THE final curtain came down for Britain's longest serving panto dame as Berwick Kaler took his last bow after 41 years on the stage.

Amid emotional scenes the 72 year old gave his final performance at York Theatre Royal where he has entertained generations of theatre goers since 1977.

The Sunderland born actor told devoted fans: "I didn't want to crawl on that stage with old age complaints. I just thought 'let's go out with them laughing'."

Fellow panto legend Christopher Biggins, a lifelong friend, made a surprise appearance to present Kaler with a Great British Pantomime Awards lifetime achievement award. He told the delighted audience: "People always ask me, 'who is the best dame in the country?', and I mean it most sincerely when I say Berwick Kaler."

The legendary actor made his pantomime dame debut playing an ugly sister in Cinderella and went on to write and co-direct the city's festive shows for four decades. He became such a hit with dedicated fans many would queue through the night up to ten months before Christmas to ensure they got the best tickets when the box office first opened.

He described every performance as an outpouring of emotion adding: "I didn't know what I was starting when I first arrived here but I do know that I found a home."

He became renowned for his catchphrase "Me babbies, me bairns" as well as for hurling Wagon Wheels into the audience and handing out bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale.

Over the years he was ably supported by loyal sidekicks Martin Barrass, David Leonard and Suzy Cooper. Ms Cooper said he was the greatest showman, adding: "He knows when pathos is right, he knows when comedy is right and he can flick the switch at any time.You can be laughing and crying in the same moment."

Artistic director Damian Cruden told Berwick:" You can feel the love in the room tonight, and I just want you to know there is no-one on the planet that makes something like this pantomime. 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."

For his final panto, the Grand Old Dame of York, Berwick was suitably dressed in a dazzling mirror-ball. He told the packed theatre: "It's been a very, very tough night and you have been absolutely superb. 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. I'm not going anywhere. If this theatre needs me, I'll be back like a shot."

Britain's longest serving panto dame left the stage with a life size ticket for life presented by the Theatre Royal and to the resounding cheers of a theatre full of fans.