In 2002, however, he could have faced career ruin when he appeared on the second series of Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother. The comedian suffered a meltdown live on television as he struggled with the much publicised personal trauma involving his second wife Amanda Holden.
Nonetheless, he made a commendable recovery which included an acclaimed performance in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ BBC series Extras and guest television roles in New Street Law, Holby City, and The Bill. In the summer of last year his series titled Les Dennis’s Liverpool was screened by Granada.
In 2008, Dennis toured and played a West End season in the award-winning comedy musical Eurobeat, Almost Eurovision and released his autobiography Must the Show Go On? which gave a very frank and honest insight into his personal life. Earlier this year, he joined his niece Jodie McNee on stage, playing Herbert Soppitt, in a new production of JB Priestley’s When We Are Married which visited the Liverpool Playhouse in May.
He celebrated his 56th birthday this week and became a dad for the second time in 2008 when he and his partner of two years, Claire Nicholson, welcomed their daughter Eleanor Grace into the world.
Are you looking forward to reuniting with First Family Entertainment again, in its Peter Pan pantomime at the Empire, after appearing in its production of Cinderella at the same theatre last year?
They asked me to come back after last year and to come back to my home city again is great. I loved it last year - we had a great time with Cinderella - and Cilla Black was brilliant. It was just a lovely company, so when they said do you want to come back I just jumped at the chance. Liverpool is home to me.
First Family Entertainment will also be reuniting again with Henry Winkler, who played Captain Hook in its Peter Pan production three years ago. Did you see it?
Yes, I saw the production and saw Henry do this show with Bobby Davro. Funnily enough I hadn’t done panto in years and I loved it and thought ‘Bobby is having such a lot of fun’. I’ve done a lot of plays lately where, as a performer, you don’t have that much of a chance to work an audience and talk to them so much. I don’t do stand up anymore. So, I thought I’m going to lose those skills if I don’t go and do it. I did panto two years ago in Sunderland with Mickey Rooney in Cinderella and then came to Liverpool last year and just had a ball. This one will also be my first chance to play panto dame as well.
Bearing in mind you’re wearing a frock in Peter Pan, when was the last time you wore women’s clothes?
Well, certainly when Dustin Gee and I were together we used to do our comedy sketch of Vera and Mavis and used to do lots of dressing up as different characters from different things. What I love about panto dame, and our tradition of men dressing as women, is that it goes back to Shakespeare’s time. It’s funny sometimes because I’m working with an American director at the moment (Jeff Calhoun) and when I’m explaining what I’m doing he’s looking back at me and saying, ‘Women dress as boys and men dress up as women - what!?’ But you’ve got to get it right as well. It’s very much not drag for me and I don’t want it to be about the costumes, I want it to be about the character – the kind of ‘mumsie’ and matriarchal aspects - because they’re the best dames. When you think back to Les Dawson, he was clearly a man dressed in women’s clothes, but he was hilarious.
You play the Darling’s family cook in Peter Pan, who is a character not usually associated to the story is she?
It’s an interesting change of aspect as far as Peter Pan is concerned because obviously in the play and in the book it doesn’t exist this character. Peter Pan is a difficult one to do because it’s sometimes neither pantomime or the original children’s story, so we’re trying to bring an element of pantomime to this show and instead of having Nana the dog, we’ve got Nana the cook, so it will be good fun to play.
Do you feel you will have a responsibility to bring out the laughs in the production of Peter Pan when it arrives in Liverpool?
Well, like I’ve mentioned earlier, I saw Henry Winkler in this production a few years ago and Henry is a funny man, so I think the laughs will be distributed. I think that the idea of my character fancying Captain Hook will bring some nice comic frisson between the two. I’ve met Henry a couple times before and he seems a really nice guy and I’m sure we’re going to have a laugh.
Are you enjoying the new challenges your career is offering you these days? When We Are Married was a great success don’t you think?
It was a great production and I’m loving it and I’m loving the fact that I’m doing varied things. From When We Are Married to High School Musical 2 to Peter Pan, it’s all kind of different and varied so that’s great to be able to do different things.
Do you have any more TV work in the pipeline?
There is nothing planned at the moment, all my stuff is stage work, but I’m talking to the BBC at the moment about something next year.
As a follow on to your series Les Dennis’s Liverpool, where else in the country would you like to go and discover and find out about?
I loved that and it was a great show for me to go and do. To be honest, I’ve always had this idea of doing this kind of investigation into Britain’s piers because a lot of variety comic shows are called ‘end of the pier shows’ and there is an end of the pier tradition that is vanishing. So I’d be interested to go around the piers of Britain and see the comic heritage and also the variety show heritage, and where they are now and their history.
What’s your view on Channel 4 dropping Big Brother from its TV schedule after another celebrity series next January?
I couldn’t be less interested because I did Big Brother and I watched the celebrity ones but I never watched the main one. I suppose having done it I’m kind of feeling it has run its course now. I didn’t watch this year’s series at all so I don’t know whether it has run its course, but it clearly seems that the audiences are not as into it as they used to be.
After Peter Pan will you be rejoining the cast of High School Musical 2?
Yes, I’m coming back to the Liverpool Empire with High School Musical 2 in February and then who knows at the moment. I’ll finish that around April time and the thing is if I get offers now I can’t take them because I’m booked up until May, so we’ll just see what comes up.
And will Eleanor Grace be too young to see you in Peter Pan?
No, not at all. She’ll be 20 months old when we come here and she’ll definitely be around.
Les Dennis was speaking to Michael Hunt
He is currently touring in High School Musical 2 Live on Stage! playing Mr Fulton which is being produced by Stage Entertainment UK Ltd in association with Disney Theatrical Productions. It visits the Liverpool Empire on Monday 1 February until Saturday 6 February 2010. Tickets cost £12.50-£30, call 0844 847 2525 to book early.
*High School Musical 2 Live on Stage! also visits Manchester’s Opera House on Monday 23 November until Saturday 28 November 2009. However, Dennis will not be appearing for the dates in Manchester or when it arrives to Birmingham’s Alexandra (8 December-2 January 2010) theatre. (see News, 16 July 2009).
Peter Pan opens at the Liverpool Empire theatre on Friday 11 December this year and runs until Sunday 3 January 2010.
*Photograph taken by Dave Evans