Dame Berwick ready to set sail on his first ever Robinson Crusoe pantomime crusade

Name that dame: Berwick Kaler will play Dotty Dullaly in his 43rd York pantomime. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

BERWICK Kaler first performed in a York pantomime in 1977. Now he is 77.

“I feel fit,” says the grand dame, ahead of Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse setting sail on Saturday with the usual crew on board.  “When I get on stage, I don’t feel any different. I’ve just been doing the flying sequence, and they worry for me, but I was fine. I didn’t think twice about doing it. It felt the same as ever.

“Yes, I do see changes in my dame, but it’s only age.” Physically, however, Dame Berwick has shrunk from his prime panto fighting weight of 11 stone, thinner in the face and legs, wiry of frame, eyes as big as a spaniel’s, as he sits in Dressing Room One at the Grand Opera House for this lunchtime chat.

He breakfasts on porridge, smoked salmon and two poached eggs, but has not recovered any of the two and a half stone he lost in a year when his long-time partner, David Norton, died.

“The doctors have checked me over, and no-one can find anything wrong with me. It’s driving me mad,” says Dame Berwick, who had a double heart bypass operation six years and relies on “Gerry”, his pacemaker, to keep him ticking over.

Not only does he feel fit, but he feels Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse is fit too for its public bow this weekend – even if Daniel Defoe’s 1719 tale of adventure and survival is not the easiest fit for pantomime service.

“I’ve never done Robinson Crusoe before,” says writer-director Dame Berwick, who will be appearing in his 43rd year York panto. “It’s not a pantomime; it never has been! But now, yes, it is a pantomime, but I’ve had to mix a lot of ingredients into it because it’s essentially a one-man story – and Man Friday has had to go.

“What was I on to have made that decision to do it,” he asks himself. “But I do like picking at bones to make a show.”

Robinson Crusoe does have York links: born in the city in 1632 to a middle-class upbringing, he set out from here on his travels. That fact alone gave Dame Berwick the bones on which to flesh out his script. “I blame Martin Dodd for the title!” he says, referring to the managing director of UK Productions, producers of the Grand Opera House pantomime for a second year. “He suggested pirates for the show, and so we have the Pirates Of The River Ouse.”

Those pirates will be played by the dance ensemble, while Jake Lindsay, so often the butt of Kaler’s jesting in his gradual graduation from ensemble to character parts over the past decade, will take the title role. “Every year I tell him, ‘go and get another career’ and he never listens,” says Dame Berwick. “Anyway, it’s a while before you see him!”

As ever, Dame Berwick’s regular partners in pantomime are reassembling. “I’m playing Dotty Dullaly, and we’re getting very modernistic as she was married before, to Mr Crusoe. Robinson is her son,” he explains.

“She was going to go on a cruise with Mr Crusoe and Robinson, but at the last minute she was taken ill and it was the last time she saw them. Then she got married to Mr Dullaly, and they had two children: 18-year-old Suzy Cooper [Polly Dullaly] and 16-year-old Martin Barrass [Willy Dullaly]!

The Ouse crew’s regular front five: David Leonard, left, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper, Berwick Kaler and A J Powell. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

AJ Powell will be appearing in trademark Brummie mode as Luvverly Jubberly, while inveterate villain David Leonard will revel in the vainglorious name of Narcissus. “He has to come to York to acquire half an amulet before sailing to the Island of Destiny – it’s not called that in the book! – to extract the other half from around Robinson’s neck,” says Dame Berwick.

“You can’t do anything with the real story of Robinson Crusoe, so I’ve introduced magical elements, like a book of spells that Robinson is in control of. Since he was shipwrecked on the island, he’s been made into an idol, but Narcissus, whose mother was a good witch, who never wanted him to get his hands on that book, is determined to force Robinson into the Tomb of Destiny to retrieve it.”

Echoes of Aladdin’s Cave and the arch antagonist Abanazar in Aladdin, you ask. “There are hints of Aladdin, hints of Sinbad The Sailor, in there, but it’s not a copy of them. It’s my new twist on them,” he says.

After Dick Turpin Rides Again and The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Dame Berwick is enjoying creating his third Grand Opera House panto. “Why keep doing it? I don’t need to do it, and I’ve told my agent I don’t want do to TV, films and stage shows any more. I’ve done all that. Just panto,” he says.

“I’m not a writer but I have to say I quite like the process of writing. Would I miss panto? Yes. I’d just be sitting at home with the dogs watching rubbish TV, which would be bliss, but I prefer to be doing this.”

Familiarity breeds content that suits long-serving company and York Pantomime (Berwick Kaler) Appreciation Society devotees alike. “It’s the only pantomime where you can get away with in-jokes, as it’s the audience that laughs, not the actors, because they’ve been following us for so long,” says Dame Berwick.

“We are five performers who know each other inside out; we can talk on common ground; we know how to work together; I know what to write for them all, though it gets more difficult over the years! I could bring others into the cast but no, this is a staunchly loyal group that has served York so well, doing great deeds in the world of panto.”

The core team remains intact, but Dame Berwick has had to adapt to the age of cancel culture. “Up to the last couple of years I wrote with a sense of humour that we’d had since I can remember, where nothing was taken as an insult to anyone,” he says. “But lately, if anyone said, ‘oh that’s a bit naughty’, I’d have to say, ‘no, I wrote it in innocence’.

“The last two years I’ve learned that it’s a lot safer if we laugh at ourselves on stage, taking the mickey out of each other, but that does take away from a lot of things that worked before and that’s a shame. There still has to be a shock element to comedy.

“I’ve always found that people come away from our shows saying, ‘I didn’t expect your panto to be so different from all the others’. You still have to have ‘he’s behind you’ in there, but come on, let’s keep surprising people.”

Contemplating the future, Dame Berwick says: “I’m not going to announce my retirement. I’ll just go quietly, whenever. I’ve had my big send-off already [after 40 years at the Theatre Royal]

“When they announce the next Grand Opera House pantomime, it will either be with us or without us.”

Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse, Grand Opera House, York, December 9 to January 6 2024. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

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