The deadpan delivery, the tuneless piano playing, that astonishingly pliable face – the inimitable Les Dawson was one of the best-loved entertainers of his generation.
He’s been dead for 29 years now, but talking to impressionist Jon Culshaw about his comedy idol it’s as if Les is back in the room. Jon is bringing Les to life in a new stage show and today he’s in character, sporting a dark wig, velvet dinner jacket and Les’s trademark oversized bow tie on top of some considerable padding.
Les described himself as ‘a grossly fat man with a face like a collapsed sponge cake’ (he could pull his lower jaw over his upper lip after damaging it during boxing matches as a youngster), and Jon’s perfected his gurning expressions and that roll of the eyes that used to have us all in fits.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever been more comfortable as somebody else than I have as Les,’ he says. ‘After rehearsing him with all the gurning though, it does feel as though I’ve had a facial workout.
Jon Clushaw’s (pictured) comedy idol is Les Dawson and he will now bring Les to life in a new stage show about his life
Les (pictured), who passed away 29 years ago, described himself as ‘a grossly fat man with a face like a collapsed sponge cake’
‘With Les there’s so much more too, like the way he would deliver a line, let it settle, then give a little flicker of his eyes. It’s all about the stillness and simplicity of expression.
‘Like when he’d simply sit by the piano and convey this look, and the audience knew something funny was going to happen.
‘When he told a joke the punchline would hit you like a custard pie in the face. It was important to Les that the comedy came from within, and if it came from the heart it really meant something and people could relate to it.’
Now 54, Jon’s been impersonating the stars since his first jobs in local radio in Lancashire, through Spitting Image and his own show The Impressionable Jon Culshaw to the award-winning TV series Dead Ringers. Now he’s thrilled to be back on the stage playing Les just months after his turn as Opportunity Knocks host Hughie Green in a play about the late Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni.
Jon explained how he never did actually manage to meet Les in person before he passed away (pictured, in character)
As a lifelong fan with fond memories of watching him on TV with his mum, dad, brother and sister, Jon has wanted to perform a ‘love letter’ to Les for many years.
‘He was such an engaging character and his use of words was sumptuous,’ he says. ‘I’d been thinking of this idea for a long time, then a piano tuner came to my brother’s house and we asked him to play a little tune and record it for my nephew to inspire him.
‘As the piano tuner improvised, I thought of Les playing and how his widow Tracy once told me he would play the piano beautifully every day. I thought, “Right, we’ve got to make this show happen.”’
Les Dawson: Flying High, written by BAFTA and Olivier award-winner Tim Whitnall and directed by Bob Golding, will premiere at the 75th anniversary Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August before touring. It’s set in 1985 as Les travels on Concorde for a private booking in New York.
Coming from Skid Row gave Les an inner strength. His story is about following your dreams
During the flight he’s reminiscing about his colourful life into a dictaphone for what would become his acclaimed autobiography No Tears For The Clown, which was published in 1992 – the year before he died of a heart attack.
A self-declared ‘slum kid’, Les grew up in poverty in Manchester as an only child with a love of poetry and literature. He longed to be recognised for his writing but was forced to hide his ambitions after being bullied at school, and he ended up working in the drapery department in his local Co-op, then as a trainee electrician and vacuum cleaner salesman.
‘When he told his Uncle Tommy he loved to read Dickens, Tommy said, “If people get wind of this they’ll be at you with boots and cricket bats,” so they enrolled him in a boxing club,’ explains Jon.
‘But Les didn’t like violence, even when he won. He thought, “Goodness me, to have done this to another human being is not where I want to be.”
‘He dislocated his jaw so many times, and that’s what allowed him to pull those extraordinary faces.
‘But it taught him grit too. Coming up from Skid Row gave him an inner strength and confidence. His story is about following your dreams.’
Les discovered he could make people laugh when he used humour to escape the bullies, endear himself to the other kids and get himself out of scrapes.
‘There’s a scene in the play where his teacher chastises Leslie for giving silly answers to his questions like, “If you’ve got £3 in one pocket and £2 in the other, what have you got?”, to which Les replies, “You’ve got someone else’s trousers on.” But his teacher also tells Les he has the ability to be a great writer.’
However, after a bold move to Paris and a failed attempt to make a living writing, Les ended up as a pianist in a brothel and later an entertainer in northern clubs. He made his TV debut on the talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1967, which he won (and later hosted), and became a hugely popular comic on British television and radio for the rest of his life.
