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Obituary: Lionel Blair, veteran performer who became a TV institution on ‘Give Us a Clue’


Lionel Blair was a star of stage and television for more than 50 years. Photo: Fiona Hanson/PA Wire

Lionel Blair was a star of stage and television for more than 50 years. Photo: Fiona Hanson/PA Wire

Lionel Blair was a star of stage and television for more than 50 years. Photo: Fiona Hanson/PA Wire

Lionel Blair, who has died aged 92, was choreographer of the Lionel Blair Dancers, and as one of television’s best-known hoofers and song-and-dance men he became a jaunty team captain on the ITV daytime charades game Give Us a Clue.

With his wiry, bouffant hairdo and flashing smile, Blair emerged as an all-round entertainer who could sing, dance, act, tell jokes and hold together the flimsiest of low-budget television game shows. Often known as “Ol’ Twinkle Toes”, he described himself as the prototype for the old joke: “Open the fridge and I’ll do a 20-minute turn in the light.”

Blair’s showbusiness career began in earnest in 1960 when he met Sammy Davis Jr while working as a choreographer on the American entertainer’s British television special. “He was everything I wanted to be,” Blair recalled. “We just loved each other from the moment we met. He understood me like a brother.”

In homage to his childhood hero, the Hollywood dancing star Fred Astaire, Blair formed the Lionel Blair Dancers in the early 1960s and performed in cabaret venues around the UK.

By 1964 he was compering and dancing in Big Night Out on ITV, starring his two schoolfriends from North London, the comedians Mike and Bernie Winters.

In the 1970s, Blair’s exceptionally scrawny legs were insured for £60,000, but in 1975 he abandoned dancing to pursue a career as a serious actor. He was the Player King in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Piccadilly, 1987) and in 2009 played in Sheridan’s School For Scandal at the Edinburgh Festival.

But his ventures on stage were eclipsed when he became a panel member on the ITV talent-spotting show New Faces, which in turn led to Give Us a Clue in 1979. The show was hugely popular and the irrepressible Blair appeared in every edition throughout its 13-year run, outlasting both the original host, Michael Aspel, and the captain of the opposing team, Una Stubbs.

He was born Henry Lionel Ogus in Montreal on December 12, 1928, the eldest child of Myer Ogus, a dapper Russian-Jewish barber whom Blair remembered as “a bit of a Jack-the-lad”. In 1930, the family left Canada for London, changing their name to Blair. His mother was an avid film fan, and on their return from seeing a musical his father would often “tap a few steps on the kitchen floor”.

Although widely assumed to be gay, Blair remained happily married for more than 50 years to a former model, Susan Davis, with whom he had three children who all survive him.

In 1957, Blair discovered a dancer with whom he had been having an affair was pregnant, but, having ended the relationship, refused to see her or his son after he was born. “I behaved like an absolute bastard,” Blair said. “I was too busy, too cruel.”

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He enjoyed the abundant fruits of his labour — an unbroken 30-year run as a pantomime star latterly earned him £15,000 a week, and for years he lived in style in a house with a Rolls-Royce in the garage and a swimming pool.

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