BRITAIN'S longest serving panto dame returns to the stage in York today, almost three years after hanging up his frock.

Berwick Kaler, who performed for four decades at York Theatre Royal before retiring as a dame after the 2018/19 pantomime, stars in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the city's other big theatre, the Grand Opera House.

The theatre said that Berwick's critically acclaimed performances as dame had 'solidified his reputation as a true York institution,' having delighted generations of festive theatregoers every year.

"Dick Turpin Rides Again reunites Berwick with his band of pantomime favourites, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper, AJ Powell and David Leonard in a production packed full of madcap comedy, spectacular song and dance, and a Wagon Wheel or two!"said a spokeswoman.

She said the cast had been rehearsing at St Saviourgate Church Hall before moving rehearsals to the Grand Opera House in Cumberland Street on Wednesday.

"Tickets are selling very well, so we’re all very happy with how that’s going," she said.

"In regard to next year, we will be announcing next year’s pantomime on the last night in the usual Berwick tradition."

The panto starts just after new Government restrictions came in yesterday making it compulsory to cover one's face in a number of public venues, including theatres, in a bid to slow down the spread of the new Omicron Covid variant.

Berwick, who recently turned 75, told The Press in October how he thought panto audiences would feel reassured by the Grand Opera House’s Covid policies, under which everyone attending aged 18 or over should be prepared to show proof they currently do not have Covid-19, are fully vaccinated or have had Covid-19 in the last six months.

”It will make people feel safe,” he said.

He said he aimed to put the smiles back on people’s faces at the panto after almost two difficult years of Covid.

He said a trip to the panto would prove a tonic for many families who had struggled through 21 months of lockdown, loss and loneliness.

“It’s fun, it’s a laugh, it’s a chance for everyone in the family to enjoy themselves,” he said. "Families have been through some difficult times but for a couple of hours, they can smile again.”

He said his pantos were ‘lighthearted anarchy without hatred,’ which could be enjoyed by people of all ages.

“A child of three or four might not understand something but they can see their parents and their grandparents laughing, and get joy out of that," he said. "It’s about happiness.”

He said he felt ‘rejuvenated mentally’ and ready to face the punishing schedule of two pantos almost every day from today until the final show on January 9.