Tuesday 28 January 2020

Les Dennis: 'I did hate journalists for a while, but I've moved on'

As he prepares to take to the stage here, Les Dennis tells us about grief, love and surviving the paparazzi

Les Dennis with his current wife Claire, with whom he has two young children. Photo: Jonathan Hordle
Les Dennis with his current wife Claire, with whom he has two young children. Photo: Jonathan Hordle
Les Dennis with ex-wife Amanda Holden
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Les Dennis looks unexpectedly menacing with no hair. That might be partly the idea - he is, after all, playing Uncle Fester in The Addams Family musical at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre - but it also might explain why he won't have his picture taken until it grows back.

Images can take on their own life and at Dennis's age - he is 63 now - every intact follicle can be a source of pride. "I told the producer I'd allow it to be shaved and he said "call your wife first", so I did and she was fine with it," he explains of the new look. "And we decided, why don't we do it for charity - I did it for Breast Cancer Now. The thing is, a lot of guys have lost their hair, but I haven't, although the hairline is back here, so I'm just praying it all grows back now."

Anchored by his wonderfully macabre stage presence, The Addams Family has already played to warm reviews in the UK and Dennis isn't quite as unusual a pick for a musical as you might think. He has been taking singing lessons for years and possesses a surprisingly powerful voice. He also has West End pedigree, (having once starred in a version of Me and My Girl), and you could sort of sense that his moment onstage would come again any day.

Les's old love rival, Neil Morrissey, succumbed to show tune fever years ago - he once performed in Oliver! in Dublin - and the woman who linked them, actress and presenter Amanda Holden, got her musical start in Stepping Out last year in London.

Les Dennis with ex-wife Amanda Holden
Les Dennis with ex-wife Amanda Holden

It seemed only a matter of time before Les would join his former tabloid co-stars on the boards. It's a wonder, in fact, that nobody has thought to cast them all together in a musical of the story that kept them together in the spotlight for years.

It began in 2000 when Dennis was what he once described as "telly wallpaper". When the press learned that his younger, pretty wife - Holden - was having an affair with a laddish comic actor, they acted like all their Christmases had come together, and the headlines just wrote themselves.

In his autobiography, Dennis wrote about Holden enthusing over what a great kisser Morrissey was after scenes they shot together for a TV drama, and later, as she and Les tried to patch things up on their wedding anniversary, off-handedly mentioning that she paid for dinner with Morrissey the night before with Dennis's credit card. Dennis and Holden would split temporarily, then reunite. The press devoured every detail with pre-Leveson relish - 'Les Miserables' was one memorable headline - and the paparazzi camped outside Dennis's home through most of it.

"I remember somebody explaining the interest in my life as 'the fame tax' I had to pay, and once it was put like that then I sort of accepted it a bit," he says of the height of the turmoil. "But, yeah, during all that there were six cars parked outside my house on a daily basis for weeks on end. It was difficult for everyone. I couldn't look at the news in that time, I just shut off from it, really. Of course you'd still have people telling you they'd seen stories, but my attitude was, I know it's been there but I don't need to see it. It certainly informed who I am. I did hate journalists for a while but I've moved past that."

There were some who might have felt that the end of the marriage represented a type of comeuppance for Dennis, who had an affair with the actress and presenter Sophie Aldred during his first marriage. But such was the relentlessness of the coverage of the Morrissey-Holden affair that this was barely mentioned in the rush to cast Dennis as the nation's lovable underdog. Bob Monkhouse told him that where before he had been liked, now he was loved and Les himself admitted he had become the "sad but likeable victim".

This image was only enhanced (or exacerbated, depending on your point of view) by Les's subsequent appearance on Big Brother. He appeared at times to be having some kind of breakdown on camera - he described it himself as a "meltdown". He admitted to housemates that he had been in therapy for years and claimed that Holden's affair with Morrissey had only made their marriage stronger.

Somehow, Les and Holden were still together but she could not greet him when he came out of the Big Brother house because she was busy filming another show. So the tabloids kept a daily watch on how long Dennis had been out of the house without seeing Holden, who was reported to have disapproved of the Big Brother appearance.

Eventually their marriage really was over - they divorced in 2003 - but he still looks back on that period of his life with the shimmer of a smile.

"The Big Brother experience was only 10 days and when you look back at it now compared to some other later, wilder Big Brothers it looks like kindergarten," he recalls. "We didn't get paid at all. We did it for charity, or that's what we said, but of course we did it to reboot (their careers). When you're in the house you do forget the cameras are there but also at other times you do play to the cameras, because that's what you do, you're an entertainer."

After Big Brother, Dennis kind of embraced further his shtick as the washed up celebrity. In the Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant comedy Extras he parodied himself mercilessly and some wondered if Gervais and Merchant weren't victimising him all over again - the line between mockery and reality seemed so wafer thin - but today Dennis remains as proud of it as anything he's ever done.

