GRAND dame Berwick Kaler will step on a York stage on Wednesday for the first time since Covid ruled him out of the last week of his comeback show, Dick Turpin Rides Again, last December.
Last winter had marked his crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House after four decades at York Theatre Royal, bringing his trusty cohorts, vainglorious villain David Leonard, spring-heeled comic stooge Martin Barrass, golden principal gal Suzy Cooper and “luverly Brummie” AJ Powell, along for the ride.
Roll on a year, and all the team are back once more after protracted contract negotiations for 49 performances of The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Dame Berwick’s 42nd York panto.
Some things have not changed: at 76, and five years on from his double heart bypass operation and having his pacemaker fitted – or “Gerry” as he calls it – Dame Berwick is still directing the show, as well as performing the dame’s role, Mrs Plum-Duff this year.
He completed writing the script at 6am last Thursday, as close to the “deadline” as ever for rehearsals at a new location for 2022, Theatre@41, Monkgate.
“I have to say the management has been as good as gold,” says Dame Berwick. “I’ve ended up by concentrating on what I consider good old-fashioned pantomime values, so I’ve put the emphasis on the verbal exchanges.”
Other things have changed, however. Last year’s partners in the Grand Opera House pantomime, Qdos Entertainment/Crossroads Live, have made way after only a year for UK Productions, whose musical theatre shows and pantomime play across Britain and Ireland, London’s West End, mainland Europe, Turkey, Malta, Malaysia and New Zealand.
Berwick, meanwhile, has suffered the loss of his partner, David Norton, after 40 years together. “It’s the loneliness. Suddenly you’re alone,” he says of the grief he has experienced. “We couldn’t have got this show on if I didn’t have the team around me. There’s no way I could have done it otherwise.
“I’ve lost a way of life,” he reflects. “I have to do everything now. There are two dogs [spaniels, should you be wondering]; they’d go out two or three times a day with David, so they were always looked after during my pantomime commitments.
“Now I’ve had to bring my sister and her husband up from Ilkley to look after them, let them out, during Old Granny Goose, and they’re in their 80s.”
Berwick’s weight has dropped to nine and a half stone, his face and legs thinner at 76. “I’d always been around 11 stone. That was my fighting weight for pantomime,” he says. “I can’t afford to lose any more.”
He once said he lost as much two stone during those long, long pantomime runs at York Theatre Royal, an endurance test of heavy costumes and even heavier workloads when three performances a day were not uncommon over weekends and the festive holidays in bygone days.
The fighting spirit still burns inside, coupled with the need to entertain, to savour the roar of the crowd. “If I can get through this year, then I can get through anything in life,” says Berwick.
He may have vowed to retire at 70 or after 40 years of pantomimes, settling for the second route out, but he quickly regretted that decision. “I still think I can give people a laugh, and I think this show will be a laugh,” he says.
“I’ve always worked, and anything I’ve got, I’ve always worked for. I’ve just worked and worked from the age of 15 [when he headed from Sunderland to London to be a painter and decorator]. I still need that fix of performing every year – and I’m feeling fit.”
As for the content of The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Dame Berwick says: “I hope you think the humour is all natural. I take the mick out of myself about my age, like when I do this Barbie Girl number – I’m calling it ‘Barmy Girl’ – where I collapse at the end.
“The good thing is that we can all take the mick out of each other on stage after all these years, and audiences love that.
“But there’ll be no mention of Covid or the hardships that people have had to go through. They don’t want that right now.
“Mind you, it’s so difficult, especially now in these woke times, when I’ll write something that I don’t think will offend anyone, but then someone says, ‘you can’t say that’. Though I’m all for woke progress, it’s suffocating comedy.”
Slapstick will still play its part. “I can do some lovely slapstick, like a decorating scene, making Martin do all the physical stuff!” says Dame Berwick. “But I can’t throw buckets of water. That’s just not practical anymore. When you ‘move house’ [to the Grand Opera House], you have to adjust.
“But I’ve still got sections in the script where I’ll go down the steps to the stalls to banter with the audience. That was something we really missed under Covid restrictions.”
Dame Berwick wants to continue tapping into the inner child, the one devoid of a sense of embarrassment when throwing off the shackles of English reserve in pantoland. “That’s why there’ll be no retirement. I’ve had one very big retirement and that’s it,” he says. The boots with one yellow lace, one red, are not ready for hanging up.
Berwick Kaler in The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Grand Opera House, York, December 10 to January 8 2023. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/york.
Copyright of The Press, York