IT was supposed to be a celebration homecoming for the York Theatre Royal pantomime, the first in the redeveloped theatre since its £6million makeover.

Then came dame Berwick Kaler's need for a pacemaker when he was rushed to York Hospital for emergency surgery after suffering a heart blockage in August, amid the headlines that "the NHS saved my life".

Worse was soon to follow when Berwick's perennial daft-lad sidekick, Martin Barrass, had to be placed in an induced coma in intensive care in a Leeds hospital after a motorcycle accident at Halton East, Skipton, on his way home from the Lake District in September.

"I couldn't think of anything else but Mart for the first three weeks, until we knew Mart was out of danger," says Berwick, whose writing of his "panto rubbish" was stopped in its tracks.

Thankfully, Martin pulled through, his condition improving to the extent that his recuperation continues in York, where he has even popped into the Theatre Royal.

The show must go on, as the saying goes, and on it goes with the "luvverly Brummie" A J Powell stepping into Martin's shoes to partner Berwick as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, Kaler's 38th Theatre Royal pantomime. Meanwhile, for the first time, artistic director Damien Cruden is taking the upper hand in directing the show, with input from Berwick, who can concentrate his energies on the script and his own performance.

Cinderella is not the dowager dame's favourite panto – "I hate it," he says with exaggerated disdain as he rolls his eyes – but albeit Berwick must subsume his dame into a sister act, he is grateful that the pacemaker is enabling him to carry on performing. "Pacemakers are amazing things; it's a bit like going into a garage to get a service, so it's been fantastic," says Berwick, who turned 70 on Hallowe'en. "We'll get fun out of it in the show, but it does mean I can't do any aerial routines because I can't risk it.

York Press:

Ugly business: Berwick Kaler and AJ Powell's sister act

"Likewise, we certainly can't ignore what happened to Martin, but we can't have everyone walking around in a dirge. It's quite amazing that Martin and I within a few weeks of each other almost snuffed it, but the great thing is that he's on the mend and he's left himself open for ridicule and laughter in the show!"

As chance would have it, Cinderella was probably the best pantomime for Martin to miss, as he was set to play an Ugly Sister until his accident necessitated AJ to switch from Buttons. "It was lucky we had chosen Cinderella for this year; if it had been one of our mother and son pantomimes, it might have been more difficult," says Berwick.

He set about re-writing the Ugly Sisters to suit the new partnership of Berwick and AJ, in which the North Easterner's character, Hernia, may be 38 years older than his Brummie counterpart's Priscilla, but nevertheless he will play the younger sister. "Everything I write for Martin works for how Martin would have said it, and now everything I've written for AJ could only come from his mouth," he says. "If I have any skill at all, it is that you can tell just from the lines who should be saying them."

For AJ, Cinderella will be a pantomime experience like none before in his 11th winter at the Theatre Royal. "I do feel this is very different to what I've done here previously, particularly last year when I was playing an animal [in Dick Whittington (And His Meerkat). It's about mannerisms and certain looks..."

..."There's a lovely innocence about AJ," rejoins Berwick. "And in this panto, it's not what you say but how you say it, and how AJ says it bounces wonderfully off me and David [Leonard] as the Baroness. What you can't do with AJ is turn him into a villain, so the way it's worked out is that he's on Cinderella's side but every time the Baroness sees him siding with her he gets a glaring look from David and has to change sides."

AJ may be playing an Ugly Sister but he has been known to flash his fine pins in past pantos. "I don't want him not to look good," says Berwick. "The way he's playing it is absolutely right; he's just going to be a bit more demure than the Ugly Sisters usually are."

Forty years have passed since Berwick Kaler appeared in a Theatre Royal pantomime for the first time – he has missed only two pantos since then – and after the one-off novelty of Dick Whittington on the railway track in the National Railway Museum's Signal Box Theatre, Cinderella will be different again in the new configuration of the Theatre Royal's main house.

"It was like a touch of mini Las Vegas in York last year, with that moving stage in a tent, and now we're back home in a wonderful, beautiful new theatre built for the future," he says.

Cinderella runs at York Theatre Royal from December 8 to January 28 2017. Box office: 01904 623568 or at