BERWICK Kaler, Britain’s longest-running pantomime dame, is “bowing out gracefully after 47 years of getting away with complete nonsense” on the York stage, but there could yet be one final show.
“It has crossed my mind to maybe do a one-off performance as a thank-you, a show of appreciation to the staunch fans of our pantomime,” says Berwick.
Most likely it would be held at the Grand Opera House, host to the Kaler panto for the past three winters.
“I don’t want to say too much but the farewell has been handled wrongly,” says Berwick. “I’ll be 78 later this year [October 31], I’m ready to retire, but I would like to have made the decision in a better way.”
A seven-minute standing ovation had concluded the final night of Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse – written and directed by and starring the dowager dame as ever – but ticket sales for the December 9 to January 6 run had been underwhelming, even prompting a discounted price campaign.
“All those panto companies in the business, they need to make money,” acknowledges Berwick. “But I just thought, after the reception from the audience to that last show, which was totally amazing…
“…I’ve always said that every show I’ve done was ‘rubbish’, but that standing ovation, I don’t know if they knew something that night.
“I know it can’t go on forever. It can’t. I’ve not spoken anyone apart from [UK Productions managing director] Martin Dodds, who rang to let me know, so I’ve kept it to myself for a week.
“What I don’t want is for us to continue and for me to find that my energy levels – which were as good as ever for Robinson Crusoe – were suddenly not there. I smoke, I drink, I’m lucky to have got to the age I have!”
That thought would seem to rule out any suggestion of a move for Kaler and co to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre for winter 2024, in favour of a farewell one-nighter.
“I’ve had a pacemaker for eight years,” says Berwick, who also had a double heart bypass operation in July 2017. “I wanted to get out of hospital the day after the pacemaker was fitted. They said ‘No’, but I did leave the next day!
“I’m just sorry that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to our most wonderful audiences, to say ‘thank you’ on my part and everyone in the panto gang’s part too. Now it’s about just getting used to looking after my two dogs on my own in Acomb.”
And now, the end is here, the final curtain falling after panto producers UK Productions decided not to retain the services of veteran dame Berwick, who had transferred across the city after 40 years at York Theatre Royal to stage Dick Turpin Rides Again and subsequently Old Granny Goose and Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse.
“I would love to thank everyone in York for giving me a career that would not have gone on this length of time without their support, because every minute I’ve been on stage I’ve just bounced off the audience’s energy, and I’m so grateful for that,” says Berwick.
“When we went to the Grand Opera House, it continued to be ‘the York pantomime’, and that’s a reputation I hope will go on.”
Exiting panto stage left too will be Kaler’s “loyal gang”: long-serving comic stooge Martin Barrass, vainglorious villain David Leonard, principal golden gal Suzy Cooper and “luverly Brummie” A J Powell after their three-year run at the Cumberland Street theatre.
Thanking his co-stars for “putting up with me for so many years”, Berwick says: “I don’t know why UK Productions, even if they didn’t want me anymore, wouldn’t want to keep David, the best villain in the country, the amazing Suzy, Martin and AJ.”
Born in Sunderland, Berwick moved to London in his teenage years to be a painter and decorator, but the acting bug bit. Initially, in pantomime Berwick took to the dark side as a villain but 1977 found him donning his wig as Ugly Sister Philomena in Cinderella at the Theatre Royal after playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that summer.
He would go on to play dame, write the script, ignore conventional plot lines, ad lib ad nauseam and direct “the rubbish”, year after year, bringing him the Freedom of the City, an honorary doctorate from the University of York and a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Great British Pantomime Awards.
“I came to York, not known to the Theatre Royal audience, but the thing is, they take a comic actor to their heart and that was case with me,” he says.
He retired once… “Don’t forget, when I announced my retirement from the Theatre Royal, I was ready to retire. It was that thing of marking 40 years.”
He soon regretted that decision, even more so after writing, co-directing and appearing on screen in the 2019 panto, Sleeping Beauty, and particularly so after the Theatre Royal decided to part with the Kaler gang to make way for a new partnership with Evolution Pantomimes.
The invitation to take up a three-year contract at the Grand Opera House brought about his comeback in 2021, but his finale to his last interview with The Press turned out to be prescient.
“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],” he mused last December.
“When they announce the next Grand Opera House pantomime, it will either be with us or without us.”
The reality is, “without us”, but with a new “star casting” instead for Beauty And The Beast’s run from December 7 to January 5 2025, with tickets on sale from Monday, March 11 at 4pm at atgtickets.com/york.
As for that Berwick Kaler farewell show, watch this space.
Copyright of The Press, York