BUMPING into Martin Barrass last night beneath At The Mill’s magical open-air theatre tent at Stillington Mill set the mind to pondering the fate of his winter pantomime in York.
Will comic stooge Martin bounce back with Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and A J Powell in veteran Dame Berwick Kaler’s panto debut at the Grand Opera House this Christmas after their shock transfer to Qdos Entertainment from York Theatre Royal?
Here is the latest statement from Qdos, the pantomime powerhouse across the land, amid the continuing blight of Covid-19’s social-distancing requirements leaving theatres in the dark.
“We had been very clear that we required clarity from the Government regarding the re-opening of theatres by Monday, 3 August, in order for our pantomime season as we know it to take place,” the statement read.
“Based on the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s reiteration last week that the Government won’t be providing further guidance on theatres operating without social distancing until November at the earliest, we are left with no choice but to begin the consultation process with our partner theatres about the viability of each show. This is a complex process and will take several weeks to complete.
“We are not immediately announcing the postponement of all shows, however plans will be announced by individual theatres and communicated to ticket holders in due course.”
Watch this space for Qdos’s decision on whether Dame Berwick’s pantomime comeback, Dick Turpin Rides Again, will or will not ride again. What will it be: pantomime or pandemime?
QDOS Entertainment today cancelled their biggest pantomime outside London: the Birmingham Hippodrome production of Goldilocks And The Three Bears starring Jason Donovan.
Scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the show is now re-scheduled for Christmas 2021, Donovan, co-star Matt Slack and all.
Qdos’s pantomime at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Sleeping Beauty, has been put to sleep too until 2021.
TODAY is World Theatre Day,
although the day-to-day world of theatre has ground to a shuddering halt, its
stages silenced by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, today is still the
chance to celebrate Shakespeare’s sentiment in As You Like It that “All the world’s
Shakespeare’s Melancholy Jaques went
on to mull over exits and entrances, how one man in his time plays many parts,
his acts being seven ages. Let’s turn that life model to theatre itself, and
none more so than the Grand Opera House in York, a theatre, a building, a site,
that has been through so many ages, so many stages, that seven would be an
Its life before theatre can be
traced back to 71AD as part of the Roman Quayside; 450AD, a nunnery; and Victorian
days as a “sink or stew”, brothels, crowded slum housing, until the area was
The Grand Opera House building in Cumberland Street began life as a Corn Exchange, designed in 1868 by architect G A Dean to double as a concert room, hence an ornate blue/vermillion/ gold gilding colour scheme.
Conversion to a 1,540-capacity theatre followed in 1901, undertaken by theatrical manager William Peacock, who presented the first performance at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, as it was first named, on January 20 1902 when Australian music hall entertainer Florrie Forde starred in Little Red Riding Hood.
The 1916 introduction of the
Amusement Tax was not amusing, putting all theatres at risk, but The Empire, as
it was now known, survived. Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields, Lillie Langtry and
Marie Lloyd played there; so too, later, did Vera Lynn, Laurel and Hardy, on
their last tour, and Morecambe and Wise.
A huge rates increase in 1945 ruined
the theatre, forcing Marie Blanche, Peacock’s daughter, to end 44 years of
family ownership by selling it to F.J. Butterworth. Audiences declined against
the competition of television, to the point where the theatre closed in 1956,
blaming the “crippling entertainment tax, when TV pays no tax”.
Ernest Shepherd of Shambles acquired the theatre in 1958, duly
adding the ‘S’ and ‘S’ to the Empire name, removing the stage and levelling the
stalls floor for roller-skating, wrestling and bingo.
The end of Empire days came in 1985, but after the India Pru Company
acquired the building in 1987, Henley-on-Thames architect Gordon J Claridge was given the
brief to restore it to its 1909 glory. The Art Nouveau wallpaper was copied;
the chandelier duplicated; the carpets rewoven from the original pattern with
the Grand Opera House motif added to the design.
Stalls boxes were restored and a new stage built; the Clifford
Street entrance was turned into a box office; Cumberland Street became the main
entrance. The £4 million renovation complete, the theatre re-opened on
September 26 1989 as the Grand Opera House, but tempted fate by presenting Macbeth
– traditionally a harbinger of bad luck in the theatre world – as the first
production, 33 years since the last professional stage performance.
Only two years later, the theatre closed suddenly, staff arriving to find the doors locked, as the curse of Macbeth did indeed strike.
E&B Productions brought to an end two and a half years of darkness
after acquiring the premises for a nominal sum, re-opening the theatre on
February 26 1993, since when the Grand Opera House has remained open, hindered
only occasionally by the River Ouse in flood.
The theatre’s ownership passed from E&B Productions to Apollo
Leisure in 1995 and American company SFX in 1999. After SFX merged with Clear
Channel in 2000, and later set up a new company, Live Nation, to focus on live entertainment,
in 2006, the latest change of hands came in 2010 when Britain’s largest
owner/operator of theatres, the Ambassador Theatre Group added the York theatre
to their roster.
