Remembering Les Dawson with favourite TV clips and some rare gems from the archives, plus interviews with friends, relatives and colleagues who assess the comedian's legacy.
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'Les Dawson is a legend in British comedy.
'He brought laughter to the living rooms of Britain
-'for 25 years.'
-I said, "Have you got anything cheaper?" He said, "Yes, you're wearing it".
'He seemed an overnight success, but where did he come from
'and what made his comedy so special?'
It's very sophisticated. It's the finest kind of comedy.
The rays of the hot August sun were filtering through the stained-glass windows in the medieval chapel,
highlighting the antiquity of the Saxon altar and glinting on her father's rifle.
If you can get tap dancers at 14 and a half stone to join me, by all means.
His brand of humour was completely unique.
He pretty much mastered every single form of comedy.
It's quite easy to play the piano badly and not be funny.
Ding, ding. Er...
He's just got the iconic face. He's the seaside postcard face.
I think some of us younger people did muddle him up with John Prescott for a while.
He was a master of the mother-in-law jokes.
He used to prowl round the house like a sort of warthog
with a face like a bag of spanners.
Thank you very much.
-Well, I can't wait to introduce you to Les Dawson!
I'd like to play the piano for you. I was going to play you something from Mozart
-but I won't because he never plays any of mine.
So instead, if I may, I'd like to play for you a very moving composition
-written by Beethoven's eldest brother, Sid...
..as he lay tragically dying. Thank you.
# And then they told me that I'd have to go
'and a new comedy star is born.
'Les Dawson seemed an overnight success, but at the age of 38, he had served his time.'
'Les Dawson was born in 1931.
'He had a hard upbringing in Collyhurst in Manchester.
'The experience gave him a connection with countless families
'and a reservoir of comedy material that would last a lifetime.'
The hardy folk who lived in this working-class enclave of Manchester
were the very salt of the earth.
Proud people. They all had one possession they shared.
I would say that poverty informed everything.
There were seven of them in the house where he was first brought up
and I think that then led through to many, many things.
Even the mother-in-law thing, that comes as a result of that,
the working classes living with the mother-in-law,
and father-in-law sometimes, but often the mother outlived the father.
It all stems from a lack of finance.
He was, erm, an autodidact as they say.
He was self-educated. But he had a great deal of information
and he processed it very, very intelligently.
I don't want to sound condescending, but he was a very smart guy.
'Young Les grew up with a fascination for words and a flare for music,
'talents that would eventually help make him a household name for millions of TV viewers.
'But not skills that count for much on the streets of Collyhurst.'
To some degree, he had to shield it from his mates
and he said once, "If you're walking round Collyhurst
"with a volume of TS Eliot, you'd be thought to be a sissy."
I used to box cos all the family was sporting, my father used to putt the shot.
He was in line for the Olympics until they saw where he was putting it.
But I boxed like all the kids did. I wasn't very good.
I was carried out of the ring so often, I had handles sewn on my shorts.
'Les's first ambition was to be a writer,
'but as he settled into family life, he took any job to make ends meet.
'All the time working up an act on the stages of the working men's clubs in the north of England,
'something that did command respect if not much money.
'It was a time when music and entertainment were being revolutionised in London.
'A new style of comedy was on the horizon.
'But even they admired the tradition of the northern comics.'
And I'll tell you the interesting fact about the Arab.
The interesting fact about the Arab is he can go for a whole year,
he can go for a whole year on one grain of rice.
Peter Cook made a huge impact in the late 50s.
-A whole year on one grain of rice?
And after Peter, that tradition began to develop
and a lot of people in '63 finished up in show business
because they were in the Footlights Revue
and we all had an enormous affection for music hall.
We loved the medium and we thought there was some extraordinarily funny and talented people
working in music hall
and of course, latterly, working in the working men's clubs,
which were almost a northern phenomenon.
And a lot of the work, like work everywhere, was pretty cliche,
but the best work was absolutely wonderful.
'Les had become well-known on the club circuit
'and even made overtures to the BBC emphasising not his comic but his musical ability.'
He wrote for his first audition at the BBC in Manchester in 1953
and he had his first audition in 1954
and the audition slip says, "Badly out of tune, no use for broadcasting."
Because at that time, he was more a singer and a comedian than a comedian.
And he sang, basically, straight.
'Les's career was going nowhere.
'He'd been tried out on regional television in 1962 on the long-lost Saturday Bandbox,
'but in 1967 he was still selling vacuum cleaners.
'His wife Meg had had enough.
'Les had one last chance.'
Ladies and gentlemen, it's Opportunity Knocks!
If you said to a professional, "Why don't you go on Opportunity Knocks?" they would probably hit you.
Which is exactly what Meg said to Les at that time.
"You've got so far, you can get no further, you've got to move on
"and the only way you're going to move on is if you do this show, Opportunity Knocks,
"and I've filled the form in." And he was very upset about that.
Welcome to Opportunity Knocks, your talent show,
the programme in which you make the stars
and in which every one of the artists appearing have the professional backing
of Bob Sharples and the orchestra. Let's meet them.
