BERWICK Kaler is contemplating what he might say in his farewell speech tomorrow night as his 40 years as Britain’s longest-running pantomime dame comes to a close.

At each performance of The Grand Old Dame Of York since December 13, Dame Berwick has expressed his gratitude for the “laughs and love” of the York Theatre Royal audience, his speeches and the audience responses growing more emotional as his panto final curtain hovers.

“I’ll speak off the cuff; that’s what I’ve done every show so far,” he says. “We got the running time down to two and a half hours, including the interval, but last Saturday night we didn’t come off until 11 o’clock.

“I did 20 minutes with a boy from the audience for the Songsheet; he was doing The Floss dance and was so comfortable on stage. I thought I was funny, but he was fantastic.”

How is Berwick feeling as the last night approaches? “Well, it’s been like a constant rollercoaster of emotions throughout the run,” he says. “Each performance since the start, it’s just blown my mind away.

“I just can’t believe the reaction to my leaving; I always knew the pantomime meant quite a lot to people, but the letters and cards have been pouring in, all relating what the York Theatre Royal pantomime has meant to them and their families.

“I’m talking about the private letters I’ve been sent as well as the cards and requests that I’m sent to read out...and thank goodness I have five minutes to check them, thinking ‘I cant’ read this out’!”

Berwick takes pride in The Grand Old Dame Of York being the most successful of all his 38 pantomimes at the box office. “I just wanted to leave the pantomime with everyone happy and leave the Theatre Royal in a healthy position,” he says.

“Imelda Staunton and her husband, Jim Carter, have been to this year’s show and they were like little kids, enjoying it so much. They couldn’t believe how much energy goes into the show and they said they didn’t know a pantomime of this standard existed.”

In the post-Kaler panto years, he wants the Theatre Royal to thrive anew, pantomime and all. “I love every brick of this building and my belief is the theatre must do in-house productions,” he says.

“With the pantomime, you have to introduce the next actor – is it a dame or not a dame?! – and make it so entertaining that it’s even better. And yes, that’s a challenge.”

Might Berwick say something unexpected, something off-piste, tomorrow night? “If there’s any sparks, it will be at the end, but otherwise it will be a typical last night, which is fun, fun, fun,” he says.

“Whatever I say, it will be a surprise to me and it might be a surprise to everyone! I’m going to find it difficult to be there that night.”

York Press:

Top dogs! Berwick Kaler at home with Ruffuss and Barnaby. Picture: Hannah Carter-Brown

What will happen on the night?

Berwick Kaler will make a farewell speech as the climax to the Songsheet routine, also reading out messages from theatregoers.

The Lord Mayor of York, Cllr Keith Orrell, will make a presentation to Berwick, as will the dame’s fellow pantomime regulars Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and A J Powell and artistic director Damian Cruden.

Expect a surprise third presentation too.

In a free ticketed event hosted by Tang Hall Big Local at Tang Hall Community Centre, on Fifth Avenue, will screen a live stream of Berwick’s final performance. Capacity: 100. SOLD OUT.

Oh, and there will be tears, by the water-slapstick bucketful no doubt.

What will not happen on the night?

Contrary to tradition at York Theatre Royal, the choice of pantomime for next winter will not be announced at the final performance of The Grand Old Dame Of York.

What else is happening to mark Berwick’s pantomime exit stage left?

BBC Radio York presenter Adam Tomlinson will host a celebration of the Kaler years on today’s noon to 4pm show, featuring tributes from his co-stars and interviews with the departing dame and pop singer Suzi Quatro, his long-time friend and co-star from Annie Get Your Gun in the West End.

BBC Radio York will present a one-hour documentary on Sunday from 5pm to 6pm, to be repeated on next Friday’s Seven O’clock Culture Show.

BBC 1’s Inside Out will feature Berwick’s farewell on Monday’s 7.30pm show.

The V & A museum in London is to add one of Berwick’s frocks to its pantomime collection, which already features a DVD of York Theatre Royal’s pantomime Dick Turpin, plus set and costume illustrations. Last week, the V&A sent a photographer to the Theatre Royal.

William Rudling, the artist responsible for the Theatre Royal pantomime posters and programme covers, has put together a book for Berwick to mark his 40th anniversary.