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In Conversation



Berwick Kaler has been playing the Dame in York for over 40 years: he’s a Yorkshire institution. We go behind the scenes to ask him about how he started in showbusiness, the origins of panto and why he came out of retirement.




Sharon Watson is the Principal of the Northern School of Contem- porary Dance (NSCD), which is based in Chapeltown, Leeds. The NSCD is a leading centre for contemporary dance in the UK and provides the only conserva- toire-level dance training in the North of England. Sharon was the longest-standing artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. She joined the company in 1989 and and worked as a dancer, performing all over the world. Sharon is also a choreographer – she made the celebrated Windrush: Movement of the People a few years ago.


Sharon grew up in Harehills and was taught dance by Nadine Senior, an influential teacher who inspired countless young people to take up the art form. Nadine Senior has had a huge impact on Sharon’s life: “I would not be doing what I do today if it wasn’t for the nurturing caring and inspiring role she played.” Nadine set Sharon on her journey to become a dancer, choreographer, artistic director and now Principal of the NSCD.


In 2021, Sharon was awarded an MBE, for services to Dance. She was also appointed a Deputy Lieutenant. In 2016 was named one of the Sue Ryder “Yorkshire Women of Achievement in Business” and was named “Yorkshire Woman of the Year.” Despite these many accolades, Sharon stays grounded and rooted in her home community of Leeds. She lives and works a few streets away from the house where she was born and is passionate about making Leeds a creative, supportive, dynamic city. To that end she’s been an integral part of the LEEDS2023 Year of Culture. Sharon welcomed Shine into the Northern School of Contemporary Dance to share her story and passion.


How did you become a dancer?

I’m from a very large family. My parents had a house in Harehills - Potternewton Park was our stomping ground. And I’ve ended up in this amazing building – the Northern School of Contemporary Dance – which came from the ambition of Nadine Senior, a teacher at Harehills Middle School. Nadine Senior was a PE teacher. She and the headteacher decided to put dance on the curriculum: it was there for everybody. Every schoolchild did dance for the four years they were there. It was such an integrated school; so many languages, so many communities, races, cultures. Nadine knew that you don’t need words. Dance was the one thing that unified us all. It was where we could all do our best. I went there at the age of 9. I have a sister who is two-and-a-half years older than me so she set the pace. She came home dancing and I thought, “This is great!”


I couldn’t wait to get to the school. After my first dance class, I came home and said to my parents, “At 16, I’m going to London. I’m going to be a professional dancer and I’m going to travel the world.” My parents said, “OK, that’s really nice Sharon – we’ll talk about it when you’re older.”


After leaving that school at 13, I ended up at Parklands Girls High School in Seacroft. It was a battle. There were only four of us black girls in the class, it was really, really hard. Of course, I’d come back to Harehills for the after-school dance clubs and the performance group we were with. And the teachers were not impressed by that. At 15, I went to the school and said, “Please can I go to London to do a work placement. This was the early 80s. The teacher said, “We don’t do that.” I said, “There isn’t really anything you’re offering me that I’m interested in.” So I went back to Nadine and said, “I really want to be a student in London.” So she contacted a friend of hers who agreed to put me up for three weeks, contacted the dance school that was going to take me. And I went back to my school and said, “Right, I’m going.” They just looked at me as if to say “How?!” And off I went at 15.


What gave you that confidence?

I think I was hiding behind the shadows of someone else. I knew I had confidence in somebody else, who had my best interests at heart. I had the confidence to be in

that space, to manage myself and do the job I’d gone to do. I had that discipline. Nadine gave me that discipline and confidence – if only I could bottle that! I went to the London School of Contemporary Dance, ordinarily a three-year course. My first job I got before I had graduated. I was 18. My sister and I, we were really naughty. We weren’t supposed to be auditioning at that age. The school didn’t really allow it. But we went anyway. The audition got down to two people: my sister and me. It was for the Spiral Dance Company in Liverpool. Tim Lamford said, “I don’t know who to choose. I need to think about this. Give me your numbers. What’s your name?” “Sharon Donaldson.” “And you?” “Dawn Donaldson...

“No, we’re not having you on – yes, we’re sisters.” That night I got the phone call to say I’d got the job. But at exactly the same time, Dawn was on the phone with another company who said, “We we’d love to employ you for another job.” It was amazing. It was the best thing. That job took me to Liverpool and we ended up doing a performance in Broadmoor. I didn’t tell my mum! Then I graduated and became a BP apprentice. In terms of perfor- mance I just went from strength to strength. I knew I always wanted to do my own thing creatively.


