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|Born||Leslie Dawson, Jr.
2 February 1931
Collyhurst, Manchester, England
|Died||10 June 1993
Whalley Range, Manchester, England
Cause of death
|Occupation||Comedian and novelist|
|Years active||1959 – 1993|
|Known for||Comedy and stage|
|Spouse(s)||Margaret Dawson (1960-1986) (her death)
Tracey Dawson (1989-1993) (his death)
Life and career
||This section's order may be confusing or unclear to readers. (March 2012)|
He was born in Collyhurst, Manchester, Lancashire, to Leslie Dawson, Sr. and Julia Nolan, who was of Irish descent. His first job was in the parcels department of the Manchester Co-op. He worked briefly as a journalist on the Bury Times.
Dawson claimed that he began his entertainment career as a pianist in a Parisian brothel – in his entertaining but factually unreliable autobiography. In any case, his efforts at making a living as a pianist ("I finally heard some applause from a bald man and said 'thank you for clapping me' and he said 'I'm not clapping - I'm slapping me head to keep awake'"), evolved into comedy as he found he got laughs by playing wrong notes and complaining to the audience. He made his television debut on the talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1967 and became a prominent comic on British television for the rest of his life.
His most characteristic routines featured Roy Barraclough and Dawson as two elderly women, Cissie Braithwaite and Ada Shufflebotham. Cissie had pretensions of refinement and often corrected Ada's malapropisms or vulgar expressions. As authentic characters of their day, they spoke some words aloud but only mouthed others, particularly those pertaining to bodily functions and sex. At one time, no respectable woman would have said, for instance, "She's having a hysterectomy." Instead they would have mouthed, "She's having women's troubles." (Dawson's character, of course, mistakenly said "hysterical rectumy.") These female characters were based on those Les Dawson knew in real life. He explained that this mouthing of words (or "mee-mawing") was a habit of Lancashire millworkers trying to communicate over the tremendous racket of the looms, and then resorted to in daily life for indelicate subjects. To further portray the reality of northern, working class women, Cissie and Ada would sit with folded arms, occasionally adjusting their bosoms by a hoist of the forearms. Many of the Cissie and Ada sketches were written by Terry Ravenscroft. This was also typical of pantomime dame style, an act copied faithfully from his hero, Norman Evans, who had made famous his act Over The Garden Wall.
Les Dawson was of portly build and often dressed in the traditional John Bull of England costume. He introduced to his BBC television shows a dancing group of very fat ladies called the Roly Polys.
He loved to undercut his own fondness for high culture. For example, he was a talented pianist but developed a gag where he would begin to play a familiar piece such as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. After he had established the identity of the piece being performed, Dawson would introduce hideously wrong notes (yet not to the extent of destroying the identity of the tune) without appearing to realise that he had done so, meanwhile smiling unctuously and apparently relishing the accuracy and soul of his own performance. He also used a grand piano in a series of sketches where it became animated, for example, trying to walk away from him across the stage, collapsing or shutting its lid.
Dawson's style as a comic performer was world-weary, lugubrious and earthy. He was as popular with female as with male audiences, and loved by the British public. A news reporter from The Sun looking for him after a show to interview him found him backstage joking with some cleaning women and making them laugh.
Before his fame Dawson wrote poetry and kept it secret. It was not expected that someone of his working class background would harbour such literary ambitions. In a BBC TV documentary about his life, he spoke of his love for some canonical figures in English literature, in particular the 19th century essayist Charles Lamb, whose somewhat florid style influenced Dawson's own. Dawson wrote a novel, Come Back With The Wind.
His love of language influenced many of his comedy routines - for example one otherwise fairly routine joke began with the line "I was vouchsafed this vision by a pockmarked Lascar in the arms of a frump in a Huddersfield bordello..." He was also a master of painting a beautiful word picture and then letting the audience down with a bump: "The other day I was gazing up at the night sky, a purple vault fretted with myriad points of light twinkling in wondrous formation, while shooting stars streaked across the heavens, and I thought: I really must repair the roof on this toilet."
Dawson wrote many novels but was always regarded solely as an entertainer in the public imagination, and this saddened him. He told his second wife, Tracey, "Always remind them - I was a writer too".
Having broken his jaw in a boxing match, Dawson was able to pull grotesque faces by pulling his jaw over his upper lip. This incident is described in the first volume of Dawson's autobiography A Clown Too Many.
Dawson was always known to be a heavy smoker and drinker. When he wasn't working he would often drink a bottle of whisky and smoke 50 cigarettes a day.