The ownership baton may be passed on, but each has favoured a
programme of lavish musicals, often straight from the West End; stand-up
comedy; opera; ballet; dance; concerts; tribute acts; celebrity talks; classic
theatre; new plays; in-house youth theatre summer projects; myriad shows by
York stage companies and a star-studded commercial pantomime each Christmas.
Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Cabaret, Chicago, Jesus Christ
Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, Blood Brothers, Legally Blonde and Once The
Musical; the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Winter’s Tale; the National
Theatre’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, Hedda Gabler and
Jane Eyre; The Waterboys, Antony & The Johnsons, Adele at 19, Echo &
The Bunnymen; Ken Dodd so many times, Danny La Rue, Ross Noble, Jimmy Carr, Paul
Merton, Julian Clary; Sir Ian McKellen, on his 80th birthday solo tour.
The list goes on…
In the deepening shadow of Coronavirus, we await to discover when
that list will start up again, but let us hope that once more we can gather for
such upcoming shows as The Commitments, from October 26 to 31 and Strictly
Ballroom, with Strictly Come Dancing’s Kevin Clifton, from November 23 to 28.
Come the winter, all eyes will be on Berwick Kaler as the grand
old dame of York becomes the Grand’s new dame after his crosstown transfer, with
villain David Leonard, perennial principal girl Suzy Cooper, comic stooge
Martin Barrass and luverly Brummie A J Powell in tow, for Dick Turpin Rides Again
from December 12 to January 10.
There to greet them and you, unmoved by the tide of theatre
history, will be the Grand Opera House ghost: a nun in the Dress Circle.
Happy World Theatre Day, but happier still when theatre days and
nights can return.
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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,
“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.
grand old dame, Berwick Kaler, is back in panto. Oh yes, he is.
Theatre Royal, his “beloved home” for 41 years? Oh, no he isn’t.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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.
IT ended, as it only could, with the dame’s return to the
stage. In civvies, this final time, but not in civil mood as he wouldn’t let it
rest on the final night of Sleeping Beauty.
More like civil war. Us and them. Pantomime’s version of
Brexit, except with a different result, the majority, if not all, in the house,
wanting them to remain, not leave, when “one man” and “the board” have decided
it is time to move on. Get panto done, differently, with a new 2020 vision.
Dame Berwick didn’t name the “one man” who went to mow them
down, but he was referring to York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird,
newly cast as the panto villain. “I’ll give them three days” [to change their
minds], the grand dame vowed in a tone harking back to the Scargill and Red
Robbo days of union versus management.
“I don’t want to do him any harm…but he’s wrong”, said Mr
Kaler, surrounded by “the family”, the rest of the Panto Five, Martin, Suzy,
David and AJ, their fellow cast members and the crew, buoyed at each unscripted
but barbed line by an adoring home crowd, who cheered and booed his rallying
speech like they had throughout the show.
He even kissed the wall to express how much he loved this
theatre, getting down on his knees at one point too, arms outstretched, in appreciation
of his loyal subjects.
“A house does not make a home. A family does,” read one
letter read out earlier by the panto Queen, Martin Barrass, in his Bile Beans
can regalia in the shout-outs. “Please, Mr Bird, reconsider. Save our panto,”
pleaded a second, and there were plenty more.
“Yah boo to York Theatre Royal. We won’t be back,” hissed
one, read by the luverly Brummie AJ Powell.
Emotions were running high, as they had been for Martin Barrass, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall to speak from the heart at every performance since news broke a fortnight ago that Berwick Kaler, already retired from playing the dame, would not be asked to co-direct or write the 2020 show. “This cast and this band” would not be back either, said Barrass. “A decision that is nothing to do with us. If it was, we would be back each year until we drop.”
Back to Dame Berwick, who found himself feeling “more emotional” now, in this house of York winter of discontent, than in his valedictory speech at The Grand Old Dame Of York last February. Not for himself, he said, but for all those on stage with him who had given so many years – “some for half their lives” – to the Theatre Royal.
“I’ve been told I can’t tell you the truth, so I can’t say
the truth…but I want to because…I’m b****y furious,” he said. “I don’t want to
be political or anything…but someone tell the management that this wonderful,
wonderful theatre has been a repertory theatre for 275 years.
“It’s a repertory theatre and that means we put on our own
shows for the local population. It’s York’s theatre.”
After reading a letter of support sent that morning to “Berwick
Kaler, Acomb”, he resumed: “I just can’t understand that someone can do this to
something that does not need fixing…
…We have made money for this theatre for years. How can one man do this to us? I don’t understand it.”
“Anyway, they’ve got three days,” he repeated, before leading
company and audience through “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know
when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny
The final curtain fell, as it always must, but where and when might that sunny day reunion take place? What will happen to Dame Berwick’s three-day deadline? Will he rise again on the third day, and if so, to say or do what amid this collateral dame-age? Watch this space, as newspapers are wont to say.
As for that “one man”, Tom
Bird, he and the York Theatre Royal management will announce next winter’s show
on February 3. The end and the new beginning all in one.