A lot of them didn't want their acts on television.
You know? Cos then it was gone, people had seen it.
And I remember seeing a wonderfully funny guy at the Wakefield Club
when Python was shooting near Wakefield. He was absolutely wonderful.
And he didn't want to go anywhere near television because then he'd blown his act.
Remember, it is your vote that can indeed send them forward,
not just to next week's show but to fame and fortune
in the strange old business called show business.
'Unfortunately, the recording of Les on Opportunity Knocks has not survived.
'We know he was a hit with the audience, although he didn't win the postcard vote of the public.
'But it was enough to kick-start his television career.'
-And here he is tonight, Les Dawson.
I'd hesitate to use the phrase Beauty and the Beast,
because he wasn't beastly by any stretch of the imagination.
It was the glamour and the antidote to glamour.
It was a good combination.
# Just give up, it's not worthwhile, there's nothing you can do
# The other day I forced a smile and cracked my lips in two
# Just pretend you're bright and gay
# I don't believe a word I say
BOTH: # Then I'll feel much worse
The huge advantage was that the stand-ups were cheap
because they didn't require sets, they didn't require other actors or any acting
and they brought their own script, so suddenly one saw a lot of guys from the clubs on television
and then it seemed to grow and grow and grow.
HE PLAYS PIANO BADLY
The best combination I think there ever was with Les
was with Shirley Bassey, who could be difficult.
And he had a licence to undermine her, and she loved it.
-I told you to stay in the truck.
Your fan club's just arrived.
They parked the tandem.
That's what I love about your show, you're a laugh an hour, Shirley.
-That's one more than you, pal.
'Les Dawson would never sell another vacuum cleaner.
'It was a time when variety was the spice of evening entertainment on television's three channels.
'Les had a 25-year career ahead
'and many more funny faces to share with us.
'He thought himself a musician,
'but he found many more ways to make us laugh.
'The first face is deadpan.
'He was a master of the short, pithy gag.'
I remember the day I met Agnes so well,
I was sat in my office, the curtains were drawn but the rest of the furniture was real.
"Did you see who took my coat?" He said, "I saw him".
"What did he look like?" "Ridiculous, the sleeves were too short."
He pointed to a bottle on the shelf. He said, "Do me a sample in there" I said, "From down here?"
-He just had routines. One sticks in my mind.
He was thirsty or something and he went and knocked on the door of a house and a woman comes out,
I remember he said she had a face like a bag of chisels.
And he said to her, "Do you think the woman next door would give me a glass of water?"
It's very sophisticated. You know what I mean?
-I bought some bananas once and when I peeled them, they were empty.
He's always outside the joke looking in, laughing at its construction,
sneering at it as he tells it.
He never does the one-liner and sells it and goes, "This is the best joke I've got."
Good evening. Yes, our subject tonight is entertainment.
A word formed from the Latin route "enter" which means come in
and "tainment" which means give us your money.
He's outside the joke. That's why people misread the mother-in-law thing.
'And the mother-in-law was a big thing for Les Dawson.'
As soon as I heard the knock on the front door, I knew damn well it was her
because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps.
I kept getting this hideous recurrent nightmare that I was an old sports car
and the wife's mother had her foot on my throttle.
I wouldn't say the mother-in-law's got a big mouth, but she can eat a banana sideways.
Maybe 90 percent of them were very, very clever jokes.
They weren't laughing at the mother-in-law.
They were, again, word play and imagery. Things like the mice threw themselves on the traps.
And my favourite Les Dawson joke was about him...
He was at the pub and there were six blokes punching the mother-in-law.
One of my neighbours said, "Are you going to help?" I said, "No, six of them should be enough."
A politically incorrect joke now, but still very funny.
I got one decent photograph of that woman.
It must have been taken with a high-speed camera because it's the only one with her mouth shut.
Do you think you spend rather too much time upsetting women with your mother-in-law jokes?
No, no. I get on very well with my wife's mother. Fabulous.
We always go to Ireland to see her. She lives in Birmingham but she looks better from Ireland.
Do you get lots of mother-in-laws coming up to you saying,
-"Hey, you're giving us a bad name"?
-Nonsense, no. They take it in good part.
Every time my show comes on the box, everybody's sat in front of their sets in case someone switches it on.
Normal functioning human beings can pick up when there's nastiness at the core.
The reason Les Dawson is loved is because it was never malicious, there was no misogyny.
Yes, it's uncomfortable for 80s feminists, it piggybacks on traditional misogynistic views,
but again, his ironic way of laughing at his own material
and his telling of it kind of undercuts it.
He's fighting upwards, so it's actually an authority figure. The gender's irrelevant.
It's like any comedy now. Any comedy is often a fight against an authority figure,
whether you're mocking the police or mocking the government, anybody that's supposedly above you.
And that's what it boiled down to. It was what had evolved as an authority figure within society,
within that level of society, they were fair game and fair target.
You don't have to be a nice guy to be a comedian
and there are plenty who aren't, but with Les Dawson,
you don't need to know biography, it's all there.
