People ask, ‘what do you think is your biggest achievement?’ I think it’s still being around.” Les Dennis is in thoughtful mode as he relaxes backstage at London’s Palace Theatre.
But he’s master of the understatement. Because he’s not just still around, but – as he prepares to celebrate the big 6-0 with family and friends this Saturday – he’s also the star of a West End show.
It’s a long way from Melling Ratepayers’ club where a 17-year-old Les would wait for his turn in the spotlight as a jobbing comic on the Liverpool working men’s club scene.
It’s also, when we catch up for a chat about his landmark birthday, the morning after the night before – the night before being Cilla Black’s party to mark her 50 years in showbiz, and Les is nursing a hint of hoarseness and a macchiato as he sits on a sofa in his basement dressing room.
Ever the pro, an hour later he’s on stage, singing and dancing in a crown and chainmail as alongside his Life’s Too Short co-star Warwick Davis who is playing the coconut-clopping manservant Patsy to Les’ Arthur, King of the Britons in Monty Python’s Spamalot.
Cilla may have clocked up her half-century in the biz, but Les isn’t far behind, having made his professional debut on Opportunity Knocks back in 1971.
But while he made his name as a stand-up and then a TV showman at the height of the 80s light entertainment boom, acting was actually the young Leslie Heseltine’s first love.
He appeared in school plays at Quarry Bank alongside Jude Kelly and Clive Barker, everything from Gogol’s The Government Inspector to the Brian Rix farce, Dry Rot, by playwright John Chapman.
“And then, Clive was at Liverpool University and he wrote an Orton-like farce, Is There Anybody There? and we did that at the Everyman,” Les recalls. “We did what you’d call now profit share, but we didn’t make any money. And then we did Clive’s musical called Hunters in the Snow which was the life of Breugel.
“All very artsy and ambitious stuff, and it was good.”
It was Barker who would keep insisting Les should go to drama school, something the youngster had been toying with.
“But I’d already started doing the working men’s clubs, and I remember saying to him, ‘I just want to be Dave Allen’,” he laughs. “He despaired of me! Dave Allen was a pretty good aspiration.”
Winning New Faces in 1974 (where Arthur Askey was one of the judges) spurred on Les’ comedy ambitions, as did joining Russ Abbot’s Madhouse in the early 1980s where he formed a partnership with Dustin Gee that took on its own life.
The pair spent a successful two years together with their hit TV series The Laughter Show. But the partnership came to an abrupt end when the 43-year-old Gee had a fatal heart attack during a panto run in Southport in January 1986.
Looking at Les’ subsequent solo career, which really took off with Family Fortunes from 1987 onwards, one wonders what would have happened if Gee had survived?
“We’d have continued with that double act,” says Les. “But I think we were always of the mind that we were open to do solo projects as well.
“Everybody was saying we were a double act, but like the Two Ronnies or Mel and Griff, we were two solo performers who worked well together rather than a straight man and feed.
“So when he died people were like ‘what are you going to do?’ and I said well I’ve done this before, 14 years up ‘til then, so I’ll be OK. I kind of knew I’d be OK. But the public didn’t, they were a bit sort of scared and worried for me. Which was nice.”
One of the shows the pair did together was the famous Tommy Cooper Live From Her Majesty’s when the great fez-wearing funnyman collapsed on stage. They were the next act on, and bizarrely for Les, a new movie has just been made about the event.
“An actor called Jordan is playing me!” he laughs. “He asked if I’d meet him so he could do some research and I walked into Costa in Highgate and thought, that’s got to be him! There was this young, blond actor, he’s only 23, just out of drama school.”
“I was 31 at the time but looked younger. Part of the screenplay is that they, Dustin and Les, are on stage, so he was quizzing me on Rigsby because it’s a Rigsby impression that he has to do.”
Despite TV fame, the 59-year-old maintains he always planned to go back to acting one day, and, perhaps strangely, Family Fortunes allowed him to do just that, quietly building up a CV of theatre work in the nine months each year he wasn’t filming, including David Hare’s Skylight – “a baptism of fire” – at the Watermill theatre at Newbury.
And some of the most unlikely TV appearances have led to other things.
Take his now famous residency in the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2002 when his marriage to actress Amanda Holden was publicly imploding.
Les Dennis career landmarks
Les reveals: “Michael Harrison, who’s a big producer at Kudos now and did The Bodyguard in town, was watching me in Celebrity Big Brother and said ‘that’s my Ivan for Art’.
“So Art, which we did at the Playhouse and was a big triumph, came out of Celebrity Big Brother. Every cloud and all that!”
Then there was his daring turn in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras in 2005 when he appeared naked as a “twisted, demented” version of his public self. It’s a role Les has often highlighted as a turning point in the current resurgence of his career.
“It has been one of those things about changing perceptions,” he admits. “And now I put on my passport, actor instead of entertainer, and I tell people I’m an actor.
“I think that I’ve been taken seriously since Extras.”
Certainly he’s had no shortage of job offers, particularly on stage where he’s appeared in big musicals like Hairspray and Legally Blonde, straight plays like JB Priestley’s When We Are Married and the forthcoming tour of Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, and his own project, the acclaimed Jigsy – as well as of course his recent, almost-triumphant turn on Celebrity Masterchef.
He’s now, he says, ‘selectively ambitious’ – the wishlist includes a crack at Shakespeare while he would “give my eye teeth to do Corrie!”
Extras meanwhile was filmed the same year Les met his wife Claire at a function and she asked him to dance. The couple married in 2009 and have two children, five-year-old Eleanor and Thomas, two, while Philip – Les’ son from his first marriage to Lynne Webster – is following in his dad’s footsteps as an actor, currently playing Malcolm in a fringe theatre production of Macbeth in Hampstead.
The young family have recently moved out of London and back up north. Not all the way to Liverpool, but nearby in Cheshire.
“It’s a new area,” agrees Les. “But what was lovely was that on our first weekend to be able to say to my sister Marg, do you want to come over for Sunday lunch instead of saying, when can you come down for the weekend? It’s great.
“I think as you get older you want to come back to your roots.”
Meanwhile he’s currently shuttling weekly between home and the West End where he’s doing eight shows a week as part of the Monty Python ‘Spamily’.
Fans will be disappointed on Saturday though because the birthday boy is taking the day off.
“I’m really excited about it,” he says of the looming landmark. “I tweeted recently that coming up to 60, I’ve never felt more in a better place and happier.”
Les Dennis is in Spamalot at the West End until November 2 and tours with A Perfect Murder from January 8.