A LEADING North-East actor who is Britain’s longest serving pantomime dame has told how he is fighting back to health after his heart was stopped for four hours during major surgery.

Spender, Crocodile Shoes, Heartbeat and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet actor Berwick Kaler said he is recovering well following a double heart bypass operation in July, following the diagnosis of a complete heart block.

Mr Kaler, who is originally from South Shields and now lives in York, said he was looking forward to his 39th pantomime in December - even though he is still working on the script after delays caused by the surgery and lengthy recuperation.

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However, he hinted that he might finally look to retire after his 40th panto at York Theatre Royal next year, which he wants to be a “celebration”.

The 70-year-old said he would like at some stage to retire and relax, and said: “There’s something inside of me that says I’m not going to go on that stage on a zimmer frame and I am not going to go for the sympathy - you know: 'Oh, he’s losing it a bit.'”

The actor said doctors had decided to operate after he had had to be fitted with a pacemaker last year. He reported having suffered from dizziness and lethargy to a nurse during a routine appointment. She told him to see a doctor, who sent him to York Hospital for the life-saving emergency surgery.

He said the bypass operation had lasted almost four hours and involved removing a section of vein from his leg and ‘cracking’ through the ribs in the front of his chest to install it there to bypass the heart, which had to be stopped for four hours. “The most dangerous bit was when it came to re-starting the heart.”

He said he was in hospital for five days and laid low physically for six weeks, and the full standard recovery from such surgery was six months - which took him right into the panto season.

Mr Kaler said he received “absolutely brilliant” care from NHS doctors and nurses.

He assured fans the show - Jack and the Beanstalk this year - would go on, although he would have to give himself a less active role. There would also be humour in the show relating to his operations and the motorbike crash last year which left his fellow panto star Martin Barrass fighting for his life. Mr Barrass has now fully recovered, allowing him to return to this year’s panto.

“It’s going to be trial and error,” said Mr Kaler. “I’m not going to be jumping through any windows. At 71, I think those days are over, aren’t they?”

He said his experiences over the last couple of years had totally ‘blown me away’ and he had dealt with them with humour. “All my life I have got through things with humour.

“I will get the humour from what I experienced and if you can imagine Martin Barrass and me next to each other, vying for: “Who died first? I nearly died first and then you, three weeks later, had to buy a blooming motorbike and go in an air ambulance!”