DAME Berwick Kaler has been on the edge before. Will he, won’t he, do another York Theatre Royal pantomime?

He always came back, whether from two winters absent in the West End, fall-outs with “authority”, or clashes with co-directors, once even “throwing one out of the rehearsal rooms.” as he recalls.

Only last year he came back from a double heart bypass operation in the summer, four hours of surgery that ideally would have happened earlier in the year, giving him more time to make the fullest recovery before the stress of writing, re-writing, co-directing and leading the show would kick in. It was a close deadline, but his doctor gave the go-ahead.

Berwick even teased those in the know that if he announced The Grand Old Dame Of York as his 40th show on the last night Of Jack And The Beanstalk, that was the cue for his last hurrah. Except that he “really enjoyed” last year’s show, and come the time of confirming whether that title trigger was indeed a final statement, he was less committal.

He has had many months since then to mull it over, and so here we all were, the media gathered for a press call to announce that his 40th year would indeed be his last at the age of 72, so ending the rein of Britain’s longest-serving pantomime dame.

“It was never in my head, never, never, never, when Jack In The Beanstalk finished,” he says. “I was just looking at that title as something to celebrate 40 years of the ‘same old rubbish’ and I just wanted it to be a celebration.

“I really enjoyed it last year, but a lot happens in a year when you’re my age. I can’t predict what I’m going to be like in a year’s time, and I’ve always known that you’ve got to give the management time to plan for the future, to decide that they’re going to do next.

“I don’t know if I’ve jumped the gun, but I’d never want audiences to think, ‘Oh, he looks ill’ or ‘he’s losing energy’, and you know you’re not going to go on forever.

“I don’t need the money; there’s no mortgage on the house [in Acomb] to pay; I don’t need more than one car. I don’t need to put myself through it, but I would never do pantomime elsewhere.”

York Press:

Berwick Kaler, centre, in the cap, with his fellow cast members gathering for the first day of rehearsals for The Grand Old Dame Of York at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Anthony Robling

Picking through that last statement, the most revealing quote is “I don’t need to put myself through it.” In his time, Berwick has lost as much as two stones in the toil of a pantomime run, and each year, for all the quips about never writing a plot, every script is freshly minted, and maybe that challenge is rising by the year.

Rehearsals for Jack And The Beanstalk began with Act Two yet to be written. He has always sailed by the seat of his pants, writing and re-writing, but these days he sails ever closer, and The Grand Old Dame Of York is entirely new, not a new spin on an established storyline, making it all the harder for such a perfectionist writer of the comedic craft.

Berwick candidly admits that while the overall arch of The Grand Old Dame is in place, along with a storyline of a cast looking for a plot, only five scenes could be presented to the cast at Monday’s first-day read-through. “I only got really enthused with the writing in the past ten days and the bit I’ve just re-written is far superior,” he says.

You can almost hear the adrenaline running through him, and this is surely what he will miss most once the last Wagon Wheel is thrown. The adrenaline, the rush, the buzz, of leading a show that entertains so many through the bleak winter.

He never once mentions the “R” word, retirement, but he does contemplate the succession, the new dame. “If you’re going to still do pantomime at York Theatre Royal, don’t think of me, make it as original as you can, building a new team, but it will take a while,” he says.

It will not be easy. “One of the years when I was away in the West End, the dame still said ‘me babbies, me bairns’, and they booed him,” recalls Berwick. “But York has a way of taking comic actors to their heart, like they did with Frank Marlborough before me.”

So, is it really the end for this dowager dame, who has stared down from the precipice before? Well, when he first arrived for the big announcement, he whispered:”I need a year off, but then....?”

The Grand Old Duke Of York runs at York Theatre Royal from December 13 to February 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk