that to some extent doesn’t rely on you having been to the pantomime for 30 years in order to get it”.
“I know how much affection there is for our pantomime in the city. What’s prompted us to make this change is that that affection isn’t necessarily translating into popularity,” he added. “It’s with a very heavy heart that we make changes but it’s not something we can leave.”
Tickets for Dick Turpin Rides Again will be on general sale from February 14 on 0844 871 3024, at atgtickets.com/york and in person from the Cumberland Street theatre’s box office. ATG Theatre Card holders can buy from February 11.