Les Dennis interview: ‘How can I still be a revelation? I've been doing this for 50 years'

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Les Dennis will make his ENO debut in a new production of HMS Pinafore – Rii Schroer

Les Dennis is expecting the inevitable. When English National Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore opens, and he delivers Sir Joseph Porter’s famous song about being the ruler of the queen’s navee, at least one reviewer will proclaim him a revelation. “How can I still be a revelation? I’ve been doing this for 50 years in some form or another!” Sitting in his dressing room in the London Coliseum, he says this with an unexasperated sigh.

Dennis has blindsided audiences in, among others, Chicago, David Hare’s Skylight and, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy Venice Preserved. He made his musical theatre debut 30 years ago but, when he spent this summer at the Coliseum in Hairspray, people still told him: “I didn’t know you could sing.”

Might his opera debut – OK, operetta – find him out? “I don’t have to be an opera singer,” he says. “I just have to carry a tune because When I Was a Lad is a patter song [where the comedy is in the high-tempo rhythms]. I’ll be nervous on opening night. The fact that I’ve been here all summer I’m sure is helping. But we had microphones for Hairspray. Here you’ve got to hit the gallery.”

Though Dennis had no formal training at all, clearly the conductor Chris Hopkins thinks he can do it. The invitation came from Cal McCrystal, who directed the physical comedy in One Man, Two Guvnors and had a hit at ENO with Iolanthe in 2018. When he was invited to audition for HMS Pinafore he had to sing for Hopkins. “And they said, ‘Yeah great, you’ve got the job,’ which never happens in theatre. Maybe opera is different.”

Sir Joseph Porter, the landlubbing First Lord of the Admiralty, embodies the absurd iniquities of the British class system lampooned in HMS Pinafore. Supported by her father, he seeks the hand of a captain’s daughter who much prefers a lowly sailor. It had its first performance in 1878. “George Grossmith was the comic baritone Gilbert and Sullivan always used. He apparently said to them, ‘I think you need a fine singer for this role.’ Gilbert said, ‘That’s exactly what we don’t want.’”

Dennis (centre) in role of Sir Joseph, the First Lord of the Admiralty – AMX

There’s not been much opera in Les Dennis’s life. At Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool, where “we were all checking the desks trying to find carvings by John Lennon”, he was in a hotbed of future stars including Clive Barker, Jude Kelly and the future mezzo soprano Susan Bickley. “We were called ‘the group’. Susan’s dad ran the local G&S Society, so I saw all his productions.” Thus he became acquainted with Pinafore. His mother was a Rat Pack fan. “But alongside that she would have albums of Tchaikovsky and Tristan und Isolde, which is an opera, isn’t it? I remember her saying, ‘Take these into primary school’ and the teacher being impressed.”

The chronic state of surprise at his CV’s breadth can be blamed on Family Fortunes, during which millions of viewers came to see him as a witty and amiable presenter. In the 1980s, Dennis was thriving as one half of an impressionist double act with Dustin Gee, a comedian he met on Russ Abbot’s Madhouse.

“Whenever anyone asks, ‘What’s the best bit of your career?’ I always think of those days with him. They were amazing. It was a novelty – two impressionists. When you have Ronnie Barker walk up behind you in the queue at BBC rehearsal rooms and say to you both, ‘Just wanted to say, you’re good’, that was just joy. We were mates. A double act is like a marriage, and how long it would have lasted I don’t know.”

A third series of their BBC showcase The Laughter Show had just started screening when Gee suddenly died of a heart attack in 1986 at the age of 43. The decision was made to continue recording two days after he died, and Dennis was convinced to appear with Jim Bowen, who stepped into sketches written for Gee. The Bullseye presenter even wore Gee’s costumes. “And that’s weird. But in those days it was ‘the show must go on’.”

Dennis with comedy partner Dustin Gee in 1985 – Daily Record

The following year, he was invited to succeed Bob Monkhouse and Max Bygraves as host of the ITV game show. “I wasn’t sure it was a good move but thank God I did take it.” He stayed for 16 years. But his project of self-regeneration hit a snag when, after leaving Family Fortunes, he cut a mournful figure on Celebrity Big Brother. The tabloids dubbed him “Les Miserable”. “Is this the most pathetic man in Britain?” sneered a Daily Mirror front page – essentially a cruel tweet before the age of Twitter.

Meanwhile his marriage to his second wife Amanda Holden ended in a blaze of excruciating publicity. For weeks, paparazzi tracked him as he commuted to the West End to play loyal husband Amos Hart in Chicago. What did he learn from being in their crosshairs? “How to be the best getaway driver in London! It was crazy. I would open my curtains and there would be six cars parked outside on a single yellow – nobody ever moved them. I felt like I’d murdered somebody.”

He later discovered his phone was hacked for nine years. “At the time you think, ‘Oh it’s the fame tax, it’s what we have to put up with.’ I don’t think that now.” Resurrection came via a self-parodic appearance in Ricky Gervais’s Extras in 2005 “A lot of people might have run away from that but I thought, let’s go with it,” he says. He got married, for the third time, to life coach Claire Nicholson in 2009, and they have two children.

Dennis is now reaching that age – he is 68 – when beloved long-serving performers have a preservation order slapped on them. His career encompasses an entire history of post-war light entertainment with all its highs and lows. He started in the era of frilly shirts and racism. One night he opened for Bernard Manning. “I did really well and went back into the dressing room. He was chewing on a Mars bar and he went, ‘Foocking great, lad. There’s not many could follow yer, but I’ll foocking do it’. He was a great technician, but I watched him do some stuff that I thought I can’t agree with, and I remember being saddened that he couldn’t see that.” On New Faces, the ATV talent show, his act was adjudicated by ancient comics like Ted Ray and Arthur Askey who had been going since the 1940s. Victoria Wood made her network debut in the same episode. “After the rehearsal she came up to me and said, ‘I think it’s going to be me or you.’”

A fresh-faced Dennis appears on the ATV talent show New Faces – Shutterstock

It was neither. The winner, another mimic called Tony Maiden, would go on to commit suicide. Does he still think about him? “Yes very much. He died tragically young. I’m very lucky. I’ve watched a lot of people that I was alongside fall at the fences.” In 1984 he and Dustin Gee were performing on LWT’s Live at Her Majesty’s while Tommy Cooper, who had just had a heart attack live on TV, was dying behind the front cloth. Did he feel the symbolism of the moment as an older school of entertainment died too? “We were conscious of that afterwards. The audience didn’t know what had happened. Jimmy Tarbuck says, ‘Are you guys ready to go on?’ We were thrown on. In some kind of weird way it was the night that we became noticed by the public.”

In recent years the wheel has come full circle as, stouter and a little less blond, Dennis has twice been cast as washed-up comics from yesteryear. In Jigsy, which is on the Liverpool Everyman’s YouTube channel, he sorrowfully recalled the good old days. In End of the Pier at the Park Theatre in north London he played a has-been called Barry Cheese.

Halfway through our hour together, someone brings in Sir Joseph’s wig, a strawberry blond bouffant creation that looks uncannily similar to Dennis’s actual hair in the 1970s. I’m reminded of Bob Monkhouse’s prediction. “Les,” he once told him, “you might lose the hair, you’re not the funniest comic but you have charm and that will always see you right.” Was he right? “He did sum up what he thought my career would be. I’m still here…”

HMS Pinafore is at the London Coliseum, WC2, from tomorrow. Tickets: ENO.org

The best of Gilbert and Sullivan, by Mark Monahan

Pirates of Penzance (1879)
All frustrated buccaneers and comely maidens, this 1879 confection is also – it is safe to say – the only opera (G&S or otherwise) to use a leap year as a plot device, or indeed have a chorus of: “With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.” The latter comes from the blistering, deservedly famous Major General’s “patter” song, but there are plenty of other entirely unforgettable tunes, and Pirates (which launched in New York) is the very definition of ridiculous good fun.

The Mikado (1885)
G&S’s ninth collaboration was a resounding success on its premiere at the Savoy Theatre, where it ran for 672 performances. In recent years, this perky love story’s Japanese setting has drawn ire, chiefly in the US, but the piece’s (fictionalised) Far Eastern milieu was, in fact, created as a means of slyly holding British, not Japanese, politics and society up for ridicule. At any rate, the superabundance of once heard, never forgotten melodies – from I’ve Got a Little List to Three Little Maids From School Are We – still keeps audiences coming back in droves, with Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production for ENO the definitive staging of the modern era.

Bonnie Langford and Frank Thornton in The Pirates of Penzance at the Palladium in 1990 – Alamy

HMS Pinafore (1878)
Take Romeo and Juliet, have the lead couple’s romance play out across the class divide, on a warship, and build to a happy ending, and you pretty much have the plot of G&S’s fourth operatic collaboration. Launched in London (where it ran to a huge 571 performances), it was also the duo’s first international hit. Other productions of it swiftly popped up in the US, and the piano score – the nearest thing to streaming in those days – sold an extraordinary 10,000 copies.

The Gondoliers (1889)
Unrequited love, mistaken identity, a decidedly inconvenient death and a brace of opportunistic Venetian boatmen are the motors of the plot of G&S’s 12th creation together. Coming after 1888’s unusually serious The Yeoman of the Guard, it marked a return to more traditionally lighthearted fare. By all accounts, critics and the public alike were relieved to see the duo back on more easygoing home turf, and you may remember Ben Cross’s sprinter, Harold Abrahams, belting out There Lived a King on the ship sailing to the 1924 Paris Olympics in Chariots of Fire.

Iolanthe (1882)
Iolanthe is a fairy who was banished from fairyland because she transgressed fairy law and married a mortal. Meanwhile, her son, Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, wants to marry Phyllis, a Ward of Chancery. Götterdämmerung, then, this is not – but in fact the silly-sounding plot sets up a piece that, like The Mikado, merrily mocks a great many aspects of British government and institutions – here, through the clash between the fairies and the peers.

And the worst…

The Grand Duke (1896)
This was where it all went a bit wrong. Set in 1750, and centring on the misreading of a 100-year-old law regarding duels, it was the 14th and last of the duo’s Savoy operas. Running for just 123 performances, it was their only box-office bomb, as well as marking the end of their partnership. It has returned to various stages in recent decades, but can you actually hum any of its tunes? That might well be the problem….

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