You can tell he's a nice guy just by the way he stands on that stage.
I just had some bad news.
-Tomorrow it's the mother-in-law's funeral.
-And she's cancelled it.
You think it's a compliment, really. Because if you make fun of somebody
in public, it's usually a tribute to them,
and I remember when his mother-in-law did die, he stopped,
and his first wife sadly died, he stopped doing wife jokes and mother-in-law jokes.
The wife and I stood at the altar. The vicar looked at the size of the wife, he looked at me, he said,
"Do you take this woman or will you have her delivered?"
And he got all these letters from the BBC, all the mother-in-laws were writing,
"Why don't you do the jokes anymore about us, Les? We like them."
And I think, even now when I meet people, they go,
"Oh, gosh, he was a master of the mother-in-law jokes."
If that wasn't bad enough, after 15 years of complete bliss,
the wife ran away with the fella next door.
-Oh, and I do miss him.
'For all that people love Les Dawson's one-liners,
'he personally loved the long, rambling monologues,
'full of florid language.'
the one and only Mr Les Dawson!
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Firstly I must apologise about my appearance.
Owing to a slight financial hiatus,
I could not afford a ticket to travel here tonight by steam locomotion.
-I had to walk it.
A journey, my friends, best described
as a stroll on the very perimeter of Hades itself.
Fingers of cold mountain mist curled in treacher around my stout gaiters.
-As I toiled heavily across the bleak plateau of the mountain range,
a sullen biting wind blew the snow flurries into a maddened fandango of white-flake fury.
Les had a hard time in the clubs because he was doing a very subtle act
and relying on the audience trusting him all the way to the punchline.
And all the other pros said, "No, don't give up, you're the only one doing this."
Because they knew that the moment he hit telly properly,
the camera would just focus on that
and the audience would be able to concentrate on the lines, the words,
and it was TV then that made him.
Crying sanctuary through cracked lips
-I lurched forward and banged painfully on the door.
The door opened to reveal the most enchanting little girl that I've ever seen.
If you look at his poetic jokes, it's a long poetic thing,
very, very clever, obviously very intelligent man, weaving words,
and then just undercut, completely undercut.
There's his great joke about, "I looked up at the sky and it looked like black velvet
"carelessly strewn with glitter and then I thought, "I must put a roof on this lavatory."
So very funny and very well delivered, but it was almost like, "I'm sorry for being that clever."
I reeled inwardly at the perfidy of parents who could abandon such a delightful waif,
leave this child alone in such a small, cramped, gloomy house,
in the teeth of a ferocious storm in this mist of desolation.
I could contain myself no longer.
Sinking to my knees, I grasped the child to my snow-powdered cape.
I said "Fear not, my child, elfin creature of pure delight!"
This permission to be outside your own material and to do a face that throws away the joke,
that was quite cutting edge, really, to be that laidback and to not care about your punchline,
but care about it, if you know what I mean. That, to me, is quite edgy stuff technique-wise.
"Fear not, for you are no longer alone."
And she grasped her rag dolly very close to her little pinafore and she said,
-"It's not the house, it's the lavatory."
In television terms, he came right through the glass and people at home really...related to him
because he was genuine, he looked genuine.
And, of course, his brand of humour was completely unique.
It was Les humour. He wasn't doing the jokes.
Like, the comedians at that time would do jokes.
Fantastic. But each comic could do another comic's jokes.
Nobody could do Les. Les's routine was totally and utterly original.
'Snappy one-liners, long, rambling monologues.
'As a stand-up, Les Dawson was in constant demand as a guest.
'But within a year of appearing on Opportunity Knocks, he had his own show on ITV,
'Les loved the glamour of a smart dinner jacket in the spotlight,
'but television expected more in its variety shows.
'It wanted sketches.
'So our next face of Les Dawson is in costume,
'playing dramatic scenes with actors.'
You see Dave Allen and he's very happy sitting on his stool telling stories and jokes
and that's what he does.
And you see Les Dawson and he's at the piano or he's just doing his stand-up,
and then because it's suddenly half an hour on BBC, 45 minutes, whatever, with a few songs,
you have to pad it out with sketches
and they will sometimes be of varying quality.
He wasn't a brilliant comic actor. That's all right, neither was Peter Cook.
'The sketches shone a harsh light on Les.
'Guest stars like David Jason were a welcome distraction.'
Thripson, what do you call this?
It appears to be one of our, er, tiger cubs, sir. Indian tiger cub, that one, sir, yes.
I think we both agree that it's not its normal, frisky self this morning.
Er, yes. Yes, sir.
And we both know why that is, don't we, Thripson?
He's been stuffed. LAUGHTER
Exactly. Who stuffed it?
I did, sir.
Thripson, how long have you worked as a keeper at this zoo?
Oh, er, ooh, er...
Er... It's, er... Four and half weeks, sir.
And during that time, you've managed to stuff
19 lions, eight leopards,
45 Masai giraffes,
24 New World monkeys,
-a Polynesian hermit crab...
