20 Questions With...Les Dennis
Date: 13 October 2003
Actor, comedian & television personality Les Dennis, currently touring in Art, names his favourite painter, reveals why David Jason is a good director & confesses a desire to be Henry VIII.
Having started out as a stand-up comedian working the men's clubs in his native Merseyside, Les Dennis went on to become one of Britain's most popular entertainers, hosting the long-running game show Family Fortunes.
In 1997 Dennis made his feature film debut in Intimate Relations, appearing opposite Julie Walters and Rupert Graves. His television work includes Crossroads, Brookside, Casualty, Merseybeat and Wyrd Sister.
As a stage actor, Dennis has performed in Me and My Girl, Don't Dress for Dinner, Skylight, Mr Wonderful, Just Between Ourselves and Cherished Disappointments in Love at Soho Theatre. In 2000, he played Amos Hart in the West End production of Kander and Ebb musical Chicago, while more recently, he took to the road with his new one-man stand-up show, Les Dennis Live.
In spring 2003, Dennis attracted massive media attention after his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother, which coincided with the collapse of his marriage to actress Amanda Holden (who is currently taking the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie).
This autumn, Dennis has returned to the stage, starring with Christopher Cazenove and John Duttine in the new national touring production of Yasmina Reza's multi award-winning West End comedy Art.
Date & place of birth
Born 12 October 1953 in Liverpool.
Lives now in...
Right now I'm in a hotel, but I'm house hunting for a new place in north London.
I didn't train officially as far as drama is concerned. I did the working men's clubs from the age of 17 - which was great experience for my stand-up - and was part of a drama group, which had people like Clive Barker and Jude Kelly in it, who have gone on to do great things. That was my earliest training.
First big break
I suppose it was getting into The Russ Abbot Mad House. I also did Opportunity Knocks when I was still at school, but that didn't make as big an impression as Mad House. It was there I met and started my partnership with Dustin Gee.
Career highlights to date
I loved doing Me and My Girl - I saw it with Robert Lindsay in the West End. Family Fortunes was a great show to be part of - I did that for 16 years. And I really am excited about Art. I saw it in the West End when the cast was Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott and thought, I'd love to be in that. So, you see, you have to be careful what you wish for.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Me and My Girl I've already mentioned, and Family Fortunes. They were both great fun. I recently worked on a TV film with David Jason called Quest 2, which will be on ITV late this year or early next. I play Johnny 'Mr Romance' Regal, a sleazy 1960s crooner who fixes beauty pageants so the girl he fancies wins. It was an honour to be directed by David Jason, who also performs in it. It's a follow-up to a show he did called The Quest not so long ago, where three men reminisce about their young life. It was great fun. There was also a movie called Intimate Relations, a black comedy I did with Julie Walters and Rupert Graves, which was another great thrill to work on.
I have to say working with Christopher Cazenove and John Duttine is very exciting for me. I've been a fan of their work for a very long time. John did To Serve Them All My Days and Chris did Dynasty and Duchess of Duke Street, which were shows I wouldn't miss. Rupert Graves was really very good to work with, too. You see, I wasn't used to movies and he was very helpful. And Russ Abbot was a joy. We used to have a great time and never stopped laughing.
David Jason I mentioned. Why? Because he comes to directing from an actor's point of view. He knows exactly what you are going through and is more interested in actors than where to point the camera. Euan Smith gave me a good start at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. He took a chance on me and cast me in David Hare's Skylight, in the part that was originally played in the West End by people like Michael Gambon and Bill Nighy. At a time when I hadn't done much drama, he trusted me and really nurtured my performance. I also have to mention Hannah Chissick, who's currently directing us in Art. She's only 26 and the artistic director at Harrogate. She is going to be a huge talent. All three of us have said she's great. She sticks to her guns and won't be bullied by us, which is pretty impressive.
