December 8 2013 Latest news:
Kay Atwal, Chief Reporter
Monday, December 10, 2012
Favourite panto dame Michael Bertenshaw talks about his life as a larger than life character
He is the “man with the boobies”, the dame and the villian. It doesn’t matter how you describe him but Michael Bertenshaw, in his colourful guises, has become as much a part of the Christmas experience as the traditional pudding - at least for east London audiences.
And continuing in that fine tradition, he will be using his magic to entertain young and old at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in this year’s pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk.
Michael, who is 67, ( and-a-half, he quickly reminds me) discovered his hidden panto muscles almost by accident it seems. The Theatre Royal Stratford East was performing Red Riding Hood in 1983/84when the actor who was due to play the wolf pulled out. It turned out that he and Michael shared the same agent. The rest, as they say, is history but needless to say it was the first of many of Michael’s panto appearances.
He said: “With regard to pantomime... the question of why I’ve ‘chosen’ to do so much over the years is not a question that makes much sense in the real world.
“Most actors don’t get to choose a career path. There are periods without anything, then something comes up so you do it. Sometimes the thing you’ve done leads to more of the same - which I suppose means you must have been OK at it, but panto was never something I pursued or imagined myself doing when I left RADA.
“I was a trained classical actor, perhaps with a greater talent for comedy than for tragedy, but panto was just something that happened to me. I was asked if I’d like to audition, there was nothing else in the pipeline at the time so I went along and met the director.
“I was invited to play the part, the Wolf in Red Riding Hood 1983/4. The writers and I got along, they liked my style and I loved the job, so the next time they were writing a panto they wrote with me in mind as The Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella.
“A couple of years later they wanted me to play Abenazar in Aladdin. I worried a little that my CV would start to look panto-heavy (which I felt might compromise my chances of serious work elsewhere) but the weeks either side of Christmas tend to be a bit lean work-wise in the acting profession generally so I was very grateful to accept. And the rest is history! And I’ve had a great time, performing dames and villains in about 18 pantos now, all at Stratford East, plus loads of other stuff elsewhere the rest of the year. But it’s a career path that chose me, rather than a career path I chose to follow.
“You have the power to say no, but otherwise you can only do what’s offered.
“That said, I LOVE IT!! I have only ever been in panto at Stratford East. The pantos here are not like pantos anywhere else. What I love about them is partly the shows themselves and partly the way they are received and the interplay with the audiences. The shows are fun, lively, song-and-dance-packed, big-hearted, moral - archetypal strong narratives about kids growing up, facing challenges, discovering how to be good and to overcome evil. The panto interplay with the audience is playful, raucous, infinitely variable (keeps you on your toes and is wonderfully anarchic) and it also encourages youngsters to identify villains and condemn them (boo!) to argue against injustice (oh no it isn’t!), warn the goodies (behind you!), cheer the triumph of good and the downfall of evil.
“Mostly in real life kids have to sit quietly and put up with adult injustices, hypocrisy and villainy ..suddenly in a theatre packed with other youngsters they are encouraged to seize control and to stand up and be counted - and blimey don’t they take the ball and run with it. The audiences are deafeningly up for it and I equally love the sound of booing and the sound of laughter. I think the whole genre is brilliant! Also the shows at Stratford are original, street-wise, of amazingly high quality . . and are most youngsters’ introduction to the theatrical experience. Not many things that are important are so much fun! And it’s Christmas! And it’s such a glorious theatre full of glorious people. I’ve count myself very very lucky to have been taken to its bosom!”
His first recollection of doing anything vaguely panto-ish is when he was about eight or nine-years-old. He played the part of Lady Olivia in a school production of Twelfth Night and the only thing he can recall now is that it was directed by the headmaster’s wife and that during one performance he and another character accidentally fell off a chair in a “flurry of petticoats, sandals and schoolboy legs” much to everyone’s amusement.
“That was my first experience of being on stage in drag and making people laugh,” said Michael.
However it was many years later that he was to fully realise the potential for making others laugh.
After he left school he began teaching and was at a technical college in Portsmouth, when he entered and won two writing competitions runs by the BBC.
He became a mini-celebrity at the college where he was teaching and was invited as a staff member to appear in some of the productions put on by the drama students there. Having conceived a taste for acting, he left his career as a teacher to train at RADA and soon found himself performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company where he remained for several years.
Since then Michael has worked consistently as a jobbing actor on film and TV and in theatres across the country. His association with the Theatre Royal Stratford East began when he landed his first panto role there in 1983/4.
Despite being a grandfather, the quiet, shy boy, eager to please adults still comes through in the face of the man who is everyone’s favourite villian and panto dame.