Why Les Dennis still lives up to his 'Bronco' nickname
His early days in Northern working men's clubs paved the way for a roller coaster career that was to make him one of Britain's best-loved entertainers. Liz Webster talks to Les Dennis about why he's back in Bristol playing a struggling comedian.
IT'S ironic that Les is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when we have our scheduled interview. In the city renowned for bringing together the best comedy talent in the world he is playing Jigsy, a stand-up, mining the last laughs in the working man's circuit.
After appearing on Opportunity Knocks at the age of 17, Les made his name with Family Fortunes, fell apart on live TV and was saved by Ricky Gervais.
Back when he started his career he was known as Bronco due to his willingness to cling on and finish a set, even if it had gone down like a lead balloon. Given his very public ups and downs it's clear that it's a nickname he lives up to.
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After 16 years on Saturday night staple Family Fortunes, Les found his career at a standstill and attempted reinvention in the Big Brother house.
The stint left him open to mockery and suddenly a career standstill became a downward spiral, with the end of his marriage to Amanda Holden adding to his woes.
"At the time, entering Big Brother certainly didn't feel like the best decision I had ever made," admitted the star. "I had a lot of flak for what went on in the house.
"But it was also cathartic for me in the sense that when I was in there it gave me a chance to think about things and decide what I want to do with my life. And if I hadn't gone on Big Brother, Ricky Gervais would never have rung me two years later and offered me an episode in Extras."
That memorable episode of Extras gave the old-school comedian the chance to pole vault back into the public's affection.
Parodying himself as a showbiz loser, Les was shown on the slide, clinging to his celebrity by his fingernails, and being duped by a bimbo wannabe actress.
Many viewers thought it was his first acting role but his love of the theatre goes back almost as far back as his comedy career.
He said: "I was an actor well before I became a presenter really. I was lucky enough with Family Fortunes that I was paid to work for only three weeks of the year and so the rest of the time I could work for £300 a week on the stage. I spent my spare time trying to learn the craft, although I never trained."
His recent theatre work includes Smee in Peter Pan, Jason Ratcliffe in Alan Ayckbourn's Drowning on Dry Land at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, and Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray.
Now he is giving another uncomfortably honest portrayal of troubled entertainers. This time at the hands of Bristol-based playwright Tony Staveacre.
In Jigsy, the show that premiered at the Tobacco Factory last year, the gritty truths behind the glittering facade of a life in comedy are laid bare.
Lurching unsteadily offstage at a Liverpool working men's club – sweat, smoke and failure clinging to his faded Seventies dinner suit – Jigsy is a journeyman variety comedian, struggling for survival in a changing world.
The bright lights of television fame that boosted the careers of many of his contemporaries are flickering on a distant horizon.
He said: "Jigsy was one of those things. We thought we had something but it was a play about Liverpool so we weren't sure if it would work elsewhere. Then it took off so brilliantly and sold out on the second night. We knew it shouldn't die a death after that.
"I think Tony wrote it about ten years ago and sent it to me eight-years-ago. I really enjoyed reading it. I knew the guy in the story, I knew the world he was from, I could identify with the character.
"I agreed to do it and I'm so glad we eventually found the time for it.
It could easily have been one of those things that was always on the backburner."
Les tells me that Jigsy is loosely based around the Liverpudlian comic Jackie Hamilton.
He said; "It's an amalgam of the many Liverpool comics that were about during that time in the Seventies and Eighties. Jackie was very funny but he was a local hero and never got out of his own city. People used to send tapes of him to relatives around the world. I know Tony used him as a template."
And Les can draw on first-hand experiences from when he toured the clubs in Liverpool and the North West, although he says the piece is not autobiographical.
He said: "I would see older comics who had got stuck in a rut really, although some of them maybe could have broken through.
"This was a time when The Comedians was big on television, and a lot of Northern acts like Ken Goodwin, Jim Bowen and Bernard Manning were breaking through to television fame.
"But there were a lot of talented comedians who were loved locally but didn't make it because they kept their acts so parochial.
"Jigsy is set in 1997, although most people think it's the Seventies. That's because he's stuck in the Seventies, he's a man out of time, regretful about the career he never had. Showbiz is a long haul and I know anyone's career can go anyway and I've been lucky with the opportunities I've had. I look a bit like Jigsy but it's not about me."
As the new series of Celebrity Big Brother has just hit our screens this week I ask Les if he plans to tune in.
He says: "It's one of those things that I've done and I don't intend on going back. I feel a bit like an old lag – like I've been let out of prison and I don't want to go near.
"Saying that, if I happen to turn on the TV and it's on then I can get sucked in. It's an interesting experiment but I run away from reality these days – unless you learn something like in Hell's Kitchen or MasterChef. You won't catch me going in the jungle any time soon."
Jigsy is at The Tobacco Factory Theatre from Wednesday, August 29, to Saturday, September 8. Tickets cost £14 and are available on 0117 902 0344.
On Friday, August 31, there will be a free event after the show where Les Dennis and playwright Tony Staveacre talk about the origins of Jigsy and its journey since its smash-hit premiere last year.