THIS is a tale of two comics. Both of them worked the pubs and clubs of Liverpool in the 1970s, trying to get a break.
Both appeared on Opportunity Knocks with Hughie Green. One went on to be a star, a bill-topper, a prime-time TV host. That’s Les Dennis. The other one didn’t. That’s Jigsy.
Jigsy is a fiction, but he’s based on a real comic, Jackie Hamilton, who worked the pubs and clubs circuit in Liverpool all his life. Dennis knew him: when he was a wet-behind-the-ears new boy, Hamilton was already a practised hand. “He was like a local hero, one of those comedians you get in every city who is a big star in his own parish but never really made it outside. He just had a great way of saying things. It didn’t have to be a joke. As Frank Carson would have said, ‘It’s the way you tell ’em.’ ”
Playing Jigsy in Tony Staveacre’s play, to be premiered at the Fringe, has given Dennis, 58, food for thought. He’s rehearsing with director Hannah Chissick in his local church hall in north London, handy for popping home at lunchtime to see his wife, Claire, and their two young children. After his own ups and downs – a near meltdown on Celebrity Big Brother in 2002, the very public break-up of his marriage to Amanda Holden – he’s happy with how things are, but thoughtful about what might have been. “The play has taken me back – there are lots of references to the clubs that I worked in those early days. If I hadn’t got some success on telly, I could have just stayed in that groove and never got out.”
We meet Jigsy in his dressing room in 1997, his career waning, the once-thriving circuit of working men’s clubs on its uppers, reflecting on the comedians he has known, the good times and bad, the life he’s had – or might have had. Staveacre sent the play to Alan Bennett, who liked it but said he’d had a tough job casting it because he’d need an actor who was also a comedian. Dennis was his first choice, and this is his first one-man show. “On the first day I thought I’d mark my script up, highlight my lines, then I thought, there’s no point, they’re all mine! I’m getting sick of the sound of my own voice.”
There’s someone else in the room with us, though: the young Les Dennis, doing his first gig at the Norris Green Social Club in 1970. He’s got a ten-minute slot because the secretary knows his mum. He’s not even old enough to buy a drink, but he’s seen Jimmy Tarbuck on Sunday Night At The London Palladium, and he knows what he wants.
“I went on between two sets by another old local hero comedian called Bert Cook, who was very blue but incredibly funny. I remember sitting there as a 16-year-old thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s really rude’, then I went on and did my ten minutes of impressions and got my expenses. When I first started, I probably looked about 14 so people were like, ‘Ahh, he’s only young’. But very quickly you had to sink or swim.”
Soon, however, his name was on the board – Les Dennis, because “Lesley Heseltine” was deemed a waste of chalk. “They may have been expecting a 40-year-old comic in a velvet bow-tie who did mother-in-law jokes, and they got this 17-year-old who did jokes about my mum and impressions.” Once a club nearly refused to let him in because of his age. On another occasion, he emptied the room in ten minutes. “It was a baptism by fire. A lot of the comics called me Bronco because I wouldn’t get off – if I had to do an hour, I would stand there, even if it wasn’t going well. I knew comics that would climb out of dressing room windows after they’d done their first spot.”
His single-mindedness paid off. He was still at school, and he had a better car than most of the teachers. At 17, he was on Opportunity Knocks, then came New Faces, Russ Abbott’s Madhouse, The Laughter Show, with his comic partner Dustin Gee, then 15 years as the host of Family Fortunes. On variety shows and summer seasons he shared bills with the men who had been his heroes: Jimmy Tarbuck, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd; indeed, he and Gee were the next act on when Tommy Cooper collapsed from a heart attack in front of millions of television viewers; their job was to keep the audience entertained as Cooper died behind the curtain.
But the world of comedy was changing. The new wave were clearing the pitch, and Dennis was one of the old guard. “In the 1980s the old-school comics had to keep their heads down. We had a reputation that everybody was to the right of Attila the Hun, that we were sexist and racist. Some were and some weren’t, but we all became tarred with that same brush. It was mid-Thatcherism, so the old guard was an ideal target.
“But you just have to accept that’s the way it is. There’s no point grumbling about it and saying ‘Oh, in my day...’, and ‘Why is there no variety on telly?’, it’s just the shifting sands. You’ve got to change, otherwise you will become a relic. Jigsy becomes a relic because he gets stuck in that world. My thing has always been to change tack, do something that challenges me. That’s the thing I think is my biggest achievement in this business. I was on telly in 1971 – and I’m still here, working.”
He has seen the nature of fame change beyond all recognition. Tommy Cooper never had the paparazzi camped on his doorstep as Dennis did during the collapse of his marriage. It didn’t help that Holden’s career was in the ascendancy while his appeared to be waning: in 2002, he left Family Fortunes after being offered an afternoon slot with a 93 per cent pay cut. But he admits the fame game can be addictive. “You can get a bit hooked and a bit carried away with it. I hoped doing Celebrity Big Brother would reboot my career: if you can’t beat them, join them. It’s tough because you want to be known for your work rather than just for who you are, you know?”
Instead of resuscitating his career, Celebrity Big Brother only intensified the interest in his personal life. A stand-up tour booked to follow the series was a damp squib: “Some reviewers came to bury me, I think.” In fact, his saviour came in the unlikely form of Ricky Gervais with an invitation to play “a twisted demented version of himself” on Extras. “People said that was brave. With hindsight, maybe it was, but I remember reading it, laughing out loud and thinking, this is my chance to prove I’ve got a sense of humour and I can laugh about the public perception of me.” He will reprise the role next year in a feature-length Life’s Too Short.
Now his acting CV stretches from Me And My Girl and Hairspray to J B Priestley and David Hare. On the Fringe, he has appeared in the comedy dramas Marlon Brando’s Corset and Certified Male. Would he ever do stand-up at the Fringe? “I would see that as going into comedy Mordor. There may come a time when I might be brave enough to think, let’s do a retrospective.” But he doesn’t sound like he’s convincing anyone, least of all himself.
He does tend to be asked – somewhat unfairly – if the characters he plays are versions of himself. But the last time he was in Edinburgh he had the last laugh. “I was in this play Certified Male, playing a guy who was an older dad who had been married three times, so people were saying, ‘This is Les playing Les’. At the end of the play, his wife’s having another baby and he says: ‘I went to Baby Gap and I got a blue one and a pink one just in case’. One night after making dinner, Claire gave me this Baby Gap box, and on the top of it she had written: ‘I got a blue one and a pink one just in case’. I said, ‘No, Claire, don’t tempt fate’ and she said: ‘No! It’s true.’ ”
That was the first intimation he had of his daughter, Eleanor, four, who now has a little brother, Tom, one. Dennis gives me a cat-that-got-the-cream grin. “The kids are such a late gift for me, and so unexpected. It’s a life that I didn’t expect, and it’s just a great joy.”
Jigsy is at the Assembly Rooms from Wednesday until 26 August. www.edfringe.com