Comedy Legends: Les Dawson

Les Dawson was one of Britain’s most successful and respected comedians. Over 30 years, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, TV viewers grew to love the unique, sour-faced joker with his chronically bad piano playing and ingenious comic riffs on working class culture.

Les Dawson grew-up in pre-war Manchester, in the tough, working class district of Collyhurst. Traditionally the boys in his street went on to be footballers, boxers or thieves. Although Dawson briefly tried his hand in the ring, he was a boxer with a secret love of poetry and philosophy that he explored in his secret diary. His journals reveal a teenager consumed by a sense of being cut-off from his peers who yearned to escape the confines of his working-class background – ‘to rise from the mire’ of Collyhurst and head for Paris to become a writer.

According to Dawson’s own comic mythology, when he got to Paris, he wound up playing piano in a brothel. In truth, Dawson’s diaries reveal he was only in the city for a total of ten days and perhaps played piano briefly in a bar when drunk one night.

Back in Manchester, Dawson gained work selling vacuum cleaners, while each evening he performed in the notoriously unforgiving northern working-men’s clubs. Night after night Dawson died on stage, his wordy, clever monologues unsuited to the gag hungry punters. The struggling comedian took to drinking for Dutch courage and was so drunk on stage one night he misplayed the piano and got a laugh. Inadvertently, Dawson had hit upon his signature comic device of mangling a tune, a routine he would subsequently hone down into a fine art.

Slowly, gradually Dawson started earning bigger bookings. His confidence soared. He went to London to work with Max Wall – one of the biggest stars at the time. But soon after sexual scandal caused Wall’s career to flop (Wall had begun a relationship with a married woman 26 years his junior), and with it Dawson’s dived too.

On returning home, Dawson met his future wife Meg Plant who helped to motivate him to succeed in his career. It was Meg who sent in his application for Opportunity Knocks. Dawson’s appearance on the TV talent show was the turning point in his career. His act was finally a hit, taking him out of the pubs and clubs and into the theatres and eventually onto TV with his own show.

By the late 1970s, Les Dawson was one of Britain’s highest earning entertainers living the life of luxury. And yet, still haunted by his fear of failure, he was unable to fully enjoy his success. Dreading it might all go away overnight – that the audience would suddenly turn on him – Dawson kept up a punishing work schedule all the while neglecting his family. By the time he realised his mistake, it was too late – his wife Meg was dying of cancer. Dawson continued working through her long, tragic illness.

After Meg died, Dawson went back on the booze. During the 1980s, as the new wave of alternative comedians gained the ascendancy, he grew to feel like a dinosaur – ‘even to myself I sounded ancient’ – and switched to dramatic acting and writing novels. Three years after his wife died, Dawson married a second time and experienced happiness again. But in 1991, the lifelong boozer and smoker who had ‘always been a heart attack waiting to happen’, suffered a major coronary during a routine hospital check-up and died instantly. He was only 61.

Dawson’s crippling sense of failure fuelled an unhealthy, workaholic lifestyle that may have contributed to the premature death of one of the country’s most successful, respected comic talents.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.