-..and a hippopotamus.
I want to be a taxidermist, sir. LAUGHTER
In Les's autobiographies,
he acknowledges the varying quality of Sez Les and The Dawson Watch.
He says, "The press slated us, and looking back, they were probably right to".
But there are some moments of brilliance that are within them.
Good morning. I hope I haven't kept you waiting.
-I've only just arrived.
-Ah, good. Now, you're Mr Fippsby
and you've come about the job in accountancy.
That's right. Fippsby with two Ps. Yes, I have indeed.
I took to him and he took to me. I think we liked each other instinctively.
But I think we were also fascinated that we came from such different traditions.
That's the spirit! Oh, I see we're going to get on.
-Now, help yourself to a cup of coffee.
-There are three cups.
That's right. And one of them has got just the teensy-weensiest little pinch of cyanide in it.
-Go on, pick a cup.
-Which one's got the cyanide?
I don't know, do I? It'd spoil the fun! Come on, don't be a scaredy cat!
All right, then.
Tell me, is there much cyanide in the coffee?
No, just a pinch. Mind you, it's enough to kill 150 elephants.
Let's not forget, it's a very, very odd pairing.
Thinking about it now, it's an odd pairing, but at the time, that was post-Monty Python for Cleese
and pre-Fawlty Towers. The only thing he did in between was Les Dawson's show.
And he was excited about it, Cleese was excited about it because he was like, "This is just ridiculous!
"We're so different! How can that not be interesting?" And the same for Dawson.
Dawson said, "We're physically different" which was the thing they played on a lot.
I was fascinated because he had a wonderful vocabulary, as you know.
He was extremely articulate with a very wide and rich vocabulary of slightly unusual words
and I think he was intrigued by me coming from a sort of Cambridge background
and being a bit logical and a bit analytical about stuff.
-I want you to go through the boggy morass over there and take a message to HQ.
The boggy morass, sir? You're sending me to certain death!
-This is a very important message, Dawson! It's got to get through!
-Yes, sir! What's the message?
The message is, "Am on my own now. Have just lost Dawson in the boggy morass."
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
Stand-up is quite separate from sketches,
and it's quite possible for one person to be very good at one and not very good at the other.
But you can learn the other and in my case, I came from the Footlights where I did a couple of monologues,
but almost everything I did in the Footlights and subsequently was sketches,
two-handers and three-handers in which you played characters, not yourself.
Hello there. Have you got any dirty books?
Yeah, what do you want? LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
And it was very pleasurable. I remember the atmosphere being more relaxed than in London.
It's the waiting the drives you mad, you know that, Dawson?
Waiting, waiting. Always. Always waiting, nothing ever happens, drives you mad.
Do you hear me, Dawson?
A whole life waiting! I can't stand it!
HE WAILS I can't stand it anymore!
-Carry on, Dawson!
-It's the waiting that gets you down! It gets hold of you!
-And it drives you insane!
'Comedy situations and dialogue are a long way from the funny man in the spotlight on a club stage
'and it gave Les the chance to develop regular characters who would come back time and again,
'many of them inspired by his own comedy heroes from the 40s and 50s.'
Here, mate, you got a spare cigar?
-Yes, thank you!
'Sez Les went for 11 series on ITV
'before Les accepted an offer to transfer to the BBC.
'He developed favourite characters who ran for years,
'transferring with him to The Les Dawson Show.
'Cosmo Smallpiece was, for modern tastes, controversial,
'a lecherous individual whose lustful excesses could be triggered by the slightest innuendo.'
-I'm asking the average man in the street what you know about coupling rods,
distributor shafts and big ends. LAUGHTER
-Ooh, cami knickers!
-And rear chassis.
-Rear chassis, bounce up and down!
-Ooh, jelly on a plate!
Come here! No, no, no, no, don't leave me!
He justified it to the end.
He said he had a rule that Cosmo, for all his leching and leering,
must never, ever touch a girl, that there must never be physical contact.
My studio guest this evening is the very lovely Miss Vanda Delmar,
the Swedish smouldering sex symbol,
the star of the recent hit movie A Prank In The Sauna Bath. Good evening.
The question that most...
..most viewers would like to ask you, and so would I,
is that all you? Eh? Is that all you? You're stacked! Want a bit of rumpo?
It's almost not even politically incorrect because it's just ridiculous.
It's just absolutely ridiculous. And that's why it's funny.
It's never funny because of the sexual connotation. That's not what's funny about it at all.
It's funny because he's such a ridiculous, ludicrous man.
'Les needed writers to create the volume of material demanded by weekly shows.
'As time went by, he centred on one or two
'and they tuned into his style of comedy.'
-It's a tricky business, this acupuncture.
Television soaks up material.
In the past,
somebody could get an act together in the theatre
and they could do the same act every night for about two years.
Television... Every time you go on television, you want new material.
If you're putting six half-hour shows on, three hours comedy,
you need help writing and this is where your scriptwriter comes in.
I must get it right. Must get it right!
I think I did about two thirds of it and Les did the rest.
