Entertainment & Arts

There's nothing like a panto dame

Their frocks are florid flights of fancy, they mix fairytale with farce - and their bosoms are decidedly false. Every festive pantomime needs a great dame. But who are the men beneath the bloomers, and why do they do it?

Berwick Kaler - York's panto superstar

On 1 March every year, a queue forms at midnight outside the York Theatre Royal.

The devoted fans are not waiting to buy tickets to see a pop concert or an A-list actor - but a pantomime.

The main attraction is Berwick Kaler, who has starred as York's pantomime dame for 34 of the last 36 years, writing and co-directing 32 of those shows.

The theatre does not allow internet or telephone bookings on the first day of ticket sales, he says. "It's become an event. They queue from midnight and it reaches round to the minster.

Berwick Kaler (right) appeared in 1990s TV drama Spender with Jimmy Nail (left) and Peter Guinness

"Our audience is 80% adult. They've grown up with me. They were children when they first came to see me."

Between pantomimes, Kaler, 66, has carved out an acting career with supporting roles in TV shows like Spender, The New Statesman and Crocodile Shoes, as well as appearing in stage plays and musicals in the West End and across the UK.

Is there snobbery towards pantomimes from other actors he encounters? "Oh, have you got three hours to spare?" he roars. "Of course."

Kaler first dabbled in the dame business while a jobbing actor, when somebody in a theatre suggested he give it a try.

"I put the wig on, put a pair of boots and a frock on, and suddenly people around me started laughing," he says. "I thought, oh well, I'll give it a go, never dreaming all these years later I'd still be doing it."

Playing a dame is unlike other forms of acting, he believes. "You can be the funniest comedian or comic actor in the world - but you put on a frock and suddenly you become the most un-funny.

"It's the face," he adds. "If the face suits the wig, you should be able to get away with it."

  • Berwick Kaler is in Robin Hood and His Merry Mam at the York Theatre Royal until 2 February.
  • He also features in Michael Grade's History of the Pantomime Dame on BBC Four on 20 December. Watch a clip here.

Bob Stott - the management consultant

For nine months of the year, Bob Stott is a management consultant, helping companies in crisis.

For the other three, he is Dame Dotty, a comedy battle-axe who has become a festive fixture at the Customs House theatre in South Shields.

"I help organisations manage change, usually quite radical change," Stott says of his main job.

"Getting that head off and becoming Dame Dotty takes about two or three days. And then once the Dame Dotty head's there, there is no point in asking me a serious question 'til January, because it just turns to a Dotty mush."

Bob Stott is retiring from playing Dame Dotty after 37 years

Stott first donned the dame's frock 37 years ago in amateur dramatics, attracted by the comic value of the role. He even met his wife in panto when she was in the chorus.

Panto skills can be useful as a management consultant, he believes. "I think in any occupation, especially one where you're dealing with people who can be quite stressed, that sense of humour is very handy," he says.

So what do the pin-striped executives think of his bawdy, befrocked alter-ego?

"I tend not to tell most of them," he confesses. "I tell the ones I think can take it.

"I've actually had clients come to the pantomime, and we'd be talking about things they've been doing, and then they'd say, 'sorry Bob, I cannot have a serious conversation with you standing there in a frock'."

But many of his clients are in the US, where pantomime is unknown. He has told one current American colleague about his double life, he says, but "I don't think he gets it".

"They haven't got anything like it," Stott says. "I said to him, if wearing a frock's good enough for Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, it's good enough for me."

  • Bob Stott is in Dick Whittington at the Customs House until 6 January.

Kenneth Alan Taylor - the Nottingham legend

Kenneth Alan Taylor's theatre career has included spells as artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse and Oldham Coliseum.

The 75-year-old has also recently appeared in plays by Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett. But pantomime is his first love, he says.

He introduced traditional panto to the Nottingham Playhouse 29 years ago and his own turn as the dame soon became a hit. Despite retiring in 2001, and again in 2009, he is back on stage this Christmas.

He first played a dame in 1964. "She can be the most anarchic character," he says.

"What I love is that a good pantomime embraces all kinds of theatre - song, dance, drama, comedy, a spectacle, and the dame has more licence to have the most fun and divert from the script, particularly if you become established.

"It's a freedom that you never have in any other form of theatre."

The audience reaction means panto stars can revel in the kind of adulation normally reserved for stand-up comedians, he explains.

"It's a sort of ego trip in a way. A lot of it is nothing to do with you.

"For instance, I have nine or 10 costumes this year, so when you come on in a wonderful costume, you get a round of applause. You haven't done anything, you've just put a costume on. Now that doesn't very often happen in a play."

His shows rely on a traditional formula rather than C-list celebrities, who he blames for giving pantomimes a reputation for tackiness.

"So many of the commercial pantomimes are so bad," he says.

"They don't have a proper rehearsal time, they have so-called celebrities, and you just think, they don't know what they're doing. Why would you pay to see them?"

  • Kenneth Alan Taylor is in Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood at the Nottingham Playhouse until 19 January.

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