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Les Dennis: My ideal role? That would be Willy Loman

The variety entertainer, comedian and actor is starring in a new play at the Park Theatre. Here he explains why he wouldn't change anything about his life

Les Dennis
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

1. How would you describe End of the Pier in five words?
Funny, provocative, zeitgeist-y, compelling, dramatic.

2. How would you describe your character Bobby?
Bobby is somebody that comes from the world of variety. He came into the business in the '70s, he did the working men's club circuit and became big in the '80s on TV in a double act and then something happened where he lost everything.

3. The piece rings a lot of bells for you then?
A lot of bells. They put a poster onstage of Bobby and Eddie – the double act – and I had, in real life, worked with every one of the other acts on that poster. In a lot of ways the play mirrors the world I came from. I was in a double act, my comedy partner died far too young, I also had a dodgy time, but I've managed to come back. Bobby is not in a position to do that. That's what drew me to the play when I first read it, I thought: I have researched this fella for 45 years.

4. What are you most enjoying about starring in the show?
The character has this dry, wry humour, but also an incredible tragedy. He's very rounded and has been written so beautifully by Danny Robins. I love getting the chance with this character to play every range of emotion.

5. So did you jump at the chance to play it?
Totally. When I read it I said to my wife: "I know it's the summer and the kids are on holiday, but can we please delay our holiday?" My wife is really understanding and supportive. It was something I just had to do.

6. The Inbetweeners' Blake Harrison is in the cast – what's it like working with him?
Fantastic. We have a cast of four it's top notch. We each play a comic, one from the new age and one from the old school age. He's wonderful to work with, we have a lot onstage together.

7. You've done a lot of varied things over your career. Is there any type of show you are happiest doing?
I love doing musicals, but getting my teeth into a really good character in a play really gets my juices going. If you can bring people into the world and they forget time, that's the thing.

8. What's the biggest challenge about this show?
It's a thrust stage, so we have audience on all three sides and it's the first time I've performed in a play where the audience surrounds you. I've done that in cabaret, but then you can turn around and talk to them. The audience are so close they are practically in the play. That's exciting and challenging. You have to make sure you're not just playing out front.

9. What's your earliest memory in entertainment?
The first thing I saw in the theatre was at the Royal Court theatre in Liverpool, I went with my mum and dad and brother and two sisters, we all went to see Ken Dodd's variety show. I would have been about seven and was captivated. That's when I first thought it was what I wanted to do.

The cast of End of the Pier in rehearsals
© Simon Annand

10. And had you seen theatre when you were younger too?
I used to go to the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, I saw the most incredible theatre there and there were actors including Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce. Comedy was my first love but when I saw them, I thought: I want to do that.

11. What do you consider to be your big break?
I did the talent competitions – Opportunity Knocks and New Faces and they were kind of breaks, but in those days if you did one-off telly, you didn't necessarily get established. So for me it was joining The Russ Abbot Show in 1982, when I had been in the business for 11 years. It was there I paid my dues and learnt my craft.

12. What would you have been if you hadn't become a performer?
I had a really good art teacher and I loved art. I went to the same school that John Lennon had gone to, and had the same headmaster as him, Bill Pobjoy, who had encouraged me to go to art school, which is what he did for John. The rubbish thing now is that I hardly ever draw.

13. What draws you to being onstage and entertaining people?
As Bobby says in the play, the sound of laughter is a drug, it's addictive, and when I do hear an audience laugh it is something that I love.

14. Was there ever a point in your career where you thought you wouldn't be a performer?
I went round the working men's clubs while I was still at school and then when I left school I started doing it professionally. It was weeks away and club, after club, after club, it was a brilliant working environment to learn, but it was very hard. I remember giving myself until I was 30 and if I hadn't made it by then I told myself I was going to give up. Luckily I got The Russ Abbot Show when I was 29.

15. Who are your idols?
Sammy Davis Jr, because I had an EP of him doing impressions, and I used to listen to that. That's how I became an impressionist. Stan Laurel, who I think is the funniest man that ever lived and a total genius, he was the brains behind the duo. And Ken Dodd. Because he's my first.

16. If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?
You know what, I could say going into Celebrity Big Brother was a mistake, but if I hadn't done it then Ricky Gervais wouldn't have knocked on my door and I wouldn't have done Extras and I wouldn't be where I am now. So I'm going to not tempt fate and say: I'm not going back.

17. Is there anything you've seen on stage recently?
I saw a wonderful spoof at the Royal Court Theatre of Mamma Mia!, and because it was Liverpool it was called Mam! I'm Ere and it's set in a caravan park in North Wales. It was funny and uplifting, the evening was pure joy.

18. What do you do to unwind in your spare time?
I love to walk, I recently had a health scare but I have managed to get myself fit and healthy, and I still do a lot of power walking. People may see me walking past fast and think I'm a bit grumpy, but I'm not I'm just walking at a pace. I have young kids and love spending time with them too.

19. What would your dream role be?
It's Willy Loman. I'm at the right age. I think you could call Bobby, Willy Showman. He's got the tragedy of Willy Loman to some extent. I've always loved Death of a Salesman I think it's the greatest American play ever written.

20. What advice would you give to aspiring performers?
The world of employment is precarious, but in this day, it's important to go for your dreams. Richard Briers gave the best advice that you have to be so dedicated in this business. It's not enough to want to be an actor, you have to need to be an actor. You have to put the hours in and if you do the world is your oyster.