FORMER panto dame Berwick Kaler has disputed claims that York Theatre Royal’s long-running pantomime had to be axed because of "collapsing" ticket sales.

Executive director Tom Bird said on Monday that only 30,000 tickets had been sold for this year’s panto Sleeping Beauty - in which Berwick does not appear- compared with almost 55,000 for Dick Turpin in 2008.

“It is collapsing before our eyes,” he claimed. He admitted that 49,000 tickets were sold last year but said that was because sales were up for Berwick’s final shows before retiring.

But Berwick said he did not accept there had been a collapse and felt Mr Bird should back up the claims, saying: “You couldn’t get a ticket for your best friend last year, or the year before.”

He also told The Press that when he first started at the theatre, there had been over a thousand seats and the number had since fallen to "700 or something" following refurbishments over the years.

He also claimed ticket prices had increased to a "ridiculous level" and said sales had been affected by a decision not to sell seats in the gallery until other seats had been sold.

A theatre spokesman said there had been steady decline in ticket sales since 2008, with 48,152 sold in 2012, 46,921 in 2015, 44,677 in 2016 and 42,153 in 2017.

Meanwhile, Mr Bird has also explained why, although the theatre will stage a "fabulous" new panto next year, Berwick will not be back in it, despite hundreds of fans calling for his return in online petitions now signed by more than 1,800 people.

He said he would be delighted if the new show’s director wanted any of the current stars, such as Suzy Cooper or David Leonard, to return, but indicated he took a different view with Berwick, saying: “We want to create a long-term, sustainable future rather than going back and kind of kicking the can down the road. Because he has been such a central part of the show, it wouldn’t create that long-term sustainable future that I am talking about.”

Asked what his message was to fans thinking of boycotting the theatre, he said: “We are going to do a fabulous panto and we hope they will come with their families and enjoy it.”