We’re all babbies. We’re all bairns.
Babbies and bairns we’ll always be.
We’re all the same- what’s in a name?
Babbies and bairns are we.
Like many British children my lifelong love of theatre began with pantomime. I grew up in a house where low culture (and it is still a culture remember) was everywhere. The only time that this intersected with theatre was once a year at Christmas. I was taken into York and allowed to sit in the Theatre Royal’s stunning auditorium to see a bit of sparkle and glamour. It was colourful, silly, nothing like real life and I believed in it absolutely. I could boo the villain, shout out “he’s behind you” and “oh no he isn’t” and pelt towards the stage to be first when children were allowed up there for the songsheet. I can still sing I Like Riding on a Choo Choo Train fifty or so years later. Once a year. It was starvation rations but it did make it special. So special that much later, even when I discovered that there were other kinds of theatre happening inside there, I never wanted to stop going. First love is very powerful.
40 years ago the pantomime audience in York struck lucky with the arrival of a warm, mischievous, anarchic presence called Berwick Kaler. A Geordie incomer who we took to our hearts and who loved us back and never went away. He grew into the best dame in the country (no caveats needed from a York local) and built a cast around him who knew exactly what we wanted and how to deliver it. He has the warmth and mischief of an old style dame, in a direct line from Dan Leno, George Robey and Arthur Askey. A bloke in a frock- which is just how it should be. This year, 2019, is his final year as dame. He is retiring from a genre which is exhausting and physical after being there as long as he could for us. Nobody could have asked for more. We have one last chance to see him walk to the front of the stage, hold out his arms and claim us as his babbies and bairns, see his dog on a stick, hear about Mrs Fitzackerly, hear him wail “what am I like?” and generally create organised chaos among those who share a stage with him. I wasn’t going to miss it. I was going to be waving goodbye to a little part of my life along with him.
So how was the goodbye? Well there was no plot- but as a plot is always famously absent in Berwick’s writing that was no worry to anybody. I remember baby sharks, little red riding hood, Dick Turpin, a maniacal dentist, flying aircraft, a hot air balloon, a pantomime horse, a twinkly fairy organising a bake off and a lot of song and dance from a very hard working supporting cast and it was all good. The best moment came when Berwick sang a sentimental song about friendship while sitting in his familiar rocking chair, becoming increasingly disconcerted as the set was removed around him. Pure theatre, more than that- pure music hall. All the regular team, Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper, were there on top form and the show delivered exactly the right mix of fun and poignancy which the occasion demanded. The audience loved it.
Was there a standing ovation at the end? After 40 years? Of course there was. We had to be told by Berwick to sit down again- we’d paid for our seats after all we might as well sit in them- but the most poignant moment for me came afterwards. It was the sigh of disappointment from the whole house as the hand which always waves to us from under the curtain when it finally comes down disappeared. He really had gone now.