I'm a big Arthur Miller fan. I think The Crucible and Death of a Salesman are brilliant plays. As far as English playwrights go, Alan Ayckbourn takes some beating because he has an incredible ability to intertwine comedy and tragedy. I was in a production of Just Between Ourselves directed by Dominic Hill. It's one of the few that Ayckbourn does not call 'a comedy'; he calls it 'a play'. It is very funny, but becomes dark and tragic by the end. It's very thought-provoking and interesting the way he switches from one genre to another.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I still have a great hankering to do some Shakespeare. I'd love to play Feste from Twelfth Night. I went with school years ago to see it at Stratford, and it was a brilliant production: Emrys James, who is sadly no longer with us, played Feste. He was heartbreaking and, at the same time, very funny. Even then I remember thinking, I want to play that part. I'm also lucky to get the chance to play Yvan, because as I said, when I saw Ken Stott as Yvan I was blown away.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I haven't been a lot recently, which I feel guilty about because I love the theatre. Art in the West End was a very powerful experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also saw a production of Blue Remembered Hills by Dennis Potter, which was originally a TV film. That was a very good production at the National, which had Steve Coogan in it. I also saw Cleo, Camping, Emmanuel and Dick by Terry Johnson at Oldham Coliseum. That was interesting because I read for the part of Kenneth Williams with Antony Sher, which was very exciting. I thought it was a great play.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I think that they should make parking in London a lot easier. It's increasingly difficult for people to go to the West End as it's so expensive - and not just the tickets either. It seems you're penalised for going into town. They should look at the arts and realise that we have a chance of showing the world we are world-beaters at this. We own Shakespeare and produce the greatest writers, actors and directors. They need to make it easier for people to go and watch theatre.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Henry VIII is in my head and I don't know why. There's now this television version of his life starring Ray Winstone. I think that is fascinating. I'd be interested to see life from his perspective. I mean, he did what he liked, even changed the religion of this country.
Favourite holiday destinations
I love Norfolk. I know that sounds odd, but I love to go there and escape. It's one of our most beautiful areas in England. Mauritius is a beautiful island - sometimes it's nice sit on a beach there with a pile of books.
Probably my favourite book is John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. The character really gets in your head, and you can hear that voice, the wrecked voice of a young boy. It's a life-affirming book. In fact, I love all of Irving's work. Recently, I read Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, which was fantastic. It's about that mysterious painting by Vermeer, who is a fantastic artist. I believe there's going to be a movie made of it.
Having worked in so many different fields - on stage & screen, as presenter, comedian & actor - is there one you prefer?
I'm very greedy, and I love the fact I get to do lots of different things. I recently filled in for Terry Wogan for a while on The Terry and Gaby Show, and that was wonderful because you get to interview people you like. I switched it on the other day and was jealous of Jimmy Tarbuck, who was co-hosting, because he got to interview Elvis Costello, a big hero of mine. I enjoy acting a lot. I wanted to get back to the stage and to the challenge of showing an audience I can do something they don't expect.
Why did you want to accept your part in Art?
Well, when I saw Yvan being played by Ken Stott, who I hadn't seen on stage before, it was such a brilliant performance. There's a great bit where Yvan has this huge three-page rant with no full stops. That, as you can imagine, is extremely nerve-wracking to do. It's almost near the world of stand up - except you don't perform to the audience, you perform it to other actors. I wanted the chance to do that. Yvan is a likeable guy who has the potential to make you cry. I think it's a great part in a great play.
Have you seen other casts of the show?
After seeing the original cast, I went again when my friend Chris Langham was in it with Peter Egan and Anthony Valentine. It's very appealing as a piece, because every time they recast, they recast all three characters and so it's reinvented. Everyone brings a different version of the characters so it's a whole new production every time, which is very exciting.
What are the best & worst bits of touring?
The great thing is seeing places you wouldn't necessarily get the time to explore otherwise. The worst part is usually the wrench of being away from home - but as I'm between homes at the moment, that's ok for me. It actually gives me the chance to get away and not worry about house hunting for a while.
What's your favourite line from Art?
There's a lovely line, which is heartbreaking. Serge says to Mark: "Why can't you learn to love people for themselves?" And Mark comes out with: "Yes, but what are they apart from my faith in them?" It is a really interesting line and kind of sums up what is at the heart of the play, a male friendship which is under threat.
Who's your favourite artist? What are your views on modern art?
I'm getting to love Vermeer - that would make me a traditionalist, I suppose. I watched a programme about the Delft school on BBC 2 recently, which was great, and I'm a fan of other Flemish artists like Rembrandt and Van Dyke. I love the use of light in their work. I do love modern art. I'm a big fan of Picasso - though, whether you can presume that's 'modern' any more, I don't know. I've never been to the Tate Modern in London, but I have been to the one in my hometown, Liverpool. I usually go in sceptical, but there's always something that surprises me and makes me think. So I'm open, but more of a traditionalist.
What are your plans for the future?
My plans are to do this tour, that takes me up till Christmas, then Quest 2 should be out. After that, I don't know what's happening. That's the exciting thing about this business - nothing is definite! Last year, I went to Spain on holiday with nothing on the horizon, then in the space of a week I was offered Art, Quest 2 and Terry and Gaby! That's exciting, not knowing what's round the corner.
- Les Dennis was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Art continues on tour until 29 November 2003. For the full tour schedule, see listings.