Meet the man behind Jigsy - Les Dennis' new one man show
David Clensy speaks to the man behind Jigsy, the poignant new one-man show starring Les Dennis
IT'S the classic story of the sad clown – from Yorick to Hancock, when it comes to comedy, there is a familiar tale of sadness behind the mirth. But as Les Dennis takes to the stage of the Tobacco Factory each night for the next two weeks, in the touching one-man show Jigsy, the broken stand-up comedian character he is playing is not purely the stuff of fiction.
For Blagdon-based playwright Tony Staveacre, the creation of Jigsy began more than 35 years ago in a smoky Liverpool nightclub in the shadow of Anfield stadium.
"There was a wonderful stand-up comedian called Jackie Hamilton," the 70-year-old recalls. "I thought he was extraordinary – so funny, and unashamedly Liverpudlian. Liverpool was his world, and he was so articulate in his ability to sum up what it was like to live in the city in that period.
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"I was a young television producer at the time, spending 10 days in the city with Melvyn Bragg to produce a 90-minute arts show for BBC2 about the arts and culture of Liverpool – this was before Melvyn had started the South Bank Show, but it was a similar sort of idea.
"It was quite an eye-opener to us London-based TV types, most of whom had never been north of Watford. What marked the occasion for me was the readiness with which our local contributors wanted to poke fun at our arty-farty efforts, and the ease with which they punctured any tendency to pomposity.
"We spent this evening in a working men's club in Anfield, where the young stand-ups gave a masterclass in observational comedy, and painted a picture of life in their city that was both truthful and hilarious.
"For social historians of the future, it seemed to me then, these jokers would provide an eloquent and perceptive commentary on their life and times."
But it was Jackie Hamilton who stood out for Tony.
"I was fascinated by him – he was so intelligent, and I thought he was going to be a big star; he would be following in the footsteps of the likes of Ken Dodd and Jimmy Tarbuck.
"But to my amazement, as the years went by, Jackie never made the big time – he kept playing the working men's clubs, gradually becoming a slightly sadder character; drinking a little too much. He was happy in his Liverpool world, but to me there was a poignancy to the fact that he never made the big time."
Jackie Hamilton died in 2003, but before his death Tony returned to Liverpool to discuss the idea of writing a play about a northern comedian, loosely based on his life.
"It's not actually about him," Tony explains. "But there is a lot of him in there – I certainly use a lot of Jackie's jokes in the stand-up routines in the show."
Tony moved to Bristol in 1978 to set up the BBC's regional arts unit in Whiteladies Road and shortly after had his first success as a playwright – with another comedy-based play, Fred Karno's Army, which was produced at the Bristol Old Vic in 1984.
But it was after taking early retirement from the world of television in 1992 that Tony's mind returned to the idea he'd had for a play about a maudlin stand-up comedian.
"Ernie Wise claimed to be able to dash off his little plays in an afternoon, but I have to confess that my first page of notes relating to this idea for a theatre piece dates to 1997," he says. "It's been a long time coming.
"I sent a copy of the script to Les Dennis a few years ago, because I knew it would appeal to him – he plays the sad clown very well.
"In fact, he had known Jackie Hamilton in his early career on the Liverpool club scene, and he jumped at the chance of taking it on."
After failing to find a Liverpool theatre prepared to commission a production of Jigsy, Tony looked closer to home, and was warmly welcomed by the Tobacco Factory theatre.
"It's the perfect space for this," Tony says. "It's intimate enough to feel close to the character. We tried it for a couple of nights at the Tobacco Factory last summer, to test the water, and it received standing ovations both nights.
"So this year, we worked on a full production, and took it up to the Edinburgh Festival. But we were keen to come back to the Tobacco Factory with the show – it's come together beautifully, and I feel certain the Bristol audience is going to love Les' powerful performance.
"To be up there on stage alone for 75 minutes is really quite something."
In an earlier interview, Les Dennis told the Post's Weekend magazine: "When Tony sent me the script, I found it funny, interesting – and about a world that I knew.
"I did the Liverpool working men's club circuit when I started out in the late Sixties and early Seventies. And as well as being a story of a journeyman comedian who never made it, Jigsy is also about the social history of Liverpool at that time.
"Jigsy reminisces about working on the docks and becoming, against all the odds, a stand-up comic, about making his living from it and about fighting the bottle."
â Jigsy runs at the Tobacco Factory until September 8, tickets £14, £10 concessions. For details log on to tobaccofactorytheatre.com or call 0117 902 0344.