Dawson nearly died in 1985 from a failing prostate gland, complicated by blood poisoning. He suffered a heart attack in 1988, and would have suffered a severe heart attack at the beginning of 1992 caused by his lungs being filled with fluid, had it not been for the emergency team attending the Wimbledon theatre that night.
He was married to Margaret from 25 June 1960 until her death on 15 April 1986 from cancer. They had had three children: Julie, Pamela and Stuart. He married Tracy on 6 May 1989, despite worries that his showbusiness contemporaries and the public would object, as she was 17 years younger. They had a daughter, Charlotte, who was born on 3 October 1992.
Dawson starred in a radio sketch show Listen to Les, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in the 1970s and 1980s. Television series in which he appeared included Sez Les for Yorkshire Television, The Dawson Watch for the BBC, written by Andy Hamilton and Terry Ravenscroft, The Les Dawson Show, written by Terry Ravenscroft, Dawson's Weekly, Jokers Wild (1969–73) and the quiz show Blankety Blank, which he presented for some years. His final TV appearance was on the LWT series Surprise, Surprise hosted by Cilla Black, when he sang a comical rendition of "I Got You Babe" with a woman from the audience who wanted to fulfil a wish to sing with him.
In 1990 Dawson did voiceover in adverts for Post Office.
One of his last television appearances came on 23 December 1992, when he appeared as the subject of This Is Your Life. He was surprised by Michael Aspel on stage at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, at the curtain call of the pantomime Dick Whittington. He had been a subject before - 21 years previously - in December 1971 when Eamonn Andrews surprised him on an edition of Opportunity Knocks.
On 10 June 1993, at a hospital in Whalley Range, Manchester, Les Dawson had just finished a check-up for insurance cover for a film role and was waiting for the results with his wife when he died suddenly, suffering a heart attack. Many comedians and other celebrities attended a memorial service for him at Westminster Abbey on 24 February 1994.
On 23 October 2008, 15 years after his death, a bronze statue of Dawson, by sculptor Graham Ibbeson, was unveiled by his widow Tracy and daughter Charlotte. The statue stands in the ornamental gardens next to the pier in St-Anne's-on-Sea, Lancashire, where Dawson had lived for many years.
In the Comedians' Comedian, a three-hour television programme broadcast on UK's Channel 4 on 1 January 2005. Dawson featured thirty seventh in the top fifty comedians of all time, as voted for by fellow comedians and business insiders, rather than the general public.
The BBC broadcast, on BBC2, The Many Faces of Les Dawson, a retrospective on his career, on Christmas Eve 2011.
1 June 2013 saw ITV broadcast Les Dawson: An Audience With That Never Was. The programme featured a projection of Dawson, presenting some of the content that was planned for a 1993 edition of An Audience with... to be hosted by Dawson, but which went unused due to his death two weeks prior to recording. The show also served as a tribute to him, and as such featured some celebrities talking about how they knew him, including Bruce Forsyth, Cilla Black, Terry Wogan and Ken Dodd. Also among the audience were Dawson's wife Tracy and daughter Charlotte (who was only eight months old when he died).
- A Clown Too Many (autobiography, 1986)
- No Tears for the Clown (autobiography, 1992)
- Hitler Was My Mother-in-Law
- Well Fared, My Lovely
- Come Back with the Wind
- The Spy Who Came
- The Blade and the Passion
- Card for the Clubs
- The Amy Pluckett Letters
- Malady Lingers on and Other Great Groaners
- Les Dawson's Lancashire
- A Time Before Genesis
- Les Dawson Gives Up
- The Les Dawson Joke Book
- Cosmo Smallpiece Guide to Male Liberation
- Les Dawson's Secret Notebooks
- On 10/02/2014, The BBC reported that a 110 page [unfinished] "manuscript described as story of love and mystery, entitled An Echo of Shadows, written under the name Maria Brett-Cooper had been found by his daughter Charlotte. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-26065349
- Smurthwaite, Nick (11 June 1993). "Obituary: Les Dawson". The Independent. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
- Stephenson, John-Paul (12 September 2013). "Interview: Steve Nallon #1 – "A celebration of Les"". Giggle Beats.
- Dipper, Andrew (9 September 2013). "Ray Peacock’s tribute to Les Dawson". Giggle Beats. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
- McGrath, Nick (29 September 2012). "Looking after Les Dawson's legacy". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 10 September 2013.
- "Dawson statue unveiled by family". bbc.co.uk. 23 October 2008. Retrieved 13 November 2008.
- Logan, Brian (31 May 2013). "Can a hologram Les Dawson tell 'em like he used to?". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
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|Host of Blankety Blank
1984 – 1990