And Our Survey Says...An Interview With Les Dennis

Posted on: 03 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Les Dennis speaks to Rachael Hannan about ART, Celebrity Big Brother, Family Fortunes and Oscar Wilde.

It doesn't matter who you ask, everyone seems to like Les Dennis in spite of what the national press prefers to print.

Since Celebrity Big Brother, his overtly public divorce from Amanda Holden and the less-than-enthusiastic response to his one-man comedy tour, Les has had more than his share of negative media attention, but admirably, he isn't one to be perturbed.

We caught up with him at the Lighthouse, Poole's Centre for the Arts where he is touring in the West End play, ART.

Written by Yasmina Reza, ART is one of the most successful plays of modern theatre and Les unquestionably does his character Yvan, justice.

The play centres on a piece of art that Serge, played by Christopher Cazenove, has bought for a small fortune. Serge's friend Marc, played by John Duttine, hates the piece and cannot believe his friend likes such a monstrosity. Yvan, the third friend and the plots mediator, attempts to reconcile the two with little success.

The long-running popularity of the play is due to its two principal themes that leave the audience questioning their opinions and previously held beliefs. What really does constitutes a piece of art, and what constitutes a friendship? If friendship is made on general agreement and understanding, what happens when someone acts in a totally different way to how they would normally?

“It’s a great play,” Les says. “I watched it when it was first in the West End and always wanted to do it so it’s an ambition realised, and it’s the part I wanted too. I'm always trying to share other people's points of view."

The tour finishes just before Christmas and after several months on the road, Les is taking a well-earned break.

“I’ve got a house which I’m doing up at the moment, well, the builders are doing up because I’m not so good at that sort of stuff, but I’m certainly involved in design and how I want it to look. I doubt it will be ready in time for Christmas but I’m enjoying doing it, and then I am going on a skiing holiday with a couple of mates.”

As host of ITV's Family Fortunes for fifteen years, this is the role Les is generally associated with, dressed in a sharp suit, holding a handful of question cards. The appeal of Family Fortunes has always been a bit of a mystery after his days in BBC's Russ Abbot's Madhouse and the Laughter Show

“I just loved it. I know it was fifteen years but it only ever took two to three weeks out of my year because we recorded twenty-six episodes over that period, so it wasn't a big commitment and it meant I could go out and do plays like Chicago, Me & My Girl and Don’t Dress for Dinner. That was one of the attractions to me, but I loved the fact that the humour from the show grew organically, from whatever happened with the family so it was never the same show.”

The press have inferred that he may be planning a comeback, but it's news to Les. 

“I know there’s been a lot of speculation in the press about me going back but it is actually off air for a while. After 15 years on prime time television, I think I’ve had the best years out of it so it's time to bow down now. I don’t know if they are planning to bring it back or whether they will ask me, but it certainly isn’t something I’ve been in discussions about.”

We might not be seeing Les on Family Fortunes, but he will be on our screens in a new ITV drama, Quest II, directed by David Jason.

“It was a great show to do and to be directed by David. I mean he’s such a brilliantly funny man and a good director because he knows how the actor feels. He’s been there; he’s not just pointing the camera at pretty views and thinking about shots, he’s thinking about what was motivating you and how to do it, so a very funny part and a great thing to do.”

The programme will be aired as a big Bank Holiday special. Set in the 1960s, Les appears dressed in drain pipes, sporting what he intriguingly describes as, “a very big, high almost bulbous like hair that is not my own, as you find out as the plot unfolds.”

After twenty years of stand-up, comedy and hosting, drama is something Les wants to do more of.

“I like the fact that I get the chance to do everything. At the moment I’m particularly enjoying the acting side of things because I feel it is still something I’m exploring. I have done it over the years so I’m not a complete novice but there’s always something new to learn, and working with actors like John and Christopher is a pleasure and very much a learning curve.”

Trying everything is precisely the reason Les decided to star in Celebrity Big Brother.

“At the time I was interested in the idea of Celebrity Big Brother and thought, I’ll give it a go, but I do think it’s a shame that reality TV is the way everything is going now. At the time I think I thought, if you can't beat them, join them, but I do think reality TV has had its day now. It has its place and is fascinating, but I think we are being over flooded with it right now. I like to think we will get back to entertainers and people who actually do things on telly.”

“I wouldn’t do Big Brother again but I don’t regret doing it. It was my one go at reality TV and I had a good time when I did it. I wouldn’t do it for the time that most people do it for. Ten days maximum was enough for me, and I came second, but the papers didn’t concentrate on that fact. It was more about what was going on, or what they thought was going on, in my head. I haven’t watched it back and I haven’t read everything about it. All I can say is that public reaction has been fantastic, I enjoyed it but I wouldn’t do it again.”

Considering he has been in the public eye for the over twenty years, nothing could have prepared Les for the onslaught of media attention he has received recently, but he doesn't allow it to affect him.

“I take it with a pinch of salt. I think it was my turn and they have their job to do and I appreciate that. I don’t read anything in the press about me; I don’t go near it now. I think it’s the Oscar Wilde thing; "there’s nothing worse than being talked about than not being talked about," so I just have to take it all with a philosophical pinch of salt really.”

A born and bred Liverpool lad, Les started doing stand-up as soon as he left school. 

“I was always quite introverted and not a particularly loud kid, but there was something I loved about watching TV comedy and I just wanted to do it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never had a proper job so there must be something in me that wants to stand up on stage, although I have to say, I do have to push myself out there sometimes.”

"It isn’t anything new. I think the feelings of anxiety are always there when you go on stage and certainly, with a play like ART, you have to really, really focus, so you wind yourself into that by being nervous. I think if you weren’t nervous you probably wouldn’t be as focused or as good. As long as you don’t let the nerves get the better of you that is. You know, as long as they are just the healthy apprehension of focusing.”

Les has been part of the British comedy scene since 1980 and among his good friends are other British comedy greats like Russ Abbot and Su Pollard, who once described him as the brother she never had.

“We haven’t seen each other for ages because Su works so much. She's such a workaholic, she never stops, but we talked on the phone recently and did have a lunch planned but she got the dates wrong,” he says roaring with laughter. "She’s a really, really great girl." 

“Russ and I are still mates but we haven’t seen each other for a while, but that’s just this business. You can pick it up though. You know what each other is doing so it’s not like you lose contact. You just pick it up where you left off. It was my 50th a few weeks ago but Russ couldn’t make it because he's in the West End in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but he left me a message and sent a present. We haven’t managed to talk but we will probably meet up in town. ”

Les celebrated his 50th birthday in October at a hotel in Milford with friends and family. “I decided that I would not go quietly,” he adds, and looking back, he hasn't any regrets.

“I don’t think there’s any point in having regrets. I believe in fate and I also believe that you have a hold on your own destiny, but you will always be thrown off the path so the next best thing is to appreciate the fact you are going somewhere you’ve never been before.”

"In ten years time I would like to be feeling exactly the same way now, you know, you don’t want regrets. You can’t see yourself anywhere in the future in the sense of exactly what you will be doing, but I'd like to think that I might have done some more drama and pursue that career path a bit more. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to do presenting or stand-up, it just means that I’m enjoying acting at the moment.”

By Rachael Hannan


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