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Trouble? It's behind him

Les Dennis talks to Vicky Anderson about Dustin Gee, talent shows, and surviving 40 years in showbiz

Published on January 4th 2011.

Trouble? It's behind him

AS the tannoy sounds the call for 30 minutes before curtain up, an earnest looking and very camp young man dressed in one-piece rabbit costume knocks on the door, enters, and perches on the dressing table.

“Les, one of the dancers is off today, so you’ve got someone else doing your prawn balls bit.”

“Prawn balls, right,” he nods, taking the new instructions in.

There seems to be a bit of a shift with things becoming more Northern, like the BBC moving up to Salford. If I got a part in Corrie I’d be up here, you never know

In a uncluttered dressing room in the depths of the Liverpool Empire, there’s a feeling we’re far away from real life. Being entrenched this deep in pantoland is a rather otherworldly place for the uninitiated.

Sat in jeans and a jumper, and itching to get into the gaudy embroidered get up that will transform him into Wishee Washee Twankey, is Les Dennis.

Since returning to panto in recent years following a long haitus, all this colourful and daft chaos is par for the course for the comedian and actor. Co-stars have included Mickey Rooney, Henry Winkler and, this year, Pamela Anderson. So long a pro, these big names don’t faze him much, and on this occasion he doesn’t seem particularly interested in wheeling out anecdotes about them either.

Like everything else in pantoland, knocking about with internationally-renowned pop culture figures all kind of passes for normal. Anderson, he says, “gets” panto and is doing very well.

And panto has book-ended a year for Dennis that has seen him return to his hometown of Liverpool with four different productions, including Hairspray and High School Musical 2. It’s been “non stop”, he says, and he plans to take a break in 2011 and spend time with his family in London including wife Claire, who is expecting their second child in the spring.

No longer a tabloid favourite, he does have that unself-conscious, co-operative way of talking about his life that only those who have been written about copiously tend to do, with the ready assumption whoever he is talking to will already know the ins and outs.

His third wife, Claire Nicholson, isn’t in showbiz, and any armchair psychologist could point out how much that seems to be for the best following the years of having his life (and career) dominated by his relationship with Amanda Holden – “a monster that spiralled out of control”, as he has previously described it, and something we didn’t discuss. It’s old, old news. Now, the focus is definitely on his work. It suits him.

His regular panto turn, and his hugely enjoyable role in Hairspray as Wilbur Turnblad, the diminutive husband of larger than life Edna, played subesquently on a national tour by Michael Ball, Brian Conley and Michael Starke, shared something in common that appealed to the comedian in him.

“In panto, there’s that bit of comic tradition and that chance to break the fourth wall. Here, I can kind of be Les-as-Wishee and talk to the audience for a bit. And with Hairspray, it was really nice because again there was that chance, in that vaudeville type number, Timeless, to break and play to the audience a bit.”

Dennis, 57, knows he’s put in the decades of hard work to learn his craft as a comedian and actor and get where he is today. He’s approaching an almost unbelievable 40 years since his big break as a teenager, winning Opportunity Knocks in 1971. But on stage it’s clear to the audience that he’s very generous with it, and off stage he insists there’s always more to learn. He tries to take on at least one straight acting role a year to improve his skills.

Theatre, he says, has always been important to him. First inspired by the 1970s heyday of the Everyman and Playhouse, he takes panto seriously as he recognises how vital it is to get a young audience hooked.

“Panto is an art. For me, it’s a chance to tell kids a story and also to encourage them to watch theatre. If you get it wrong, you can ruin theatre for them for life,” he says.“When I was a kid I watched all the greats, Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd here in the Empire. I loved it and I wanted to do it.”

Slogging away on the working mens’ club circuit built up his reputation and his audience. But it wasn’t until his eventual 16-year stint as host of Family Fortunes does he believe he really found himself as a performer.

“I started out as an impressionist, by copying other people’s stuff really. It was only when I did Family Fortunes that I found my style, and I’d never even thought about doing a game show until that came along.”

Dennis hasn’t, as has been rumoured, moved back to Liverpool but doesn’t rule out going where the wind blows him in future.“When I got into telly it all tended to be in London. There seems to be a bit of a shift with things becoming more Northern, like the BBC moving up to Salford. If I got a part in Corrie I’d be up here, you never know.

“We’re flexible as a family, we’re a young family and we’re at that point where we could live anywhere. My son has just turned 31, I’ve a two-and-a-half year old and another on the way. I never thought that would happen and it’s just been a gift.“ It’s great being an older dad, you’ve got more time and patience, you appreciate moments more.”

In recent years, his career has taken him everywhere from the Edinburgh Festival to the West End. Yet this Christmas, one person in particular is on his mind – former comedy partner Dustin Gee. As a duo, they “just clicked” after working together on the Russ Abbott Show in the 1980s. Gee died 25 years ago this January, nearing the end of a theatre run in Southport.

“I’m always aware of it this time of year, because it was during panto, and with it coming up to 25 years, yes, I’m marking it personally,” Dennis says. “He was great. A brilliant entertainer and a great bloke as well. He didn’t really fulfill what he could have done.”

It’s easy to ask Les Dennis how TV talent shows past and present compare, and in these days of Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor, he says nothing has really changed: “Talent shows are a really good thing to have as it’s a way for people to be seen,” he says. “But even after winning Opportunity Knocks I had to go out and graft, and learn it like an apprenticeship. Even if you have instant success, without experience, it’s… gone like that.

“I was watching Will Young on the Ruth Jones show the other night and he’s really made it, he has proved to be a star. He’s diversified, gone into drama and knows you’ve just got to go out and work.”

Heading into the New Year, Dennis has recorded a quiz show for cBBC, Fee Fi Fo Yum, and then says he will wait and see what comes. “You never know what’s round the corner in this industry,” he smiles. And, like so many other things in that business called show, you get the feeling he knows more about that than most.

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