I had a lot more time to do it than Les did.
That was my job.
'His best-remembered characters are Cissy and Ada,
'which he performed in partnership with Roy Barraclough.
'They were perfectly drawn caricatures of a certain kind of northern woman.'
I used to love doing Cissy and Ada because I knew people like that.
I was virtually the same age as Les
and although he grew up in Collyhurst in Manchester
and I grew up in a small town on the Derbyshire/Cheshire border,
it was a mill town and there were the same characters
and it was easy for me to write them and I enjoyed doing it.
You can't take you anywhere!
-I nearly had a flush.
Oh, I say, Ada, the magic of travel.
Ada, look at all these lovely places.
New Guinea, New Jersey, New York,
New Zealand. Where do you want to go, chuck?
We've gone there for 22 years to Elsie Gartside's.
She keeps a lovely table. She doesn't charge extra for the cruet.
We always use the terrine for the soup.
She's spotless, she changes the bed every day.
-She's had new oilcloth put down in the lobby.
And on the landing, she's got it all done now in that beautiful Anaglypta in burnt sienna.
-And in the dining room near those pot mallards
she got from that shop in Bogna, there's a beautiful muriel on the wall.
-The death of Lysander in Dulux.
-I really don't know why I waste my time with you, Ada, I really don't.
Of course, Roy had played dame for donkey's years,
so he's got that female thing,
but Les's hero was Norman Evans.
Who's thrown that through my window there?
Lee Scofield? I'll bat your earhole!
Of course, Norman was always a dame over the garden wall, his character was a dame.
So if you look at Cissy and Ada, you're actually looking at Les doing Norman Evans in a very strange way.
I haven't been well myself because...
Have you? Ooh. Do you mean, erm...
The mouthing, they call it.
It's the way women talked
years and years ago
and it stemmed from when they worked in the cotton mills
and they couldn't hear themselves talk above the noise, so they mouthed everything.
And this sort of spread into the general conversation
and they used it when they wanted to talk about taboo subjects
like, you know...
Well, I went to see him in court and that's when I really...
-I mean, he's...
-At the time, he made that his own
to the point where Cissy and Ada is synonymous with Les Dawson now.
It's not Norman Evans. But it's certainly where the roots come,
and Roy and Les both acknowledge that openly.
Tell me something, chuck. When you went to Blackpool for your honeymoon, were you...
This is girl talk really.
-Were you virgo intacto?
No, it was just bed and breakfast.
'We've seen how Les Dawson was a master of one-liners
'and of long, poetic stories.
'We've seen how he learned to write funny dialogue with other writers
'and create characters audiences love.
'But there was something about Les that was just...funny.
'He was a master of gurning faces and physical comedy.
'He could make an audience laugh without speaking at all.'
He's just got the iconic face.
He is the seaside postcard face before you realise the seaside postcards come first.
Some of us younger people did muddle him up with John Prescott for a while.
He was a great wordsmith,
but he also loved visual humour, physical humour.
The writers who worked with him most loved the fact that he was fearless
and would do anything they gave him.
And there was no health and safety trouble with Les.
He was a surprisingly agile man.
He had been a fit lad, he'd been able to box and he'd been in the army,
so he was a person who'd just slightly overgrown his body as he got older.
He's not a bad looking bloke. He's got a bit of the Orson Wells about him.
-Use your head!
-I can't, he's got it!
-Try the Billy Two Rivers method!
-Oh, right, yeah.
LAUGHTER Oh, very good! Dwarf Haystacks!
I refuse to be known by that ridiculous nom de plume.
I wish to be known as Dastardly Dawson, the Diabolical Death Machine.
LAUGHTER Now that is lesson number two. Never turn your back on Masher!
-You're not going to stand for that, are you?
'Les worked for years with Mo Moreland,
'known in the variety circuit as The Mighty Atom.'
It was just a name that came to my mother.
You know, she just said, "We'll call you The Mighty Atom, that's better".
That was even before the atomic bomb was thought of, I think. SHE LAUGHS
'Mo's rotund stature belied the fact that she was an excellent tap dancer,
'and that gave Les the idea for a visual gag that would run and run.'
Ladies and gentlemen, I am about now to light the fuse of this canon,
and she will soar through the air, like an eaglet.
EXPLOSION / LAUGHTER
Les came in one day and said, "Mo, I've got this idea,
"I want five or six girls all like you." I said, "You'll be lucky!"
At first it was suggested that we would just be big ladies and we'd just stand around and look pretty
and be laughed at, and Les said, "No way."
To help me with this illusion...
-I only want one.
I was about 14 and a half stone then.
If you can get tap dancers at 14 and a half stone to join me, by all means.
-'And he did.'
-No show is ever complete without les girls!
'The Roly Polys became a regular feature of The Les Dawson Show.'
# I walked away and said goodbye
# I was hasty, wasn't I?
# I missed you so, I thought I'd die
# I'll never say never again again
# Cos here I am in love again
# Head over heels in love again
# With the same sweet you
# We're head over heels in love again
# With the same
# Boo-be-doo APPLAUSE
'But times were changing and the days of peak-time variety shows on television were numbered.
