West End stage musicals, serious theatre, a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta…Les Dennis has taken on more challenges than Anneka Rice – and triumphed.
But what drives the friendly former face of ITV entertainment to reinvent himself so often?
“I like to push myself and do things people don’t expect,” says Les, who is currently starring as Bert Barry in the touring production of 42nd Street.
“There was a time when I was called a revelation every time I took on something different; now it’s getting into people’s minds that this is what I do.
“Besides, if you get an offer to work with the English National Opera, you don’t turn it down.”
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Liverpool-born Les, who turns 70 in October, has been punching above his weight ever since he appeared on TV talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1971.
Just 17, he took his fledging comedy impressions act onto the tough northern club circuit. “It was a great training ground. I’d play working men’s clubs where they’d be expecting a blue comic and I’d come on doing Frank Spencer and Louis Armstrong. I could empty a room…
He chuckles and adds, “The other comics used to call me ‘Bronco’ because I always stayed on. I wouldn’t come off, even if the club chairman said, ‘Don’t punish yourself, bonny lad’, because if you came off you wouldn’t get paid.
“But if you did well, it was magical. You’d beaten the pie break, you’d beaten the bingo, and you’d beaten the committee.
“I remember comics trying to get out of a window rather than come back for their second spot.”
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Les recalls the night when, to swerve a second set, the great northern comedian Mick Miller took three balls out of the bingo machine.
“Nobody could get a full house,” Les laughs. “The game went on all night. The poor bingo caller was desperately shouting ‘Anybody close?’ ‘No!’ came the answer…”
Leslie Heseltine went to Liverpool’s Quarry Bank High School, where he was in a drama group with Hellraiser’s Clive Barker and future mezzo soprano Susan Bickley.
It was John Lennon’s alma mater, but young Les dreamt of following in the footsteps of another famous Scouser – Jimmy Tarbuck, like him, a working-class bookmaker’s son. His father had other ideas.
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“Dad had played for Liverpool and wanted me to be a footballer…until he saw me play. I was at school with Steve Coppell – I didn’t have a chance to make the first team!”
As well as Tarby, then known as “the fifth Beatle”, his boyhood heroes were Ken Dodd, The Goons, and the cast of Round The Horne.
Les was six when he entered his first Butlin’s talent contest. His factory worker mother Winnie encouraged his dream – “dad was more sceptical”.
Later Winnie would drive him to gigs, suggest prop ideas, and – when a club compere said “Leslie Heseltine” was too much of a mouthful – it was Winnie who dreamt up his stage name.
“Mum suggested Les Dennis as it was almost Denis Law backwards, and he was her favourite footballer. She made me believe in myself.”
Sadly she died in 1977 before Les became a household name.
His first paid gig was at Norris Green Social Club. “Mum got me it. I did ten minutes and got £2 for expenses. That clinched it! My Saturday job paid £1 for a full day.”
Les appeared in two episodes of ITV’s hit comedy impressions show Who Do You Do? in 1976. In 1980, he joined Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, followed by the equally successful Russ Abbot Show.
“I talked to Russ quite recently, he is living the life of his dreams – playing golf every day, spending his time between Portugal and Barbados. Maybe we’ll do something again together in the future.”
Through Russ, he met fellow mimic Dustin Gee, but their successful double act was cut short by Dustin’s untimely death aged just 43 in 1986.
A year later, Les started hosting ITV’s evergreen gameshow Family Fortunes, and presented it for fifteen years.
“People still ask about Family Fortunes. I wouldn’t go back. Gino’s doing a great good job; you’ve got to leave things behind.”
Even at the height of his 90s fame, Les would slip away from the TV cameras to take minimum-wage roles in stage plays.
He’s in 42nd Street – a rousing musical love letter to Broadway – until October. “It’s a wonderful show,” he enthuses.
“An incredible ensemble. Such talent! Michael Praed! Sam Womack… Nicole Lily Baisden from Anything Goes is a real star in the making.
It’s full of dance routines. It’s not really a jukebox musical, the songs are 30s and 40s classics – Lullaby Of Broadway, Keep Young & Beautiful, I Only Have Eyes For You, I’m In The Money…I get to sing Shuffle Off To Buffalo.
“My character Bert Barry is an ex-vaudeville performer, and along with Maggie Jones, played by Faye Tozer, we are the writers of the show within the show, we’re the comedy heart of that.
And because we’re the writers, we get a tough time from Michael Praed’s Julian. “He’s a lovely man and what a career he’s had – from Dynasty to Robin Hood.
He sends himself up all the time. He calls himself “The Praed”. He’s got a twinkle in his eyes. There are times on stage that I might laugh more than he should do!”
Les is about to take a two-week holiday in New York with Claire, his third wife, and their two children who are 15 and 12. Son Phillip from his first marriage is 43.
“I love spending downtime with my kids,” he says. “They say I’m obsessed with getting places early, but hopefully they’d also say I’m a loving dad.”
When he’s around that is.
His last job was playing Grandad Trotter in Only Fools & Horses The Musical – “a massive challenge taking over from Paul Whitehouse…some people said I was too young to play grandad, I’m 20 years older than Lennard Pearce was when he created the role!”
Les’s extensive stage credits range from playing Wilbur in Hairspray to Bill in Me & My Girl via Amos Hart in Chicago and Uncle Fester in The Addams Family touring musical. He also spent two years as Michael Rodwell in Coronation Street.
Just before lockdown, Les notched up two Royal Shakespeare Company productions – Venice Preserved, a dark Restoration tragedy, and Restoration comedy, The Provoked Wife.
In 2021, he played Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord Of The Admiralty, in English National Opera’s HMS Pinafore.“I didn’t have to be an opera singer, I just had to carry a tune.
But it was still a massive challenge. When he’s not working, Les loves the theatre, and comedians in general. Current favourites include Larry David, Ricky Gervais, Mickey Flanigan and Sarah Millican.
I’ve known this warm, bright, cheery star for thirty years and he has never seemed as content as he is now.
His very public breakdown on 2002’s Celebrity Big Brother following then-wife Amanda Holden’s affair with actor Neil Morrissey seems a lifetime ago.
Back then, ghoulish critics dubbed him “Les Miserable”. Harsh, but he says if it hadn’t happened, he would never have been booked for Ricky Gervais’s sitcom Extras in 2005 – a career turning point that rebooted his self-confidence.
“Extras gave me the chance to show I could have a sense of humour about myself – and reinvent myself,” he says.
He jokes that his future mother-in-law saw his backside before he’d even seen her face.
Les met wife Claire Nicholson, a life coach, in 2005. She keeps him grounded, he says. “I’m blessed with my family, and a wife who’s not in the business and who knows what makes me tick and who is supportive and smart.”
They married in 2009. With Claire he says he’s “quelled the bitterness” he felt inside during his brush with the dark downside of celebrity culture.
Fame doesn’t interest him now; he’s more concerned with taking risks and earning respect.
“I still want to do Shakespeare,” he says. “I’d love to play The Fool in Lear or Feste in Twelfth Night…”
Seems the challenges and reinventions won’t be stopping just yet.
*Les Dennis stars in 42nd Street on tour across the UK; 42ndstreettour.com
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