The comedian Les Dawson excelled as a stand-up and as an actor. What is often overlooked is his whimsical mastery over the English language.
Laugh With Les,
BBC REB 346,
To celebrate Les Dawson solely as a reliable and rapid deliverer of crude mother-in-law jokes, is to do him a great disservice. True, he delivered many a gag about his wife over the years, as well as her supposedly gorgon-like mother, but Les Dawson had many other comedic talents that are underappreciated. There was the character actor who brought to life scripts and plays by the likes of Galton and Simpson, Roberto Cossa and Alan Plater. There was the comedian equally at home in TV sketch shows as he was performing stand-up late into the night at a boisterous working men’s club. There was the consummate quiz show host ever so slightly at odds with the lavish television sets, forging a rare intimacy with contestants and audience alike. And then there was the writer and novelist, the constructor of intricate fanciful prose as whimsical, rich and playful as anything ever heard on a comedy stage.
In his 1985 autobiography A Clown Too Many, Les Dawson describes Collyhurst, the Manchester suburb where he was born back in 1931. The words that he uses, the turns of phrase he conjures, and the images he conveys emerge every bit as vivid and evocative as an LS Lowry street scene. The grimy dark streets wreathed in smoke are a world full of, “teeming running fighting children, never pausing for breath as they dart down drain-blocked alleyways…” The poetic turns of phrase and literary leanings of Les Dawson find full reign in that description, inspired by his hard upbringing, thwarted ambition and multifarious struggles. Time and again, that same mastery over words would appear in his comedy.
The various working class areas of Manchester where Les’s family lived over the years did not provide the sort of environment that would normally encourage any intellectual leanings or idle comic musings. Career aspirations for Les and his neighbours did not extend much beyond ‘learning a trade’ or if really lucky, securing a steady job in a shop or an office. A mediocre student at best, Les Dawson left school at the age of 14 and embarked on the first of many ill-suited jobs in the drapery department of the Co-Op Manchester. He would go on to be an equally inept electrician, newspaper reporter, dishwasher and door-to-door salesman.
It is perhaps only the fact that Les Dawson proved so utterly hopeless at every single trade and profession he attempted to make a living from, that the British public were able to eventually enjoy his comedic output. Les’s breakthrough into comedy was driven by a fierce and relentless ambition. Not the sort of ambition that propels someone to instant overnight fame and stardom, but rather an obdurate sense of determination that allowed him to take risks, suffer multiple failures and setbacks, until success eventually came.
Les’s narrow horizons were expanded and ambitions first stirred during his National Service in post-war Germany. While no better at being a soldier than he was an electrician, and equally as dangerous to those around him, Les found that his piano playing abilities were enough to keep him ingratiated with his comrades. They also kept him out of military jail on a constant litany of charges caused by his unfailing ineptitude. After his spell in Germany, demobbed and back in Manchester, it was not long before Les felt the urge to try his luck on the continent again and decamped aboard to try his luck in Paris. Piano playing in brothels did not prove lucrative enough to sustain his dreams of living a bohemian aesthete’s life on the banks of the Seine and he returned once again to Manchester.
One further trip away from Manchester might have proved enough to squash most aspiring showbiz ambitions. An unexpected and potentially lucrative offer to work with celebrated comedian Max Wall in London proved a false start as Wall became embroiled in an extra-marital affair which saw his career stall amid the prudish atmosphere of 1950’s England. And so, with his big break gone, Les Dawson returned to Manchester, and became resigned to his familiar world of vacuum cleaner selling and occasional gigs on the Northern club circuit.
Les Dawson developed his act gradually over the years mixing his piano playing skills with comedy until, in 1964 and at the insistence of his wife he took the decision to apply for Opportunity Knocks, then the biggest TV talent show of the day. Les would go on to win the studio vote with his own unique blend of self-deprecation, world weary cynicism and earthy Northern humour, an act honed in the many years playing desperate soul-destroying gigs across the UK. That successful TV debut earned Les appearances on the televisual spectacular Blackpool Night Out. Performing an act forged in adversity and hardship made him stand out amongst the usual polished slick cabaret acts of the time, and in 1969 Les Dawson earned his first headlining TV show, Sez Les. He was at last a success, after only 38 years of toil! Les Dawson was rarely off the TV screens from 1969 until his untimely death in 1993, earning a place in the nation’s heart that few comedians can aspire to.
Les’s first vinyl album, An Evening With Les Dawson , was released in 1976. Recorded both in Manchester and London, the record was a mixture of live sketches featuring his by now well-known and established TV comedy characters, as well as two novelty songs recorded in the studio. When Dawson left Yorkshire TV to make programmes for the BBC in 1978, it consolidated Les’s reputation and produced his second album in 1979.
Gathering material from his BBC Radio 2 series Listen To Les as well as the BBC One TV series The Dawson Watch, that 1979 record Laugh With Les contains many wonderful examples of what made Les Dawson an enduring and cherished comedy star. The tracks are split into ‘dissertations’ (that is to say convoluted rambling jokes), long musings on various topics, as well as tracks performed with Roy Barraclough, with the two comics in character as the gossiping housewives, Cissie and Ada.
The first dissertation delivered is The Barnsley Dracula, a rambling yarn that tells of Yorkshire’s very own vampire, a certain Albert Shufflebotham killed by a consignment of silver tipped tripe only to be raised from the dead and married off to a pub landlady. Other dissertations deal with alien invasions and a continental coach holiday on a decrepit bus powered by ‘swamp gas and bat droppings’. These long discourses allow Les to give full flight to his fancy and absurd imagination and are sprinkled with wonderful turns of phrase.
For all the killer one-liners, fanciful monologues and brilliant wordplay, it is the Cissie and Ada routines that are the undoubted highlights. Ada, played by Les is a lusty dreamer, thwarted in love and ambition, her speech peppered with malapropisms and innuendo. Cissie, played by Roy Barraclough, is her slightly more well-to-do friend, pretentious and with an affected air of refinement and superiority. Both are united in their love of gossip nattering and intrigue, and no topic is off limits as they discuss, love, money, robust Canadian soldiers, infirmity and scandal.
Cissie and Ada are easy to picture sipping tea in their garish frocks and curlers, putting the world to rights over a macaroon while engaging in the sort of philosophical symposia that Plato could only dream of. Here then to play us out are the erudite and learned logicians of Lancashire, Cissie and Ada, discussing how best to make ends meet. Their own ends, one hopes.