'A new wave of comedy had followed a new wave of music.
'And the older generation of variety comics were fading from the screens.'
Comedy in the 80s was polarised between the alternative comedians,
Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton, The Comic Strip and all that lot,
and mainstream guys who got stereotyped as these old farts with wigs who played golf with each other.
There was some collateral damage there. Jimmy Tarbuck might have been unfairly treated,
Bob Monkhouse probably was, Jim Davidson we won't weep over.
But Les Dawson is sort of apart from that, he was one of those mainstream comedians
like Billy Connolly and Victoria Wood and Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe,
you didn't care, it didn't matter that he was mainstream
because what they all have in common is they were brilliant.
Sugar Albert, after that eventful first round, how do you see the fight?
I wanted to make a tart. But they wouldn't let me make a tart.
I like tarts. I like big tarts! Big juicy tarts!
I'm friends with the son of one of these comedians from this generation.
And they change jokes, it's like, "Do you want my joke about the bear in the woods?"
"Oh, great, I'll have your one about the immigrant in the pub," and they'll swap them.
Whereas I can't swap the joke about my dad in Southend with anyone because it's personal to me.
So I suppose it's become more biographical, less pressure on a punchline,
you can leave a gap on purpose and laugh about the gap.
But there still is, for all us disappearing up our own orifices,
there's still a lead up, a gap, and then a laugh at the end, even if that laugh is at the absence
or the breaking down of the Thatcher government, it's still dum-dum-dum, laugh.
I know we like to pretend it's not because we're so superior to the one-liner comedians, apparently,
but I believe it's still dum-dum-dum, laugh. Without a laugh, you won't be doing comedy long.
Les described alternative comedy as being comedy that didn't get laughs. That was alternative.
And, of course, there became that period of time when there was quite a few politically-orientated comics
and people that did observational comedy,
and people that used the word comedian but refused to do a joke,
refused to do something that was obviously a joke and it would be an observational thing.
It was a whole new style that began.
It took a long time to get a grip. While it was getting a grip, of course,
all the great comics at that time were finding it very difficult to get on television.
And I can remember Les saying to me once, he said,
"Life in the clubs was so hard, those audiences were so tough, and could be so brutal,
"if I no longer was required to work in television, I would never go back to the clubs."
It was that hard.
There certainly is no business like show business.
'Like all traditional black-tie comedians, Les Dawson was facing tough career choices.'
Stand-ups have a shelf life and then you have your own show, if you're lucky,
and it's all super-duper, and then either you turn out to be good at doing game shows or not.
May I just say one thing?
When I first heard I was coming on this show,
a feeling came over me I've never experienced before. Sick!
'Les had good reason to be concerned about taking on a commitment like Blankety Blank.
'He knew game shows had finished the careers of other comedians.'
So Les was very aware that he could be inheriting a poison chalice
because the previous host had been so well-liked. So Charlie Williams, when he went into Golden Shot,
didn't do well at all, he was very much slated in the press,
the audience were switching off in their droves,
so Les felt Terry Wogan had been so successful and so synonymous with Blankety Blank,
that if he then took that over he wouldn't be accepted.
And with hindsight, what we see is that Charlie Williams just wasn't able to do it,
he wasn't up to the job. He was very good at doing his club set and doing his jokes,
but when it came to interacting with the public, he was out of his depth.
He couldn't improvise and think on his feet. So that's why it failed.
'It would be a professional risk.
'Meanwhile at home near Blackpool, Les's wife Meg was seriously ill.
'A BBC executive offered a solution that would keep Les by her bedside.'
I think it was Jim Moir said,
"Well, why don't you go and do Blankety Blank because you can do two shows in a weekend
"with no rehearsal, you just turn up, do it, then you go back to Lytham, and go back to Meg and the family."
-'And here's your host on Blankety Blank, Les Dawson!'
-CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
For any viewers, wherever they lay, who may be watching this debacle tonight,
please don't fiddle with your controls on your set,
-just because Terry Wogan isn't here doesn't mean your set's broke.
So all I can say is I shall do my best, Terry,
to keep this show on the high level of asininity that you created.
-What can one say except...
-LAUGHTER AND CHEERING
It was just a really funny comedy show, it wasn't like watching a quiz show at all.
It was half an hour of Les Dawson absolutely in his element.
It was perfect for that kind of curmudgeonly, long-suffering clown
that he'd developed over the years.
Who've we got on tonight? Roy Walker, an Irish comedian
whose delivery is slower than a Boycott innings.
This lad loves a joke, and one day he's going to tell one.
Janet Brown. When Janet's on this show, she doesn't do a lot but what she does in inadequate.
On Blankety Blank, all the people in the panel, every one of them, no matter who they were,
actresses, whatever, they all loved him.
And that makes a big difference.
So Les could play with these people and be, not rude to them, but be off with them,
comedically, and they would just laugh because they loved him so much.
-I used to fight like Cooper. Gladys.
I'll tell you, you've been an asset to this show. You could brighten it by leaving it.
-You do for that outfit what Nora Batty does for tights.
-Ken Dodd, who proves there's life after teeth.
He's undermining that show the whole time.
But not in such a way that you think, "Why are we watching, then?"
You have to watch because he has that very, very charming anti-charm
that you can't take your eyes off.
Geoff, you're not going home empty-handed because, by Jiminy, the BBC does not believe in that.
-You're taking with you...
-..our Blankety Blank cheque book and pen.
-Come on, Rice, what have you got?
-Never used to be like this with Terry.
"Never used to be like this with Terry!"
'Blankety Blank was a huge success for Les.
'But behind the scenes, the Dawson family was in crisis.
'In April 1986, his wife and inspiration, Meg, passed away.'
When Meg went, he went to ground in a big way.
Because his, his...
..his support had gone.
His honest support had gone.
Er, and we were all very worried about Les because he did suffer very badly.
And then Tracy came along.
And it was obvious to anybody that knew Les that Tracy was absolutely fantastic,
she didn't try and top Meg, she became a new source of support.
He was very much a family man and wanted to be married
and he loved the family life and to be at home, the stability of home.
And I think Meg was obviously very important in Les's life
because she helped his career with Opportunity Knocks,
and she sort of kept his feet on the ground.
And obviously when Les met me, and we fell in love,
I just said, "Why didn't you marry an actress or a dancer?"
And he said, "Because I wanted to keep my feet on the ground."
I think because of similar backgrounds, really.
'Les lifted himself from the shadows and married Tracy.
'They had a daughter three years later.
'He was happier than he had been for years.'
I don't think there was a lot of difference between the Les Dawson on stage and the Les Dawson at home
because he sort of took everybody under his wing,
you know, if he did the theatres then he would meet up with the fans later.
He would say, "Come into the bar and have a drink with me. Why are you standing out in the cold?"
And he just treated everybody the same, which I thought was a lovely quality.
He'd say, "Come on, Pooh," because my nickname is Pooh, "Let's have a ride into Blackpool."
Or we'd have a ride into the country.
And he would pick ideas up, or we'd go and have a coffee somewhere,
or walk around in Blackpool and an idea would come.
And then he'd say, "Right, let's get back."
He always had a notebook and pen in his pocket and always wrote ideas down.
'Throughout his life, Les Dawson, lover of words and master of the variety stage,
'found many ways to make us laugh.
'But he will be best remembered for a trick he claims rescued him as a rookie in the working men's clubs.
'It was a guaranteed show-stopper, his signature routine.
'Everyone knew the punchline. But a Les Dawson appearance was incomplete without it.'
HE PLAYS PIANO
The audience demanded it in the end.
If Les didn't play the piano... I saw this happen on many, many occasions.
He'd be working front cloth and then the curtains would open and there would be the grand piano.
And the audience would just applaud at the piano because they knew what was coming.
You know, the audience demanded that.
You wind the clock back to when Les first started doing that
and it was really dealing with rude northern audiences who weren't going to sit and listen to his banter,
his patter, his jokes, all they wanted to do was have a few jars and sing.
So he thought, "Fine, you want to sing, you sing."
Now, come on, let's hear you now. Let's raise the roof.
It won't take much doing, the guttering is on the inside. Are you ready?
HE PLAYS OUT OF TUNE
He made everything look effortless.
He'd sat down and worked out, "Right, which are the right wrong notes?"
It's quite easy to play the piano badly and not be funny, as any music teacher will tell you,
but to play the piano badly and be always hilarious is...
Well, firstly, you need to know what you're doing, and secondly you need to be funny, and he was.
Just the timing, and the whole persona of how he's sitting on the stool looking at the audience,
with the, kind of, cheesy grin.
Anybody else trying to do that with a piano would turn it into a joke.
If you look at Les playing the piano, he believes every note he isn't playing.
He is completely, totally believable that he thinks he is doing it right.
He would play the piano every day at home, and play classical,
and jazz, and always went through the off-key piano playing at home, as well, which was nice.
He would start off quite serious on the piano before lunch,
and then he would play jazz
and then he would do the off-key piano playing so we'd know then he was at the end.
'Les knew how to get the most from a piano.
'But he never forgot that before he was famous,
'he thought his fortune lay as a singer first and a comedian second.'
I saw a clip of him singing Feelings.
And he starts to sing, going... # Feelings..
# They're rolling down on my face
I was thinking, "Is this for real? Cos he's an OK singer."
# Time to forget
# My feelings of love
And then, of course, he goes, "Feelings!"
OFF-KEY: # Feeeeeelings
# Whoa, whoa, whoa, feeeeeelings
You know it's coming but it's all the more joyful because you know it's coming.
'Les had always enjoyed smoking and drinking.
'But a lifetime of premature celebration was taking its toll, and his health was failing.
'It was time to take things easy and indulge his passions in some unexpected ways.'
He was an amazing writer. I mean, we all know he was a fantastic performer, et cetera.
But my official word would be he was an amazing writer because that's how he wanted to be remembered.
