AS one of the famous four of York Theatre Royal’s 39 years of panto with Sunderland-born Berwick Kaler, Suzy Cooper laughs about having nothing new to say concerning this legendary production.

“I was just thinking, ‘What on Earth could I be asked this year?’ I think only my inside leg measurement hasn’t been printed about me before,” laughs the Londoner who has clocked up more than two decades alongside Kaler.

She is rightly proud of the UK’s longest-running festive collaboration, which this year is based on Jack and the Beanstalk “It sounds so cheesy to say it, but I say it every year and it is. There’s interest in this panto for good reason. It’s a very special show,” Cooper adds.

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The only anxiety for onlookers is that Kaler, his long-time comedy sidekick Martin Barrass, leading lady Cooper and ever-present baddie David Leonard are approaching a 40th year, with Kaler and Barrass having tested the life-restoring powers of the NHS in recent times. Kaler required heart surgery and Barrass nearly died in a motorcycle crash.

“I’m feeling very healthy this year, but according to Berwick I’m forever 18. Looking at myself in the slightly dirty reflection of this theatre window I’m certainly not kidding myself. We have a very kind audience,” says Cooper.

The pressure did tell on Kaler’s cast last year. “On the second day of rehearsal, Berwick went for a check-up and was told, ‘You need a pacemaker fitting’. He rang from the hospital and that was terrifying because he wasn’t well at all. But he was unbelievable because he had low energy during rehearsal, but as soon as the curtain came up and the lights went on he pulled it out of those boots of his somehow. As soon as we realised Berwick was on reserve power for the whole time except for the hours on stage, we knew he was going to get there. Then he didn’t seem to be having his operation.

“He said he had to wait his turn and we began to think that maybe he didn’t need it because he wasn’t being rushed in. After the operation, the difference from last year to this year is extraordinary. It’s like Berwick is bionic.”

Has Cooper ever discussed with the other three why York audiences continue to demand tickets for a panto featuring a quite similar cast? “I think it’s about Berwick, to be honest with you. I think it’s what he gives the audience. We all have our place, that little slot to fill within it. What he gives the audience is phenomenal and he writes a unique, very quirky, very particular panto which is designed for this audience and this theatre. That’s something that panto doesn’t do across the country,” she says.

Is Kaler considering stepping down after next year’s 40th show? “If you’d have asked him ten years ago he have said he’d run until his 40th year and be done. With this renewed energy, who knows? I think he feels indebted to the audience and feels, ‘If we don’t do it, then what happens?’ There will be something else here, but there will be a bit of a hole in the 40-year tradition of an audience who have come to see this rubbish. I’d put money on Berwick not retiring for some time yet.”

Cooper’s reward for slapping a thigh as principal boy since she was 22, has been to be invited back to star in Theatre Royal work such as The Homecoming, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Man of the Moment and A Little Shop of Horrors – plus earning a spot in The Pitmen Painters by Geordie genius Lee Hall.

She calls the panto production “one crazy family... who only see each other once a year for a party. I see David a little more, but there have been years where I haven’t spoken to Berwick until just before rehearsals. Then you think, ‘I can’t believe that I’ve lived without these guys’ even though each panto takes three months of our lives.”

Cooper did have panto experience at London’s Players’ Theatre and came along to audition and watch the panto to discover she was on-stage that night. “So, I went on holding a book and faffed around in the background and somehow pulled it off, even though I was terrified. Now, strangely enough, when I came up to York I was again filling in for somebody else. My history of panto is that I was never first choice, but that’s probably the story of my life... and I don’t want to know about some of the other jobs I’ve got,” she jokes.

York theatre-goers will be surprised that Kaler’s fame, in spite of again being featured in the national press recently, struggles to impress people outside North Yorkshire. “I think some people will go and see a panto even if they’re not theatre-goers and feel this is what you do with the kids at Christmas. What Berwick and the theatre have done is bridge the gap and discerning people can also come along and not be disappointed,” Cooper says.

The actor now has her own tradition of renting a York home and spending Christmas in the city with award-winning composer and musician Christopher Madin and nine-year-old son Louis.

“My little boy said to me, ‘If you give up doing the pantomime mummy and doesn’t happen again, please can we still come to York for Christmas? I said, ‘Really, you don’t want to spend Christmas at home?’ but he argued that he’d spent all his Christmases in York. I think we’ll be here for a few more years yet... even if I’m not employed.”

Runs until February 3. Tickets £14.50 - £34, plus group discounts. Box Office: 01904-623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk