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Lionel Blair - An Obituary

Lionel Blair – dancer, choreographer, actor, entertainer

Born December 12, 1928; died November 4, 2021

 

 Lionel Blair, who has died aged 92 was a virtuoso entertainer, whose talent for tap dancing saw him share a stage with Sammy Davis Jr. in a 1961 Royal Variety Performance. The routine became a defining moment of a career that saw Blair become a household name. Prior to TV fame, Blair had played juvenile lead in The Five Past Eight Show at Glasgow’s Alhambra Theatre, where, as he told the Herald in 2009, he played straight man to every comic turn in Scotland, from Jimmy Logan to Rikki Fulton.

 

"They were very funny, " Blair told the Herald in 2009, "but they were also brilliant actors, and I learnt everything I needed to from them."

 

Blair tap danced his way through a career that saw him appear alongside the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), or else choreographing the dance routines performed by his own troupe on prime time TV shows throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These included vehicles for the likes of Marty Feldman, Jimmy Tarbuck and Tommy Cooper. He was also choreographer on Joseph McGrath’s film of Terry Southern’s novel, The Magic Christian (1969), starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr. 

 

As a stage actor, Blair appeared in plays by Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn, and made his Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut in 2009 in a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Restoration romp, The School for Scandal.

 

For many, however, Blair remains best known as team captain of the ‘Boys’ on long-running celebrity charades TV game show, Give Us a Clue (1979-1991). Blair’s popularity saw him join the 2014 edition of Celebrity Big Brother, having already been seen in other reality TV shows. He later appeared in Ricky Gervais’ sit-com, Extras (2007), playing a tragicomic parody of himself as someone desperate to revive his career through such shows. 

 

Such self-effacement was typical of Blair, who epitomised a showbiz era he tirelessly embraced, even as he was often presented as a figure of fun. His effete persona became something of a running gag on radio quiz show, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. 

 

Prior to Extras, Blair appeared alongside contemporaries such as Leslie Phillips and Mollie Sugden in knowing sketch show, Revolver (2001-2004). More recently, Blair appeared alongside Danny Dyer, Denise Van Outen and Christopher Biggins’ in Ray Cooney’s big screen version of his stage farce, Run for Your Wife (2012). 

 

In 2018, he played another version of himself in Being Lionel, a short film by Tracey Larcombe, about an old man who had been pipped to the post for stage and screen stardom by Blair fifty years earlier. It was a tribute to Blair’s popular standing that he could present himself in such a way and still come out smiling.

 

Henry Lionel Ogus was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the eldest of two children to Myer Ogus, a barber, and Debora ‘Della’ Greenbaum. His sister Joyce, with whom he would form a double act, was born after the Lithuanian Jewish family moved to Stamford Hill, north London. A prevailing anti Semitism saw his father change the family name.

 

Blair and his sister became regulars at the local Regent Cinema, where they were enraptured by the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. During air raids, inspired by Fred and Ginger, Blair and his sister sang and danced for those sheltering at Manor Park underground station. After his father died suddenly when Blair was thirteen, he became a boy actor, later touring with the Savoy Players and performing with Joyce.

 

An early TV role came in an adaptation of John Patrick’s sanatorium set play, The Curious Savage (1958). Blair played Jeffrey, a concert pianist and military veteran who believes himself to be horribly scarred, even though he survived the plane crash that killed all his men without a scratch. Blair also appeared in Scots writer Ian Dallas’ Philip Saville directed Armchair Theatre, Light from a Star (1959).  

 

These were rare straight roles in a career that usually saw Blair cast for his dancing ability, be it in Jazz Boat (1960), starring Anthony Newley, or as a dancing sailor in The World of Suzie Wong (1960). 

 

While already a TV regular, a stint as a judge on talent show, New Faces (1976-1978) was a gear change that opened the door for Give Us a Clue and everything that followed. Blair’s versatility and willingness to say yes to anything made him one of the most dynamic performers of his generation.

 

"I'm always amazed when I'm asked to do some things, " Blair told the Herald prior to the Edinburgh opening of The School for Scandal. "People have made me do things totally opposite to what people think Lionel Blair is all about, which is great. I always love a challenge, but a lot of the time, casting directors just see Lionel Blair the dancer. Even then, no-one knew how to pigeonhole me.

 

"If I'd been a singer like Lulu and Cilla Black, I'd have had my own series. If I'd been a comic I would have had my own series. When I did (Alan Ayckbourn’s play) Season's Greetings I had agents coming to see me and then try to sell me, but the powers that be couldn't see beyond Lionel Blair the dancer. But thankfully there are people who can see beyond that."

 

He is survived by his wife Susan, their three children, Daniel, Lucy and Matt, and three grandchildren.


The Herald, November 6th 2021

 

ends

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