"Ricky Gervais allowed me to lampoon myself in Extras. That was a gift of a part. I didn't hesitate at all myself to take it but my friends and family said 'are you sure?' There was a risk for me of course, but for Ricky it could have been second album syndrome too (after the success of The Office).

"Their reference points were things like Larry Sanders and as soon as they said that, I got it. It's stood the test of time because where other A-Listers did cameos, mine was all about me."

That strong sense of self-mockery has, perhaps, kept Dennis going through the dark times. He seems to have had so many drastic reinventions in his life and career that it's perhaps no wonder he can but shrug when they come up in the quick succession of an interview. He tells me at one point that his favourite literary quote is from LP Hartley's novel The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there."

Liverpool of the 1950s must indeed seem like a different country to salubrious and rural Cheshire where he lives now. The third of five children, Dennis was about a decade behind John Lennon and Paul McCartney at schools in the city. His elder sister hung out with Ringo Starr at nightclubs, and in secondary school Dennis acted in a theatre group led by the horror writer and director Clive Barker alongside Jude Kelly, who is now artistic director of the Southbank Centre, and Dennis's first wife, Lynne.

Dennis's mother had been a frustrated actress but his own ambition was to become a comedian. He idolised Jimmy Tarbuck because he "looked like one of The Beatles and was on telly being funny". He started to practise routines on friends and when his family could afford their first holiday at a camp in north Wales, Dennis entered competitions and became a teenage impressionist. "Even then I always had singing lessons because when I used to do my act as a kid, I'd do impressions of (Frank) Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. So singing goes back that far," he says.

At the beginning of his career he moved back and forth between serious acting and comedy, but began earning proper money for his routines in working men's clubs. He earned the nickname "Bronco" because of his willingness to continue performing even as he 'died' onstage - even then he seemed to be lacking any facility for toxic shame.

His first big break came with Russ Abbot's Madhouse, the light entertainment behemoth of its day, where he worked with a young Michael Barrymore. As Dennis's career prospered, his personal life unravelled painfully. Within a few years, both his parents died, followed at the start of 1986 by the sudden death of his much-loved comedy partner, Dustin Gee. Dennis faced all three events in the same way - by going straight back on stage and making sure the show went on. Years later he would question that ethos and, in fact, titled his 2008 autobiography Must The Show Go On?

"My mum died in 1977 and my dad in 1982, so they were both gone by the time I was 30," he recalls. At the time I felt there was no other option but when I'd come out the other side I thought no, I wish I'd grieved that, and I wish I'd grieved that. Grief comes and catches you eventually anyway."

It was a brave piece of self-assessment and he says it fit with his aim in writing the book. "I couldn't airbrush anything out but at the same time I wanted to be as tough on myself as I was on everyone else because that's only fair. The mistakes you made are your own."

After Gee's death, Dennis's marriage to his then-wife Lynne began to founder as his new career as host of Family Fortunes, which he fronted for 16 years, began to take off. He remains on good terms with Lynne and their 37-year-old son Philip and mentions Philip coming around to play with Les's younger children, Eleanor and Thomas, by his third and current wife, Claire, a life coach he met at a charity auction.

"I've got two kids who are nine and six. It's fantastic having young kids. Philip came over and the younger two were playing hide and seek, I was secretly filming them. He wanted to show them Jaws but they're too young for it yet." Is it tough being an older father? "Well, put it this way: I come to work for a rest. I'm very hands on. There is a song in the show called Happy Sad about Wednesday Addams growing up and that's sort of how I feel about them getting bigger."

Giving the younger children a good life is part of the reason he continues to work, he tells me. Sometimes the work flows more easily than others. His last big splash probably came from his role as a small time criminal on Coronation Street.

"For my screen-test, I ended up on the real set with the cast, performing opposite Helen Worth, so that itself was a huge moment for me. I get a kick out of kids still coming up and asking me 'are you Michael from Coronation Street?' - that's a whole other demographic for me."

Comedians, he tells me, make the best actors because "they already have the flip side built in". Meaning the tragedy? "Well I don't know that my life has been tragic but it's certainly been a life well lived," he responds.

The word 'demographic' seems a slightly bum note to end on for such an otherwise cuddly survivor but our time is almost up and he has a plane to catch back to the UK where he will hone his performance before returning to Dublin.

The latex, face paint and matinee performances would daunt lesser mortals but Dennis remains mystically optimistic.

"Somebody once wrote about me; 'the long and strange career of Les Dennis makes another left turn'," he recalls. "But I took that as a compliment. Because it means whatever else people can say about me, they can't guess what's coming next."

The Addams Family runs from August 15-26 at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin. Tickets from Ticketmaster.ie or phone 0818 719 377

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