BERWICK Kaler is back, as the Grand Old Dame of York transforms into the Grand’s new dame.
Now that the Grand Opera House will be the home of his latest dame after 41 years at York Theatre Royal, both Dame Berwick and Dick Turpin will ride again from December 12 to January 10 2021.
Kaler pulled on his big boots at the Theatre Royal for the last time on February 2 2019 after announcing his retirement from Britain’s longest-running panto damehood.
Giving that retirement its P45, in favour of a re-boot, he will write and direct as well as star in Dick Turpin Rides Again, as he takes back control [to borrow a Dominic Cummings mantra]. What’s more, he will be re-uniting on stage with sidekick stooge Martin Barrass, villain David Leonard, ageless principal girl Suzy Cooper and luverly Brummie AJ Powell.
This time, the re-formed Panto Five will be on new terrain as the Grand Opera House owners, Ambassador Theatre Group, team up with Qdos Entertainment, the most powerful pantomime brand in the land.
Here Charles Hutchinson puts the questions to prolific theatre producer, director and Qdos Entertainment (Pantomimes) managing director Michael Harrison, Kaler’s fellow north easterner, who stands at number eight in The Stage’s Top 100 most influential people in theatre, no less.
Why bring back Berwick, Michael?
“The best things fall out of the sky and I wasn’t expecting this opportunity.
“I’m from Newcastle and I travelled all over the place to see pantomimes; first Newcastle and Sunderland, then Darlington, and then I started venturing to York and further, and I loved York Theatre Royal’s show.
“If you see all the pantos everywhere, they can become like wallpaper, but stumbling across Berwick in York was like a breath of fresh air. I’d never seen anything like it. Stepping out of the script, as he does, I just loved it.
“I never really thought there was a place for it in what I did but was more than happy to see it in Berwick’s pantos, and I did try to put some of that madness in my shows, like I have for 16 years at Newcastle Theatre Royal.”
What struck you most about Berwick’s pantos?
“I like the way he has catchphrases that you don’t have to spend three minutes introducing to the audience because they already know them.
“I like how he returns to things from previous shows, how he uses wild titles and how he has cast members returning every year.
“It’s no secret that our most successful pantos are where the stars keep returning: Allan Stewart, 20-plus years at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh; Billy Pearce, more than 20 years at the Bradford Alhambra; Danny Adams and Clive Webb, 16 years at Newcastle Theatre Royal; Matt Slack at Birmingham Hippodrome.
“It’s true that pantomime is a celebration of local culture and that’s why Berwick had that long run at the Theatre Royal.”
How did you feel when Berwick retired?
“The day after The Grand Old Dame Of York finished, and I was very tired after directing three pantomimes and producing 30 shows that winter, I got very emotional, thinking ‘this is the end of an era’. But I was also thinking ‘why does Berwick want to retire in his early seventies, when he doesn’t have to travel to do the show, he can go home every night?’”
How did Berwick’s dame resurrection at the Grand Opera House come to fruition?
“Mark Walters, the designer who Qdos have signed up for the London Palladium and Newcastle Theatre Royal pantomimes and who used to design Berwick’s pantos in York, got in touch on January 11 to say ‘Have you heard what’s happening to the Theatre Royal panto?’ [with the news of a new creative team being put in place].
“I woke up the next morning thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is over’. ‘Why is Berwick not coming back? One year off, now he should come back refreshed.
“I wrote to Berwick and said ‘you don’t know who I am, but I put on pantomimes and lots of other shows and I’m a massive fan of your pantos. If I can get the Grand Opera House, would you do it? Would you talk?’.”
What happened next?
“Berwick’s agent contacted me the following day and it developed very quickly from there.
“I just felt that Berwick’s panto was a little bit of pantomime history that should continue.
“Qdos produce all the other Ambassador Theatre Group pantomimes, and I was aware that Three Bears Productions’ contract was not being renewed. Normally it’s about ‘big’ casting, but this was different. There was Berwick and all his regulars.
“It happened quickly with Berwick and then we approached the other four [Barrass, Leonard, Cooper and Powell], and there just seemed to be a passion to make it happen.”