I think he gave enough to warrant being remembered for what he wanted to be remembered for.
We have a wonderful collection of books in the library, and he would read them over and over again.
And the toilets, there are four toilets and they're all full of books.
And if he ever wanted some quiet time before the family were home,
he'd usually lock himself in his other study, as he called it, the loo and read books.
I could imagine him going out with a television camera,
going to some interesting castle or something like that and talking about it.
You know, doing something to do with history.
Anything that he was interested in, because he could bring his humour with him.
So I would have thought he could have done almost everything except probably straight acting.
'But he did. He played Nona, a woman in an adaptation of an Argentinean absurd drama.'
-How are you, Nonita?
-On a day like this?
That's my Nonita. There's always something for you to eat, isn't there? Some nice little morsel.
-Nice salad you have there, Nona?
Si. Peppers, sweetcorn, excellento!
-Wait a minute. Where have the flowers gone?
-You got vinegar?
They're in the salad!
-Everything in salad.
-You put Auntie's flowers in the salad, the flowers for the dead!
You've done it this time! You've gone too far this time! HE GASPS
'And Les appeared in Demob with Griff Rhys Jones and Martin Clunes.'
Thank you. That's very decent of you, er...
-Er, Deasey, Ian.
-Deasey Ian, yes.
-And what have we here?
-Oh, Mr Stanley, this is Heather Kennedy.
Charmed, my petite mama.
-Tell me, did you witness the debacle?
-They did their best.
Oh, yes. We all have to start somewhere. Never say die.
He was a stand-up comedian but he'd changed direction, really, doing the serious side of acting.
And he loved that. He said he would have worked for nothing. Cos he just loved that side of it.
No, no, stop! Stop the rehearsal!
Get off the stage. Go and rest your bunions, go on, get off.
-I bet he's got a wealth of stories.
-Yep. Let's hope he doesn't tell us any.
-Well, that was bloody awful.
-Well, do it again, then!
No. What did they expect for one and a kick? The bloody Bolshoi? Eh?
-There you are, Mr Stanley.
-Oh, Deasey and Dobson have arrived.
-The ice breakers.
-Oh, two for the murder slot.
Where are you? Come on, where are you skulking, you cowards? Show yourselves!
And the winner is...
..Les Dawson. CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
'In 1992, Les's career was finally recognised in the British Comedy Awards.'
-It's about bloody time I won something.
Let's face it, I've been in this business so long I can remember when The Archers only had an allotment.
'But within a year, Les Dawson had passed away.'
The mother-in-law came last week to stay with us.
I knew it was her coming because next door's savage Alsatian...
..a high potency fertility pill...
Oh! Oh! Oh!... ..my Bert said they tasted of peppermint...
You see, you can sit there and smirk but you don't know. Life seems to be a matter of choice if you're lucky.
I'm not lucky. Dame Fortune has never once ever smiled at me.
I was with Les when he died. He was at a hospital in Manchester
and he was having a routine check-up for insurance cos he was doing another film with Griff Rhys Jones.
And he had to have this check-up
and had a massive heart attack just after, waiting for the results.
I was amazed when I heard about Les's death. It was on the radio I heard it, and I went, "What?"
And it was just one of these landmark things in the history of show business,
you know, where you go, "Wow!" Suddenly there's no Les.
There were so many other comedians, there were lots like Arthur Askey,
you know, and Norman Vaughan, and people you saw all the time,
but Les I thought was a division better than them
because he was more imaginative and his use of words was so much more interesting.
Comedy changes so much, but there are the comics, the very few, you could count on your hands,
the ones that can continue on through the years
and still be number one in their trade. And I think Les was one of them.
He was up there with the very top, Les was.
People still know his name.
And people still talk about him. I mean, that is wonderful.
Even people who weren't born when he died.
I'd put him up there with Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe
as a great mainstream British television comedian.
I think he was properly great.
There's still sort of a glow, really, that Les is still alive.
-They say laughter is infectious.
-Well, I think he's found a cure.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Les Dawson was one of Britain's all time great comedy talents, best known as a comedian but also a talented musician, writer and actor. This programme traces his career, with familiar favourite TV clips and some rare gems from the archives. Together with interviews from friends, relatives and colleagues, the programme unpicks the secrets of his enduring legacy nearly 20 years after his untimely death.
After 'discovery' on the Opportunity Knocks talent show in the 60s, he quickly became a regular face on TV, hosting comedy-led variety shows like Sez Les and The Les Dawson Show. His trademarks were short, pithy jokes, usually targeting his wife or mother in law, long verbose monologues and, perhaps most famously, piano recitals that went hilariously off key.
His reputation attracted guest appearances from some unexpected fans like John Cleese and Shirley Bassey, and he created an overweight dance troupe, The Roly Polys.
The programme shows how his career unfolded and illustrates the different facets of his comedy genius. John Cleese remembers their unlikely friendship, modern comedy stars Robert Webb and Russell Kane talk about his inspiration and Dawson's widow Tracy recalls their marriage and his joy at being a father late in life.