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Les Dawson - Comedian

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There was a knock at the door. I knew it was the wife's mother, because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps.

Before Jack Dee and Paul Merton, there was Les Dawson, king of the deadpan comedians. Born in Manchester on 2 February, 1933, the rotund Dawson spent the best part of a decade struggling for laughs in the notoriously tough working men's clubs in the north of England, before his big break on the ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1967. His victory on the show lit the fuse for a television career spanning a quarter of a century, encompassing shows such as Sez Les, Dawson's Weekly, Dawson Watch and, surprisingly, The Les Dawson Show.

Dawson is usually remembered as the master of that much-maligned comedy genre, the mother-in-law joke.

I saw six men kicking and punching the mother-in-law. My neighbour said, 'Aren't you going to help?' I said, 'No, six should be enough.'

However, his talents extended far beyond the vitriolic put-downs of his wife's mother, and indeed his wife. In partnership with actor Roy Barraclough1 he created the characters Cissie and Ada, two pantomime dame housewives with headscarves and enormous false bosoms, who were forever discussing their useless husbands and their 'women's trouble'. Dawson would also don National Health spectacles and pull a grotesque face to become Cosmo Smallpiece, a spectacularly dirty old man with the peculiar catchphrase 'Knickers, knackers, knockers'.

Dawson's other speciality was his terrible piano playing. In actual fact, he was an accomplished musician, having gone through a brief period as a jazz pianist before taking up comedy. His trick was to play jaunty tunes and encourage the audience to sing along, then play occasional notes a semitone out, thus giving the appearance of being completely inept. He would then, of course, berate the audience for being unable to sing in key.

As well as being a musician, Dawson was a great lover of language, and wrote several novels, both comical and serious. On stage he was particularly fond of teasing his audience with long, drawn-out monologues, wordy to the point of pretentiousness, but always delivered with tongue firmly in cheek.

I was sat at the bottom of the garden a week ago, smoking a reflective cheroot, thinking about this and that - mostly that - and I just happened to glance at the night sky, and I marvelled at the millions of stars glistening like little pieces of quicksilver thrown carelessly onto black velvet. In awe, I watched the waxen moon ride across the zenith of the heavens like an amber chariot towards the void of infinite space wherein the tethered bolts of Jupiter and Mars hang forever festooned in all their orbital majesty, and as I looked at all this, I thought to myself, 'I must put a roof on this lavatory.'

By the mid-1980s, Dawson's old-style humour had fallen out of fashion somewhat, and like so many comedians before him, he made the move to game show host, taking over from Terry Wogan as host of the BBC's Blankety Blank. Whereas Wogan had been the typical jaunty host, Dawson approached the show in his usual deadpan style, making sarcastic remarks about the low-budget prizes on offer, especially the legendary Blankety Blank chequebook and pen2 awarded to losing contestants as a consolation prize. After Blankety Blank, he hosted another game show, Fast Friends, and also briefly took over the BBC's revival of the show which brought him fame, Opportunity Knocks.

In the early 1990s, Dawson took a few straight acting roles, most notably playing a 101-year-old woman in an adaptation of Roberto Cossa's Nona. Sadly, in June 1993 while visiting his doctor for a check-up, Dawson suffered a fatal heart attack. The irony would not have been lost on him.

The wife's mother said, 'When you're dead, I'll dance on your grave.' I said, 'Good - I'm being buried at sea.'
1Best known for playing Alec Gilroy in Coronation Street.2Not even a real chequebook and pen, but a silver-plated replica.

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