He also fulfilled his ambition of becoming a writer, with more than a dozen books covering everything from crime and sci-fi to his beloved Lancashire, and becoming fluent in Japanese, French, German and Italian.
After overcoming prostate problems and recovering from two heart attacks, Les’s massive fatal coronary happened, ironically, in a Manchester hospital where he’d gone for a routine check-up. He died at just 62, leaving behind Tracy and their then eight-month-old daughter Charlotte (he had three older children by his first wife Margaret).
Although Jon never got to meet Les in person, he later became friends with Tracy after meeting her at Bruce Forsyth’s Hall Of Fame TV special in 2014, and she’s collaborated with him on the show. But Jon, who was also born in Lancashire, feels there are similarities between his and Les’s backgrounds.
Jon also grew up with larger-than-life characters like Les’s fictional Lancashire battleaxes Cissie Braithwaite and Ada Shufflebotham, the comedy drag act (based on Les’s real family and friends) he played with Roy Barraclough in the 1970s and 80s.
Jon also grew up with larger-than-life characters like Les’ fictional Lancashire battleaxes Cissie Braithwaite (pictured here – Les as Cissie) and Ada Shufflebotham
‘Reading the scripts reminded me of growing up in Lancashire,’ says Jon. ‘Cissie and Ada were like the women my mum used to play bingo with, and like my aunties.
‘I used to love to copy them because they had such warmth. I might even wear one of my mother’s old knitted cardigans to play Cissie.’
Although known for his jokes about his wife and mother-in-law, Les revered women. He told Tracy he loved her every ten minutes and called her Princess Poo to his King Larry Lump – he even had the initials P and L inscribed in gold on the gates outside their home.
When Tracy was pregnant with Charlotte, he would join her at aqua aerobics and jump in the water with all the pregnant women, shouting ‘knickers, knackers, knockers’ to make them laugh.
It seems there’s been a wave of nostalgia recently around the entertainers of the 70s and 80s. Whitnall and Golding previously worked together on a one-man show devoted to Eric Morecambe, while Whitnall’s other work includes a TV drama based on the life of the late comic and DJ Kenny Everett.
But one wonders what the woke brigade would make of Les’s comedy now.
‘There’s a section in the play where Les seems to have predicted this,’ says Jon. ‘He thought we must never lose sight of the fact there’s humour in almost everything, and says, “I look around today and I see the self-important, the self-righteous, the egocentric, the narcissistic, the dissatisfied and the dogmatic, and I worry our ability to laugh at ourselves is starting to look like an endangered species.”’
Jon wholeheartedly agrees with this sentiment. After all, he’s never forgotten the exasperated calls from the programme controller at his local Lancashire radio station when, at 19, he used to break up the monotony of the lonely night shift with his impersonations.
The controller would have to say, ‘Just read the weather in your own voice, Jon, not in Bob Geldof’s or Frank Bruno’s. Just read the weather, put the music on – and keep quiet.’
Our conversation today is interrupted by umpteen famous people, not just Les but also Tony Blair, Tom Baker, Boris Johnson, Brian Cox and Alan Sugar to name a few. In fact, Jon can barely get a word in edgeways.
When his wife was at aqua aerobics he’d jump into the pool shouting, ‘Knickers, knackers, knockers’
At the age of 12 he joined a local dramatic society and would take on the parts of animals that needed accents, then went on to join a hospital radio station in his home town of Ormskirk to hone his technique, while sending tapes of his impressions to national radio stations and shows like Spitting Image. When Steve Coogan left he got a job there, voicing more than 40 characters.
One of his early jobs was making hoax calls on Capital Radio (he famously got Tony Blair to take his call when he was pretending to be William Hague), and on tour he pranks pizza takeaway outlets by phoning for mushroom pizzas in the voice of Ozzy Osbourne or Sir David Attenborough.
‘For David I’d ring up and say, “I was wondering if I could have pizza with some shiitake mushrooms?” and the pizza delivery man would say, “No, it’s just normal mushrooms, mate.”
‘And for Ozzy I’d say, “Don’t put anything hallucinogenic on them.” The pizzas would be delivered with about ten minutes of the show to go, and as the audience left they’d help themselves to a slice and everyone was happy.’
As with the incomparable Les Dawson, it’s all good old harmless fun. And that’s exactly what Jon wants to convey in his homage to the much-cherished entertainer.
- Les Dawson: Flying High is on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 3-28 August. Visit tickets.edfringe.com