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Dawson, Les (1933-1993)

Actor, Writer, Presenter

Main image of Dawson, Les (1933-1993)

Describing himself as "one of nature's most persistent pessimists" Les Dawson never wanted to be a comedian. He dreamt of being a writer, and actually wrote twelve books; including autobiographies and the Raymond Chandler pastiche Well Fared, My Lovely. However, it was his self-deprecating humour, filled with malapropisms, flights of fancy and mother-in-law jokes, that made him one of Britain's funniest stage and television comics.

Born in Collyhurst, Manchester, on February 2, 1933, the son of a bricklayer, Dawson spent his schooldays trying to keep the bullies at bay with humour. His jaw was broken by one boy, which left Dawson with the fortunately comedic ability to pull his chin over his nose. Leaving school, he worked in the Co-op drapery department, and joined the Bury Times as a reporter to pursue his writing aspirations, but was sacked after two weeks. Travelling to Paris, he played the piano in a brothel. (An accomplished pianist, he would deliberately play ham-fisted as part of his comic act). Returning to England, he worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman and then started on the Manchester club circuit.

His first television appearance was on Saturday Bandbox (ITV, tx.16/6/1962) and in 1967 he auditioned for the talent show Opportunity Knocks (ITV, 1956-78). He never looked back. He appeared on many variety shows and made his acting debut in the Comedy Playhouse 'State of the Union' (BBC, tx. 2/4/1968). A year later he had his own long-running series Sez Les (ITV, 1969-76), full of his trademark northern pessimism. He became a household name developing his popular characters; the frustrated Cosmo Smallpiece and, assisted by Roy Barraclough, gossipy housewives Cissie and Ada, based on Norman Evans' 'Over the Wall' sketch.

The Galton and Simpson-scripted single comedy Holiday with Strings (ITV, tx. 26/8/1974) spawned the seven-part sitcom Dawson's Weekly (ITV, 1975). The same year, he starred in the one-hour special Dawson's Electric Cinema, set in a 1920s flea-pit (ITV, tx. 3/4/1975) and in The Loner (ITV, 1975), a series of three plays written by Alan Plater. Switching to the BBC, he produced the successful Les Dawson Show (BBC, 1978-89) and The Dawson Watch (BBC, 1979-80) with each week's sketches and jokes based around a single theme. In 1984 he took over Terry Wogan's 'wand' to present the gameshow Blankety Blank (BBC, 1984-91), on which he quickly stamped his persona, , forever ridiculing it and its awful prizes.

Dawson's career came full circle in 1990 when he presented the revamped Opportunity Knocks (BBC, 1990) and he was well-received as the greedy 100 year old grandmother in Roberto Costa's black comedy Nona (BBC, t.x 19.10.91). His final screen appearance was in a cameo role in the comedy drama Demob (ITV, 1993), broadcast a few months after his death from a heart attack on June 10, 1993. His life and career were celebrated with a Westminster Abbey memorial service and numerous tribute programmes, and in 1998 he was one of five comedians commemorated on postage stamps.

Graham Rinaldi

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