WE'VE been here before. Dame Berwick Kaler and his heart dramas. Except that it is not quite the same as last year.

Berwick, you will recall, performed Cinderella at York Theatre Royal with a pacemaker newly fitted after the diagnosis of a complete heart blockage.

By chance, during a routine appointment, he told a nurse he had been experiencing dizziness and lethergy; he ended up having life-saving surgery. What's more, although he kept it quiet from his adoring public, he knew throughout the run that he would be facing a heart bypass operation this year.

"I'm furious...because they promised me a triple heart bypass but they gave me only a double," jokes Berwick in a lunch break from rehearsals for Jack And The Beanstalk, the dowager dame's 39th panto, which opens next Thursday.

He had hoped the operation would be earlier in the year. In the end it took place in July, with a standard full recovery period of six months that happens to coincide with the pantomime, a show he writes and co-directs, as well as leading the company as the long-serving dame.

York Press:

"I'm furious...because they promised me a triple heart bypass but they gave me only a double," says Berwick Kaler, pictured showing off his surgery. Picture: Frank Dwyer

"I was signed off just a couple of days before rehearsals started," says Berwick, who in truth looks a little thinner than in past days. "There was still the second half of the script to complete, and the last thing the surgeon said was, ' we're now going to sign you off, but you really must take it easy for the next three months'. The busiest time of my life each year!"

More likely, 71-year-old Berwick will take it easier. "Anyone will tell you that the hardest form of entertainment to do is pantomime. It's not about telling jokes. It's about working every line with everything you've got. You will get laughs from the way you say a line; you can't just walk on stage, breathe through a mic and say a line. Pantomime doesn't work like that."

Delivery, timing, interaction, interjection, all will come into play, but the days of flying may be behind dame Berwick, although you can't keep him down. Intriguingly, he volunteers: "The only thing I can say is that the slapstick scene is possibly the most dangerous slapstick we've ever done."

That could be a tease, but nevertheless the slapstick routine will be the centrepiece of the reunion of Kaler and comic stooge Martin Barrass, who returns after his own close run-in with life's final curtain, dying twice but brought back to life twice after a motorbike crash last year. "It wasn't my time to go," said Martin, after learning he had been given a one per cent chance of survival.

"It's still me and Mart doing the slapstick, both with ribs still healing," says Berwick, whose dame Mandy Manley no doubt will inflict various indignities on Barrass's Stanley Manley in the scene. "I thought, who do I love more: me or Mart, and I chose me!"

York Press:

Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass can compare how their ribs are healing as the "mam and daft son" reunite for Jack And The Beanstalk

The slapstick will be medically safe, says Berwick, even though his surgeon did have words of caution for him. "I did explain the slapstick to my surgeon, Mr Cale, who said, 'I do not advice it. The following year, yes, but not this one because, after six months, I guarantee you'll be able to do what you want to do, but not this Christmas."

Berwick has devised a routine with that advice in mind. "I know that, if we pull it off, it will be the most inventive slapstick we've ever done," he says. "Too many people have said to me you don't have to injure yourself in trying to make people laugh at your age. I'm 71 now and I don't think anyone expects me to fly through the air. I'm getting laughs through standing there and saying things.

"I've always loved physical comedy and I can't see that stopping but I can have a lot of fun from passing things on to other people, but without taking anything away from our usual show."

Berwick's rest and recuperation led him to deliver his completed script rather later than ideal. "I've only just finished the second part on the Friday of the second week of rehearsals, which is pretty much a record. I'm not saying it's not been a pressure to write it this year. Normally it's a pleasure, two hours a day, but it had to be different this time."

Nevertheless, it still dawned on Berwick that just walking the dogs would never be enough for this naturally restless performer. "I'm not a natural writer; I can't just knock things off. Everyone thinks pantomime is just a collection of old jokes you put together but a collection of jokes will never turn into a pantomime.

York Press:

"This is the year where I haven't a clue how I'll get through it," admits Berwick Kaler, after his heart bypass operation. Picture: Frank Dwyer

"Everything has to come from my head. There may be routines in there, but if I can change them and make them funny for today's audience, that's what makes the difference. I go into my own world, and it all just comes out from somewhere.

"I say I write for the actors, but actually the main thing I write for is the audience. I've got 40 years of experience and I know what they'll take. That's not about filth or smut, but whether it's funny."

Talking of 40 years, next year will be the dowager dame's 40th anniversary show, and in his frank interview with The Press's chief reporter, Mike Laycock, he indicated it could be his grand finale, but will it? He is candid in admitting he is entering the unknown with this year's show: 70 performances of his sixth Jack And The Beanstalk.

"This is the year where I haven't a clue how I'll get through it, how I'll feel and that will be the test for the future...but I still haven't lost that passion for pantomime, that drive, and that thing of knowing that the audience will never be cheated while I'm still around," he says

As this interview concluded, you sensed that, health permitting, the Kaler instinct would be to carry on beyond the 40th year. He would never let himself become "the lame dame", however. "I don't ever want to come on and just do a guest appearance, I really don't," he says.

Jack And The Beanstalk runs at York Theatre Royal from December 14 to February 3. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk