Mixed fortunes - Les Dennis interview

He performed his way through the deaths of those closest to him, suppressing his grief by getting laughs on stage. Then, when he least expected it, Les Dennis's world came crashing down around him

REMEMBER when 'nice' just meant nice? Not now. Now it has inverted commas. 'Nice' is naff, 'nice' is pitiable, 'nice' is a little bit tragic. 'Nice' is not nice. Take comedian, actor and game show host Les Dennis. Poor old Les. As well as being riddled with niceness he's got that other awful affliction: being old-fashioned. He was born right on the cusp of Jimmy Tarbuck variety-style hell and the wave of right-on alternative new comedians. (If you searched the Highgate Oxfam you'd probably find one of Les's ruffle shirts and sparkly jackets lurking in there.) No wonder he ended up in that celebrity graveyard, Big Brother, talking to chickens. No wonder his much younger, much trendier wife, actress Amanda Holden, traded him in for his agent's son before her embarrassment became terminal. You feel for her, don't you? It must have been a bit like watching her gramps take his false teeth out in company.

If we were ever searching for a fable for our times, it could be Les Dennis's story. Our obsession not just with celebrity but the right kind of celebrity. Our desire to cram the famous into images that fit just about as well as the ugly sisters' ungainly feet fit Cinderella's dainty little shoe. Our desire to know more than ever about people's lives but empathise less than ever. (What a trooper Les was in Big Brother. He had his breakdown on screen before we all got bored and switched off.)

"I think I tried the public's patience," Dennis admits. "I think I got to the point where they went, f***ing hell – will you not just realise and give up?" Celebrity emotion usually involves a white dress, a few tears (waterproof mascara only) and a copy of Hello! magazine. Dennis's emotion was raw. For a while there, he must have forgotten he was famous.

The interesting thing about Les Dennis's story is that it contains a remarkable symmetry that the public were either unaware of or largely ignored. The idea that he was Mr Nice Guy, betrayed by his young, pretty wife was true up to a point. (Oh, how he hated that reputation, the pity that he used to see reflected in people's eyes.) But in his first marriage, Mr Nice was Mr Nasty. Fame, he admits, turned his head in the same way it later turned Holden's. "I got a bit up my own arse," he says bluntly. Such was his guilt that he felt Holden's behaviour was almost karma; what goes around comes around. Good guy, bad guy. What was real and what was not?

WE ARE sitting in Dennis's comfortable Highgate home, a smart, minimalist sitting-room in neutral shades of beige and cream. He's doing that performer thing of talking loudly, forgetting he's not projecting for the gods, but despite the confident delivery his body language suggests he's a bit uncomfortable. He has been in therapy for years so it's not that he can't talk about his feelings. But he was born Leslie Heseltine, a much shyer man than his alter ego Les Dennis, and he is aware of two personas. In this respect, he reminds me of Michael Barrymore, who once told me he was just Michael Parker, a caretaker for his famous other half. Dennis has less trouble unifying his two sides, but still, a similar syndrome.

We will, of course, talk about Amanda Holden and the miraculously rehabilitative effect of Ricky Gervais and Extras. But there are things you need to know first that illuminate what comes later. So right now we are talking about his mother's death. There is, in his new autobiography, Must the Show Go On?, a haunting image of his father holding his mother's corpse that is unforgettable. His mother, Winnie, was only 50 and had lung cancer. The family knew it was terminal but his father kept saying: "She'll fight it." He wasn't prepared, not really. Dennis received a defeated call at 1am from his father. She had gone. Dennis lived close to the family home in Liverpool and went immediately.

"It's like a movie image," he recalls. "I can still see it absolutely, that walk up the stairs." When he got there, his father's acceptance that his wife had gone had disappeared. He was holding her tiny body, now shrivelled to below six stone, and giving her the kiss of life, trying literally to blow existence back into her, make her breathe again. Dennis grabbed hold of his father and held him, kissing him for the first time since he'd been at school. He felt a mixture of love and grief but also a strange anger that his father couldn't let Winnie go.

His mother was the reason Dennis was in showbusiness. His father was a keen sportsman and Dennis had tried to impress him with his football prowess as a boy but just didn't have the skill. His mother was the drama queen of the family, a frustrated entertainer, and Dennis, the third of her five children, began his career on family holidays to Butlins, entering camp competitions as a comedian and impressionist, hoping to make his mum proud. There was the added poignancy that Winnie had lost a baby son just before Les and he always felt he somehow had to be especially good to replace his mother's lost boy.

At school, he was already performing on the working men's club circuits and secured an appearance on Opportunity Knocks. His dad said it was daft, all that stuff, because working-class people didn't get on telly, but his mum was all for it. The night after she died, Dennis was back on stage, trying to suppress his grief because maybe it was easier that way. His father became closer to Dennis, travelling with him to performances, but he never really got over his wife's death, and five years later he too died. Again, Dennis didn't take time off, simply throwing himself into work.

His career was on the up and in 1982 he worked on Russ Abbot's Madhouse when he met Dustin Gee, the man destined to become his comedy partner. Gee was already well respected (at a recent funeral, Billy Connolly told Dennis he had always wanted to meet Gee) and Dennis couldn't understand why Gee wanted to work with him. But they simply sparked something special off in one another. "He was the most generous man in real life that I ever met and he was also the most generous performer. I've worked with comics who, after you get a laugh, have said, 'Maybe I should say that…' It's an insecurity. But Dustin loved you getting laughs."

The two were offered their own Saturday-night TV show, The Les and Dustin Laughter Show. Gee had been diagnosed with a heart condition but he lived hard. He once refused to go to hospital until a performance was over, despite being told by a doctor that he'd just had a heart attack. His final appearance was in pantomime. He and Dennis walked off stage at the end of a scene, laughing and joking, but when he reached the dressing-room he clutched his left arm and said to Dennis: "I think I'm dying."

He was only 43. And yet again, Dennis returned to the stage without taking time to grieve for his partner and best friend. "I damaged my emotional health," he says now. "I think Dustin's death was the final straw. I had gone on when Mum died. I had buried my grief when Dad died. I lost both my parents before I was 30 and so when it came to Dustin's death I think I was a pressure cooker that was just waiting to burst. It was literally like burying that guilt… grief." That's an interesting slip – guilt? "I think guilt as well. The guilt when my mum died of having gone on stage and then my dad. In the end it was my decision and so I do carry the guilt."

He and Gee had also been with comedian Tommy Cooper the night he died on stage. In fact, they had to perform immediately after Cooper collapsed. To Dennis, life suddenly seemed precarious. "I became a little bit maudlin, a little bit death-obsessed. I'd think, 'It doesn't matter, I probably won't be around.' Not thinking I would have old bones sort of thing. That's why I probably went off the rails and thought, 'F*** it, what does it matter? I'm probably not going to live anyway.'"

At 20, Dennis had married Lynn, whom he had met at school. They had a son, Philip, and Dennis had always been faithful. But now he embarked on affairs. His account of this period, of his own selfishness and insensitivity, is searingly honest. He describes, for example, leaving Lynn crying silently in the bath on his day off while he went to meet his mistress.

"I don't want people to feel embarrassed reading it, but I wanted to be honest. I remember going off on the train to see this woman. You know that Lennon song, 'Here in some stranger's room, late in the afternoon, what am I doing here at all? I'm losing you.' Well, that song resonates for me. That's exactly what I was doing… in a stranger's room on a day when I should have been saying, 'Right, Lynn, what do we want to do? And when Philip comes home I'll be here.' But I wasn't."

You get the sense that now he doesn't recognise the man he is writing about. Could he behave that way now? "Be that callous? No, definitely not." When he knew Lynn had phoned in the morning when he wasn't at his flat, he would call back and say he had been in the shower. "That's horrible," he says. "Writing the book I would get to a point and think, 'F***, I'm sitting here thinking, am I the same person?' Thank God I am not. I am not."

He'll never know, he says, if his first marriage could have survived. All he knows is he didn't give it his best shot. Lynn fought for him, tried to get him to go to counselling, but he refused. He simply looked for an escape route. Looking back, he sees that fame desensitised him. It wasn't just his response to the deaths. He became embarrassed by, and estranged from, his working-class family. So was fame a destructive force in his life? "I have had a lot of great things out of it but there's a tax, a fame tax, most definitely. You lose a bit of your… you lose touch with reality. I let it go to my head a bit. It's easy to be seduced by it, to think you are bigger than you are – because people are telling you that you are."

In 1993, when he met the young aspiring actress Amanda Holden, then only 22, he was already with somebody else. He had a lot of reason for suppressed guilt over the way he had behaved in his relationships. He is a soul searcher by nature with a tendency to self-destruct, so he thought not only was his relationship with Holden doomed, but that this would be what he deserved. The belief became self-fulfilling. "When we first met I was saying, 'I promise you, you won't want this in years to come.' That was my doomed, death-obsessed, I-don't-deserve-anything kind of bollocks. But she seemed to me a wise soul. She seemed like, 'No, I know what I want.'"

But she didn't know. The couple married but Holden's subsequent affair with comic actor Neil Morrissey – a new-wave comedian to Dennis's old-school – seemed almost symbolic. Dennis recognised the effect fame had on him happening again in Holden.

After Gee died, Dennis's solo career had resumed and he hosted Family Fortunes for 16 years, only giving it up in 2002 when asked to take a 93% pay cut to move to a daytime slot. But Holden seemed embarrassed by her husband's work. When he appeared doing a comedy sketch with Bobby Davro at a Cliff Richard television show, Holden was mortified. "It was a fun and funny routine and it tore the place apart but when I came back Amanda was the only one who hadn't enjoyed it. And I was like, 'Oooh, Dad dancin'!'" It was reminiscent of the time the plumber had called at their house to fix the washing machine and Holden said to Dennis it was Grand National day so they should place a bet. He gave her a tenner. No, she felt luckier than that. He gave her more. The plumber looked at Dennis and raised his eyes. "Kids, eh?" he said.

It was Big Brother (at first encouraged by Holden) that made Dennis realise his marriage may have limped on after the Morrissey affair but it was now over. Holden wasn't there to meet him and her recorded message never once used the word 'love'. Until he wrote his book, he hadn't watched the Big Brother tapes. He laughs. He thought the stuff with the chickens was funny until he saw it. People were right. He was having a breakdown.

Writing his book made him examine his own motivation. Did he, he writes, want Holden for a trophy wife? He never answered his own question, I say. He smiles, tells me I must have got earlier proofs of the book. He decided the phrase 'trophy wife' might be "too disclosing" and he changed it to, 'younger', he laughs. "I don't know. I don't know whether I did or not. I certainly had huge love for her and when we were splitting, I was devastated. I think that… I like a nice house, I like…" he smiles hesitantly. "I feel these things are important to me."

Did he feel emasculated by what happened with Amanda? "I did, yeah. I had put my career on the back burner, whereas with Lynn I had put my relationship on the back burner. With Amanda, I thought, 'Well, I probably am a bit 1980s naff, and maybe I should stop doing impressions, maybe I should stop doing comedy. Maybe I am a bit embarrassing.'"

He admits he retains some anger and bitterness but he tries hard to let go. "I know I have some blame. I was the cuckolded husband who was cheated on but, having done it before, I had some understanding about that situation." Perhaps Lynn, who has never remarried, retains a similar bitterness about him? Possibly. "She has said she probably won't read the book. I invited her to the launch and she said maybe. We have a good relationship and are very friendly but I don't think you can ever be best friends after a relationship is finished."

He hopes, though, he didn't sound as though he was simply having a bash at Amanda in his book. He didn't. Though you can – understandably – see the joins between his love and his anger for her. For instance, when he was nervously saying goodbye to family and friends before entering the Big Brother house. There might be a mystery guest added after a few days, someone said. "Wow," said Amanda. "Wouldn't it be amazing if it was Neil Morrissey?"

THE opening line of LP Hartley's novel The Go-Between reads: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Dennis loves that line. He wants to live like that: free of baggage. But one thing from his past that he has no regrets about is appearing in Ricky Gervais's comedy drama Extras, in which he parodied himself as a sad loser. Acknowledging the public perception of himself, and what's more laughing at it, enabled him to take control of his own image again.

At the time, it was a risk. "Nobody knew what Extras was going to be. Certainly on paper it looked like it could have been a piss-take but I thought it was my chance to lay some ghosts really, to show, yeah, there were some things written about me that were true but there were things that were ludicrous." He never really wanted to be a new-wave comedian but he did always want to be an actor. The only reason he didn't go to drama school was because he had already started making money as a comedian. In recent years, the bulk of his work has been in straight acting roles.

Extras changed everything. He got the best reviews of his life and, more importantly, got his confidence back. He had two successful years at the Edinburgh Festival after it and "I suddenly thought, shit, I'm not that bad!" People used to say to him that Holden got famous because of him. But he's honest about the effect her burgeoning career had on him too. "I was in the papers more than I would have been. If I look at my peers, if Amanda and I hadn't got together, if I hadn't become famous for being famous, I might have become one of those dinosaurs."

Ironically, he's with another younger woman now, life coach Claire Nicholson. The age gap is almost identical to the gap with Holden, but they are at different stages of their lives. She's approaching 37, he's 54. Claire is expecting their first child in a few weeks and he's looking forward to being a different kind of father to the one he was with Philip. He was so ambitious back then. Now his priorities are different. When the baby is born, he's going to be there whether he's due on stage or not. The show doesn't have to go on any more. His life does.

• Must the Show Go On? (Orion, 18.99)

Comic comebacks

Bruce Forsyth

Like him or loathe him, Brucie had been a mainstay of Saturday-night TV until being left out in the cold by the BBC towards the end of the 1990s. Then, in 2004, bosses realised nostalgia was the order of the day and brought him back to front Strictly Come Dancing. He hit it off with Tess Daly and won rave reviews. Didn't he do well?

Bobby Davro

Davro's profile faded entirely after the death of The Heat is On in 1994. It looked like a lowly future of panto and TV appearances on cable channels watched by mere handfuls for Bobby. That was until Matt Lucas and Peter Kay featured him in their charity Comic Relief single 'I'm Gonna Be (500 miles)'. Things have only got better for Davro, and since 2007 he has been appearing regularly in EastEnders as Vinnie Monks.

Keith Chegwin

Cheggers is another celebrity rescued from the 'where are they now?' doldrums by Ricky Gervais. His appearance in Extras reignited a career that hadn't really sparked since his controversial, fully nude appearance in Channel Five's Naked Jungle. Since his appearance on Extras, Chegwin has been presenting on GMTV and, somewhat bizarrely, fronted his own virtual quiz game on PlayStation called Cheggers' Party Quiz.

The Krankies

Ubiquitous 1980s double act The Krankies looked destined never to screech "Fandabidozi!" on our TV screens again after their retirement in 1991. However, appearances on French and Saunders and Comic Relief and in bingo adverts have put Wee Jimmy and his dad back on the radar, for better or worse.

Ruth Madoc

Things had been quiet for Madoc, most famous for her role as Gladys Pugh in 1980s BBC television comedy Hi-de-Hi! So she must have been ecstatic to get the call from David Walliams and Matt Lucas, offering her a part in Little Britain as the mother of Daffyd ('only gay in the village') Thomas.

Noel Edmonds

After Edmonds and Mr Blobby left Crinkley Bottom with their tails between their legs, it went somewhat quiet for the Noel's House Party star. Things went from bad to worse when a nine-year-old boy was killed during a helicopter flight organised by the Noel Edmonds Airborne Trust. With the massive success of Deal or No Deal, though, Edmonds has made an incredible comeback. The show has led to him being nominated for a Bafta and he has turned up on a host of other programmes and chat shows.

Shane Richie

EastEnders revived Richie's career when he was offered the role of Alfie Moon in the long-running show. Richie was credited with injecting some humour into the soap's often downbeat plotlines and he won a string of awards for his performances. Since leaving Walford, has appeared in plays as well as on hit teen drama Skins.

June Whitfield

Happy Ever After star June Whitfield crept back into the nation's hearts after appearing as Mrs Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous. Since then, Whitfield has appeared on various programmes, including the Only Fools and Horses spin-off The Green Green Grass.

Bob Monkhouse

The old-school comedian's career was literally resurrected in 2007 after his death from prostate cancer. He appeared in a host of posthumous adverts warning people of the dangers of the disease. In the adverts, he was shown standing next to his own gravestone, uttering a few of his trademark one-liners, including: "What killed me kills one man per hour in Britain. That's even more than my wife's cooking."