THE final curtain fell at 11.20pm, as Dame Berwick Kaler said goodbye to pantomime with a trademark wave through the velvet parting on Saturday night.

After 40 years that had begun as an Ugly Sister in Cinderella, Britain's longest-serving panto dame took his final big-booted step in a frock at York Theatre Royal at the age of 72. He was dressed as a mirror-ball, a suitably dazzling finale to The Grand Old Dame Of York's reign.

On the traditionally riotous last night, when the crew play havoc with sudden stage appearances and the audience follows the crew's printed instructions to shout out assorted comments en masse, the closing performance was only part of "the show".

York screen star Mark Addy, once a stage hand at the Theatre Royal, made the first guest appearance in the first act, enjoying banter with the departing dowager dame.

York Press:

Berwick Kaler with the Great British Pantomime Awards' 2019 Lifetime Achievement award, presented by fellow dame Christopher Biggins

The second act's Songsheet singalong was the cue for a series of presentations, the first by Kaler's fellow veteran dame, a pink-suited Christopher Biggins, who had once directed Berwick's Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the outset of a long friendship.

"People always ask me, 'who is the best dame in the country?', and I mean it most sincerely when I say 'Berwick Kaler'," said Biggins as he handed him the Great British Pantomime Awards' 2019 Lifetime Achievement award. The audience rose to their feet, as everyone had first done when Kaler made his first entry on a slide to utter his unique greeting, "Me babbies, me bairns", for the last time.

The Lord Mayor of York, Councillor Keith Orrell, entered next. As Kaler is already a Freeman of the city, the Lord Mayor bestowed him with a seal of approval instead. "This will seal your life with the city forever," he said.

Artistic director Damian Cruden, Kaler's pantomime co-director for two decades, led the Theatre Royal tributes. "You can feel the love in the room, and I just want you to know there is no-one on the planet that makes something like this pantomime," he said, addressing Berwick personally, while repeatedly embracing him.

York Press:

The farewell wave: the moment Berwick Kaler said goodbye to 40 years of York Theatre Royal pantomimes

"The reality is that you can't replace the irreplaceable, but we will because you have started something in this city that will never die: a love of pantomime that deserves the greatest respect, and we will ensure that pantomime lives, breathes and thrives here because of what you have given to this theatre."

He presented the grand dame with a hammer and a packet of picture hooks for the myriad framed photographs brought on by pantomime regulars Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and co. Whereupon executive director Tom Bird gave Berwick an oversized Ticket For Life to enjoy Theatre Royal shows.

"It's been a very, very tough night and you have been absolutely superb," said Kaler, beginning his panto farewell address in gratitude to the audience. "Not only has York given me a home, but it has also given me an extended family, and I can't thank you enough for that – and you've paid off my mortgage...

"You have given me a purpose to life," he went on. "I'm not going anywhere. If this theatre needs me, I'll be back like a shot." The cheers rang out once more.

And so exit pantomime stage left, Dame Berwick, with a final total that reads: Jack And The Beanstalk, six pantos; Mother Goose, five; Cinderella, five; Aladdin, five; Dick Whittington, four; Babes In The Wood, three; Sleeping Beauty, two; Sinbad The Sailor, two; Humpty Dumpty, one; Beauty And The Beast, one; Old Mother Milly, one; Dick Turpin, one; Humpty Dumpty, one; York Family Robinson, one; Robin Hood & His Merry Mam, one, and The Grand Old Dame Of York, one. 

Will there ever be anything like Berwick's dame again? No.

As Berwick's 40-year reign as pantomime dame comes to an end, York Theatre Royal has launched a fund to celebrate and continue Berwick's legacy.

Here's a look back on his time as York's favourite dame.