THE talking is over – he has not been available for interviews this week – and tomorrow night Dame Berwick Kaler will begin his 40th and last pantomime at York Theatre Royal.

Between now and February 2, he will perform the entirely original The Grand Old Dame Of York 69 times before his panto exit stage left from being Britain's longest-serving dame.

Berwick, 72, had come through a double heart bypass operation in the summer of 2017 to resume the reins with a riotously good Jack And The Beanstalk, but after many months of mulling over the future, he announced: "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 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.”

"Putting himself through it" has involved writing the script each year, a script like no other in pantoland, but the juices have being flowing later and later; last year Act Two was yet to be written as rehearsals began; this year, Berwick had five scenes ready for the first day of rehearsals, and the farewell show has been taking shape day by day. "I only got really enthused with the writing in the past ten days," he said at the November 19 press day. He will not be the last writer to need the rush of a deadline to spark him into fullest creativity, however.

As he contemplated the inevitable heightened focus, now that the dame is departing, he says. "I've tried to be light about it, with us all having a laugh as we gathered for the press call, but then when it comes to the question of retirement, you lose it," he said. "Everybody just went a bit glum when we thought about what lies ahead. You can't replace that camaraderie.

"It took a long time before the four of us [Kaler, sidekick Martin Barrass, golden gal Suzy Cooper and grand villain David Leonard] were on one level with our sense of humour.

"It doesn't happen overnight; we've had to work at it; the audience have given us the nod of approval, but whenever we've brought someone new into the pantomime, if the audience don't connect with them, they wouldn't be in the next one, but they've really bonded with AJ (Powell), for example."

As he looks back on highlights through the years, Berwick picked out the Millennium pantomime, Old Mother Milly, in 1999-2000; the wholly original Dick Turpin, The Panto in 2008-2009, and the one-off traverse show on the railway tracks at the National Railway Museum, Dick Whittington & His Meerkat, in 2015-2016.

"Ironically, given my love of the Theatre Royal, the greatest enjoyment for me and for most of the regulars was down at the NRM, where the support of the audience was wonderful and the atmosphere was absolutely priceless," he said.

And so, Berwick's last hurrah as dame is about to begin in a show with a storyline about characters in search of a plot. "We are in unknown territory with this show," said Suzy Cooper on the first day of rehearsals.

"What happens next year is something to discuss later. We're still in shock about it," said David Leonard, who will be playing Les Miserables. "That Berwick is doing his last pantomime is something we can't deny, and our job is to get the script together, put it on the floor and make it a celebration of his 40 years, but what does make it sad is that this has been our family."

"It's always great to be back, and it's that thing of making a difference to people's lives with these pantomimes each year," said Suzy, who has branched out into yoga teaching this year incidentally.

Martin Barrass, Dame Berwick's perennial sidekick, was struggling to contemplate the future at the press conference. "For once in my life I don't even know what to say; it's been my bread and butter for 30-odd years doing this pantomime with Berwick," he said.

"He taught me to skip on day three of rehearsals, and I thought 'I'm going to quit', but no, it was the best piece of advice I've ever been given – and that's in a career where I've been directed by the National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner!

"I've often said that if you can do pantomime, you can do anything, but to do that, I'm grateful that Berwick has always been my inspiration and teacher every single day."

What lies ahead, Martin, beyond the Berwick years as a Theatre Royal double act? "I can't think about next year. I just don't know," he said, briefly putting his head in his hands, welling up with emotion before re-gathering his thoughts. "In every sense, Berwick is the finished article in pantomime performing...and I'm just going to have to learn to act now!"

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