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Les Dennis - On Behalf of the Committee


When Les Dennis opened a show headlined by Lena Zavaroni at the London 
Palladium that was broadcast on prime time television, you could 
perhaps forgive the still young comedian for thinking he'd hit the big 
time. The next night, however, saw Dennis back in his home town of 
Liverpool playing the somewhat less salubrious confines of Croxteth 
British Legion in one of the roughest parts of town. Such, then, were 
the vagaries of life for the northern English working man's club comic 
in the 1960s and 1970s.

At their peak, such spit and sawdust institutions as Croxteth British 
Legion were bread and butter for acts like Dennis, especially after 
Saturday night TV show The Comedians turned the likes of Bernard 
Manning, Frank Carson into stars. The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social 
Club went further, recreating the atmosphere of beery night out in a TV 
studio. The rise of the 1980s wave of alternative comedy put paid to 
these boom years with right-on abandon, and pretty soon the clubs 
themselves started to close as memberships atrophied while comedy moved 
into arenas.

This is the back-drop to Jigsy, a new play by TV producer and comic 
historian Tony Staveacre, which puts Dennis in the solo spotlight as a 
clubland veteran mourning the imminent demise of such unreconstructed 
fun palaces. Given that the Assembly Rooms where the play opens is now 
run by all year round Edinburgh comedy club The Stand's supremo Tommy 
Shepherd, the setting couldn't be more perfect. Yet, while Dennis may 
have played a few of the real-life dives on the circuit Jigsy 
frequents, character and performer couldn't be more different.

“Jigsy's pre-stand-up,” Dennis explains. “He's a turn. The play is set 
in 1997, which was the time when working mens' clubs were just 
beginning to dry out. He's a bit of a dinosaur, is Jigsy. He can fill a 
club in his home town, but anywhere else he couldn't get arrested.”

Dennis reels off a list of names of his comic heroes who barely got a 
look in on TV, but in the working men's clubs remained kings.

“Jackie Hamilton is kind of a template for Jigsy,” says Dennis. “He's 
someone who started getting up in his local for beer money, then found 
out he was really funny. It touched a nerve for me, this play when I 
first read it, because there's lines where I talk about people I've 
actually worked with, like Eddie Flanagan, who had that Tommy Cooper 
kind of thing about him, but no-one's heard of him now.”

For Dennis, the allure for this world came from an early age.

“When I was a kid I loved watching the shows,” he says. “My hero was 
Jimmy Tarbuck. He went to the same school as me, his dad was a bookie 
like mine, and at one point he was like the fifth Beatle. I started 
thinking that maybe I could do that, and I did a talent show at Butlins 
when I was ten or eleven, and came third. Then when I was a little bit 
older I won the weekly heats. My mum worked at British Aerospace, and 
through her I started doing a slot at the Nor Green Social club in 
Norris Green in Liverpool, where I'd come on and do ten minutes between 
 acts.

“When I first started, it was, 'Oh, he's only young, give him a 
chance', but then it got harder. Audiences would be sitting there 
expecting some forty year old wearing a big bow-tie, and I'd turn up 
aged seventeen. The aw factor was gone, so I really had to make sure I 
had a good act.”

Still in his teens, Dennis' live routines were broadcast on local 
radio, and in 1974, he won TV talent show New Faces, the Britain's Got 
Talent of its day. With the programme's panel of judges doling out 
criticism equally as withering as their contemporary descendents, the 
likes of Lenny Henry, Jim Davidson and Victoria Wood also gained early 
TV exposure on New Faces.

With the TV doors open, Dennis moved onto teatime impressionists show, 
Who Do You Do? It was here he formed a professional partnership with 
Dustin Gee, who had also come up through clubland. The pair became a 
highlight of Russ Abbott's Saturday Madhouse, and were tipped to be the 
next Morecambe and Wise before Gee collapsed onstage and died three 
days later.

By that time, the comedy world had changed.

“In the 1980s old-school comedians had to keep their head down,” Dennis 
remembers. “They were seen as people wearing golf trousers who were 
somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. Ben Elton had a go at Jimmy 
Tarbuck, but I think even he came to regret that. Jimmy Tarbuck is a 
funny man. He always was and always will be. All that happened was that 
Ben Elton became the new establishment.”

By that time, while Dennis dovetailed between The Les Dennis Laughter 
Show, The Russ Abbott Show and an astonishing fifteen years hosting 
Family Fortunes on TV, Dennis had also moved into more legitimate 
theatre. While he could and still can mix it up in high-profile 
blockbusters like Chicago, High School Musical and Me and My Girl, 
Dennis' first formal stage role was in David Hare's very serious play, 
Skylight. It was, says Dennis, “a baptism of fire.”

Dennis has also acted in Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, JB 
Priestley's When We Are Married, and last year appeared in Alan 
Ayckbourn's Drowning on Dry Land.

Dennis' move into straight theatre roles isn't as unlikely as it 
sounds. While still at school in Liverpool he joined the drama club, 
whose other members included future horror novelist Clive Barker. Also  
part of the club was theatre director Jude Kelly, who has previously 
headed up Battersea Arts Centre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, and is 
currently in charge of London's South Bank Centre.

Despite his pedigree, there were times, like when he did hit play, Art, 
with Christopher Cazenove and John Duttine, when he felt out of his 
depth. Beyond fictional drama, a very public meltdown following the 
collapse of his marriage to Amanda Holden and an ill-advised stint on 
Celebrity Brother actually benefited Dennis' career via an appearance 
on Ricky Gervais' self-reflexive TV comedy, Extras, playing a grotesque 
version of himself.

Dennis' career reinvention continues apace with another Gervais-enabled 
appearance in controversial sit-com, Life's Too Short. Unlike Jigsy, 
Dennis managed to reinvent himself beyond a shrinking marketplace.

“It would have been easy to get trapped there,” Dennis says of the 
clubs he played for fifteen years, “but then, there's guys who have 
brilliant careers there. I'm just glad to still be doing what I'm 
doing, and to still be doing interesting work. I'd still like to do 
some Shakespeare, and have a go at Malvolio or something. That would be 
a challenge. But something like Jigsy, that's a challenge as well. 
People think that because I've worked the clubs, and because that's a 
world I know, that doing this is totally within my comfort zone. It's 
not. It's a challenge, and that's what keeps my job exciting.”

Jigsy, Assembly Rooms, August 1-26th (not 13th), 2.50-
www.arfringe.com
The Herald, August 7th 2012

ends

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