Your pantos have developed their own traditions over the years. Where did the Wagon Wheels come from?
On that first show, I asked them, “What will you throw out to the children in the audience?” They did that in the commercial pantos where I was the villain. They said, “Nothing.” I said, “Why?” This was York – the city of chocolate! They said, “We used to throw out boiled sweets and they’d throw ‘em back.” So I said, “Well, sling ‘em something they won’t throw back”! So the day we opened I went into Jackson’s, just off Bootham’s. I walked into the shop and just on the left – I can still see it – Wagon Wheels. A Wagon Wheel was the biggest treat you could give me when I was a kid. So I picked up about 6. And that night, during the songsheet, I threw them out. And – whoosh – they flew out, a couple of them flying into the Gallery. And that appeared in the good review! The production manager said, “You do realise that for every performance, we’re going to have to buy Wagon Wheels!” What I didn’t realise was that they’re not even made in York! I broke a lot of rules. I’d give out bottles of beer. Why not!
You’ve made so many children laugh over the years. What was your childhood like?
I was orphaned at 11! I was illegitimate. It was 1946; I had 6 brothers and sisters. Two of my sisters where 18 and 16 when I was born. My mother had separated from William Kaler, but she couldn’t trace him to get divorced. So you can imagine what my sisters thought when I came along. My mother was a cleaner – she’d do anything to keep the family together. I was born in a slum. When I was about 3, we moved to a council house. It was the usual story: nobody locked their back door, nobody had anything to steal: we were all the same. I didn’t have much, didn’t get many toys for Christmas. But that did me a big favour. Because from an early age, I used to use my imagination. I used to entertain myself with stories. I’d live in a better world in my head. It was a very rough time. When my mother died, I went to live with my brother Fred. He was 21 and had just got married. I slept on a couch for a few years. I didn’t think we were poverty-stricken at the time. Fred and his wife moved to London so I went with them.
Did you always want to go on stage?
I think I was a natural. I remember being in a Nativity Play and my mother said, “You were the little star!” And in the Sea Scouts and we had to act a scene out. I remember thinking, “I’m really living this.” We had a drop leaf table when I was a kid and I used to sit there pretending to play the piano. I was full of imagination. But when I got to London it all started. I was a painter and decorator. I was painting the outside of a film producer’s house. Talgarth Road, it was. This producer was making a film called The L-Shaped Room at the time. Laurence Harvey was a very smooth English actor and I used to see him coming to the house. So one day, I plucked up the courage to speak to him. I had a thick Wearside accent at the time. I said, “I fancy doing a bit of acting!” He couldn’t understand a word I was saying. But he came back a few times, bless him, and he’d talk to me. He said, “I’d get rid of that accent, my boy.” I never tried hard to get rid of it, but it went eventually. Somebody told me I had to audition. And without any lessons at all – nothing – I went to a West End audition for a musical. I had never sung in my life. I started to sing, “Pass me by, pass me -” “Thank you very much!”
And did you get the part?
No! Of course not! What was I thinking?! Nobody had told me about RADA, or anything like that. I then went to a few singing lessons. My teacher there said he knew an old comedian called Ted Gatting, who works in Margate, doing an old-time Music Hall show. So I got a job there. That set me on my way. I was feeding the comedian. He was so bad that halfway through the run, Ted told us to swap parts so I got the laughs! You know, I’m the luckiest moron to ever enter show business. I’ve never trained. But I’ve played the Old Vic. I’ve had my name in lights. I’ve played the Pope. I’ve done about 10 West End Shows. And I don’t know how! I’ve made films, done loads of television.


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You’ve worked other famous names – Rik Mayall, Jimmy Nail?
I got a bit part on The New Statesman with Rik Mayall. My role was a reporter called “Jeffrey Dicquead”. A regular part. Rik would be doing some romantic scene with his wife – with a studio audience – and I’d pop my head up from behind the sofa and say, “Can I quote you on that?” Rik was very good to me. I’ve worked with people who were jealous of the contact I had with the audiences. They didn’t like that I got a laugh. But Rik wasn’t like that. And I’m not like that. If someone else gets a laugh in the panto, it's a win!
Jimmy Nail is still a very close friend. We got on like a house on fire. No-one else got on with Jimmy! We did 3 series of Spender together. The crew used to say, “We’ll be alright today because Berwick’s on set”. Jimmy was always in a good mood when he worked with me. We were poles apart in many ways. He didn’t like that “Newcastle versus Sunderland” stuff.
And now you’re in Yorkshire. What keeps you here?
I came to York and I had to look on the map to find out where it was. I was thick! I entered York in 1975. I was in an Agatha Christie play – but no-one knew who had cast me. The director had no idea. My agent just told me to get to York on a Monday morning. There was a strangeness about the read through. But there was no-one else who’d been offered it. It was a mystery. Story of my life. And now I live in the most wonderful old house in a lovely part of York. York has been good to me, over the years.
How do you feel about getting older?
I know I look older, but my God, I do not feel it at all. I do forget things, mentally. The usual thing. There are 3 floors in my house. I get to the top, lots of stairs, I think, “What have I come up here for?” But mentally I’m fine. That can be a problem with older people. We think we can do anything. I’m teaching myself to take it easy. I’m lucky to be alive. I’ve got a pacemaker in, a double bypass. And I’m as fit as a fiddle. I’m well satisfied with my life. I’ve been so very lucky. I pat myself on the back and say, “You’ve done alright!”
And you’re continuing to entertain audiences in Old Granny Goose.
I am basing this year’s pantomime on humour. This year, I’m saying to the cast, “Don’t rely on effects, on lavish sets, all that.” It’s all costing too much money! It’s about the laughs. I’ve got the best cast. It’ll be magnificent!

Old Granny Goose is at Grand Opera House, York this December & January. Phone 02890 241919 for tickets.

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