Will you want more of “the same old rubbish” as Berwick calls it, or will you be seeking fresh elements to appeal to the regular Grand Opera House panto audience, who like plot, plenty for children to enjoy and popular songs?
“We want to make it a York pantomime. We have to grasp all the best bits that have really worked for Berwick, and we also have to work out what’s the best recipe for this opportunity to move forward in a different way.
“I remember the advice of a member of the audience in Newcastle, who said: ‘Don’t ever change it, but keep surprising me’, and that’s what we have to discover each time; how to do that.
“But Berwick’s panto format is very unique, and I feel that while he wants to do it, and they all want to do it, and there’s an audience that wants him to do it, then let’s continue doing it.
“What I do know is that more people still saw David, Martin, Suzy and AJ in Sleeping Beauty than went to Snow White at the Opera House, by a considerable margin, and by adding Berwick to the mix again, it will be interesting to be in York next winter.”
Does the feisty side of Berwick, such as his “I’m b****y furious” outburst at the finale to the last night of Sleeping Beauty, worry you?
“Anybody that is passionate about what they do can have a reputation for being demanding, but that goes with the territory.
“You expect anyone with a mind like that is going to challenge, always wanting things to be better. I’m sure he only does it with the audience in mind. It’s just about doing the best job for them.”
Will there be a rivalry with the York Theatre Royal panto, now to be co-produced with Evolution Productions’ Paul Hendy and Emily Wood, presenting Cinderella for 2020-2021?
“I know Paul and Emily well. They’ve sat in my house. We might all be panto producers but there’s no rivalry there, though I’d love to know why a repertory theatre is teaming up with a pantomime company.
“Picking the Theatre Royal cast now, it will have to be star-driven, otherwise who will go? But Paul is a very clever panto man, so he won’t be going into it to get it wrong.
“Besides, there are more important things going on in the world than a panto ‘rivalry. It’s really not worth falling out when it’s only four of five weeks a year.”
Could the two theatres potentially be swapping their pantomime audiences?
“If there were 31,000 who saw Sleeping Beauty without Berwick – and there’s no surprise that ticket sales fell when someone who’s an institution isn’t there on stage anymore – then there’ll be those 31,000 here. I think there’s no reason why we won’t have 40,000 people coming.
“It would be great to keep some of the regular Grand Opera House panto audience too, if they’ve never experienced a Berwick Kaler pantomime. But I also understand those who want something more traditional, though I think the York audience is still stronger for a Berwick Kaler pantomime than a normal storyline-driven, fairy-tale panto.
“In year one, people might go and see both.”
Will you be looking to inject young talent into the Grand Opera House pantomime, alongside the established team?
“I’m always mindful of who are the pantomime stars of tomorrow because we’re not breeding them as we once were, like when they used to do a Blackpool summer season or a sitcom.
“Today’s comedy stars do Radio 2 and Radio 4 shows and bypass panto, so we have to find the new stars through other ways.”
Is there a chance that Mark Walters might design the Grand Opera House show, now that the ex-York Theatre Royal panto designer has signed to the Qdos stable?
“I’m talking to Mark about it now. If it wasn’t for Mark, I wouldn’t have put that request in to Berwick to play dame again.
“We’ve met already about Humpty Dumpty for Newcastle Theatre Royal…and we’ll discuss Dick Turpin Rides Again too.”
As a hugely successful pantomime producer and director yourself, with the London Palladium and Newcastle Theatre Royal to your name, what makes a good panto?
“Two things, I would say: comedy and magic. Not magic tricks, but that sense of wonderment that you can’t put your finger on.
“The best pantomimes are the funniest ones. We can get terribly criticised for not having as much plot as we could, but the best received shows have always been more focused on comedy, set pieces and routines.
“The plot has to be there but the show must be funny and it has to have a wow factor about it.”
Qdos Entertainment present Berwick Kaler in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House, York, from December 12 to January 10 2021. Dame Berwick and his co-stars will launch ticket sales on February 14 from 10am at the box office. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york.