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Customer Review

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kindness Itself, 26 Dec. 2012
This review is from: The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson (Paperback)
Anyone familiar with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, or Larry Parks's portrayal of Al Jolson in The Jolson Story, will find this biography of Les Dawson a refreshing change. This portrayal of a man whose personality on the stage was a reflection of his life off it was marred only by his lack of appreciation of what was important in life. For Dawson money talked but only to say goodbye as he made up for his childhood years of deprivation in Manchester. Whereas another Manchester comedian, Bernard Manning, would boast about his achievements but couldn't wait to get back to his home turf, Dawson enjoyed the experience of traveling and working. Unlike Manning he was never motivated by a desire to look after number one. He was generous with his time and saw the comedian as part of a team who all benefited if the show was a success. And success it was, thanks largely to Dawson's representation of 'the phlegmatic, resigned, sarcastic, glorious British attitude to life' and his personal philosophy 'Be kind'.

Dawson's imagination enabled him to tell stories which were plausible without necessarily being accurate. As a child he learned he had a talent for writing and an ability to make his contemporaries laugh. He found humour in the comedy of Norman Evans, Frank Randle and Jimmy James who unwittingly provided material for his own work. For my generation it's impossible to see Dawson and Roy Barraclough as Ada Shufflebotham and Cissie Braithwaite without remembering Evans's 'Over The Garden Wall' which inspired it. Dawson's gurning became part of Ada's physical appearance and his portrayal of Cosmo Smallpiece whose serious approach to car engines collapsed when he started talking about its 'big end'. Dawson discovered his musical talent by accident. While in the army he picked out tunes by ear and became sufficiently proficient to entertain his associates and as a way of visiting Manchester pubs. The BBC were not impressed. Dawson agreed with them until one night in Hull, when filled with drink, he started telling depreciating jokes about himself and Hull receiving raucous laughter by way of reward. The singer had become a comedian.

Dawson combined his semi-pro work in clubs with regular work as a salesman for over a decade but was on the verge of giving up when his wife suggested he try his luck on Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks. He passed the audition and in the contest itself won the audience over with jokes such as 'I toyed with the idea of playing Ravel's Pavane Pour Un Defunct but I can't remember if it is a tune or a Latin prescription for piles'. He won but continued as a semi-pro in case nothing further came his way. He need not have worried. He appeared in theatre and on television and radio making useful contacts and converting people who didn't like Northern comics into fans. His routine included traditional mother-in-law and 'the wife' brand of humour combined with off-key piano playing. Like many entertainers he had a long apprenticeship to become an overnight success. His driving ambition meant he neglected his wife and children to the extent that he feared his wife was having an affair. In fact, he was being set-up for an appearance on This Is Your Life.

Dawson was a scriptwriters dream, lacking delusions of grandeur and sticking to the scripts presented to him, respecting the effort that went into the writing. The writers included Alan Plater, David Nobbs, Galton and Simpson, Andy Hamilton and Barry Cryer, and provided him with a combination of florid monologues and double entendres which had been the mainstay of the British Music Hall tradition. Dawson also wrote his first novel, A Card For the Clubs', which drew its inspiration from his clubland experience. It was not a biography but a fictional composite of various characters he had met over the years. His references to the temptations presented by touring with talented women may well have been based on fact, although his habit of mixing fact with fiction makes the reality uncertain. The certainty came from his addiction to nicotine and fondness for alcohol both of which contributed to his death at the early age of 62.

Dawson's weaknesses was his tendency to take the easy way out. It was not cowardice but a hatred of confrontation. With the possible exception of Bernard Manning, Dawson never made enemies. Being less temperamental than many entertainers he was perhaps more easily swayed into believing everything was for the best. It was not in his nature to force his views on people. Whatever escapades Dawson got up to he remained loyal to his wife Meg whose loyalty and firmness underpinned his work. When she died his agent at the time said, 'There wouldn't be a Les Dawson as we know him today if it hadn't been for her'. Although he said he would never re-marry, the woman who would become his second wife moved into his home four months after Meg's death in 1986 (not the eighteen months Dawson wanted people to believe). Tracy Roper was, in fact, still married to her first husband and it was three years before she and Dawson married. Although Dawson was worried his fans might look askance at the seventeen year age gap his popularity never waned and in 1992 he became the proud father of Charlotte. He was determined not to make the same mistake he had with Meg's children by being an absent parent but within nine months he was dead.

Whether the book needed to go into as much detail about Dawson's writings is moot but they could hardly be discussed in a separate volume. Indeed, it can be argued that they are essential to an understanding of the man himself. There was no side to Les Dawson. What you saw was what you got and what we got were barrels of laughter and, hopefully, a new roof from the Council. Five Stars.
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