Comedian, gameshow host, actor – Les Dennis has done it all. As he prepares to make his RSC debut in two Restoration plays, he talks to Tim Bano about fulfilling one of his greatest ambitions, why hosting Family Fortunes was merely the first act in his career and why he credits Ricky Gervais for his move into serious stage roles
There’s a quote Les Dennis remembers from an interview he did a couple of years ago, just after he’d been cast in a production of The Addams Family musical. “In the long and strange career of Les Dennis,” it said, “he makes yet another left turn.” Musing on that piece now, he says: “I thought, do I see that as a compliment or not? And actually I do, because if you keep making left turns you’re keeping people guessing.”
Anyone who watched Dennis on TV throughout the 1980s and 1990s might raise an eyebrow at the idea that one of his greatest ambitions was to act at the Royal Shakespeare Company. As beloved as he became for his comedy partnership with Dustin Gee, for his straight-man roles on the Russ Abbot show, and for his affability as the consummate gameshow host on Family Fortunes, that TV career was a far cry from Stratford.
But the world of variety and entertainment that created and sustained Dennis has, over the past couple of decades, been steadily declining. “So I’ve had to reinvent – and I’ve wanted to reinvent. If I hadn’t, if I was still doing summer seasons and working men’s clubs, I wouldn’t be working. Because there wouldn’t be anywhere to work.”
Over the past two decades, a series of surprising career moves – all those left turns – has led Dennis to cross the RSC off his bucket list. He is preparing to star in two Restoration plays in rep at the Swan Theatre: one a comedy, John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, and the other a pretty heavy tragedy, Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway.
The dream started almost half a century ago. At school in Liverpool, Dennis got involved with student drama, and even starred in plays written by Clive Barker and directed by Jude Kelly, both of whom were classmates. When he was 17, he went on a school trip to Stratford where he saw a production of Twelfth Night with Emrys James playing Feste. “I remember sitting there and thinking: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
But by that point, Dennis had already started doing the working men’s clubs and was on course for a career in comedy. Still, he returned regularly to see plays at Stratford, including Antony and Cleopatra starring Glenda Jackson, and The Taming of the Shrew with Jonathan Pryce, and never let go of the desire to be an actor.
“I wanted to make sure that I knew how to act. When Family Fortunes came around I was lucky because it used to take three weeks to record. The rest of the year, I could afford to go and do a play for Equity minimum – I could go to the Watermill and do David Hare’s Skylight, or Oldham Coliseum and do Misery – and learn the craft. So even though I’ve been doing it for 30 years now, coming to Stratford feels like I’ve got a blue tick on Twitter.”
Of course, even now, those years on Family Fortunes are what Dennis is best remembered for. To the extent that few people know about the huge list of stage credits on his CV, and the effusive reviews that came with them.
He finds that frustrating, albeit in the extremely pleasant way that characterises everything he says. “It’s like trying to turn around a massive ship, because we tend to pigeonhole. And I get that, because if you do something like Family Fortunes for 15 years that’s where the public sees you.”
But he also sees his years of sketch comedy with Abbot as his own version of drama school, playing hundreds of roles every week. It was similar to rep, he explains. “The other day Prasanna [Puwanarajah, director of Venice Preserved] said to me: ‘Les, this isn’t your first barbecue’, and I said: ‘It’s not my first barbecue, but it’s my first Michelin-starred barbecue.’ ”
And it’s tough stuff. In The Provoked Wife he plays Colonel Bully, a carousing drunkard who likes a fight – “Very Oliver Reed”, Dennis chuckles – but in Venice Preserved he’s an angry, bitter Venetian senator named Priuli, who has to open the show. Priuli’s daughter Belvidera has married an impoverished nobleman against his character’s wishes, and a revolution
follows. As it happens, the actress playing Belvidera, Jodie McNee, is actually Dennis’ niece.
“Jodie called me when I was in the car and she said,” he puts on a thick Scouse accent, “ ‘Uncle Les, we’re looking for a Liverpool actor to play me Dad. Do you think so and so would do it or so and so…?’ And I went: ‘Hello?’ She didn’t think I’d do it.” In the rehearsal room a couple of weeks ago, McNee and Dennis were talking about their family, reminiscing about when she stayed with him while she was at drama school, and the assistant director suddenly said: “Sorry, are you two related?” Dennis laughs: “She thought we were doing this weird method acting.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
Summer season with Jimmy Tarbuck in Scarborough.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in Burton in Liverpool on Saturdays and the wonderful manager, Mr Gerard, used to let me go early if I had a working men’s club to get to.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That there’s no such thing as imposter syndrome. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I think my mum, because she could see in me something that she had not had a chance to do.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Do everything you can to familiarise yourself with the script. Don’t go in and wing it, because it will show. But I believe directors and casting people shouldn’t expect actors to know it, because the first couple of weeks of rehearsals you’ve got the script anyway. And just breathe.
If you hadn’t been an actor and entertainer, what would you have done?
I might have gone to art school.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’m a pacer. I pace before my scenes. I don’t like to say the name of ‘the Scottish play’. Michael Ball used to get furious with me on Hairspray because I’d always whistle in the dressing room, and he’d make me go and stand outside.
Vanbrugh’s comedy, which director Phillip Breen is doing in full period costume, may seem like a more natural home for the performer, but he’s relishing the seriousness of Venice Preserved. Puwanarajah’s vision is a Blade Runner-inspired 1980s film noir feel, which Dennis is excited about, and the parallels with contemporary politics are striking.
Puwanarajah played a game during one rehearsal. He read out some quotes and asked the cast members to say whether they thought it was about Brexit, or whether it was by Otway. “There was one about knaves, which I thought had to be Otway,” Dennis says enthusiastically, “then Prasanna revealed they were all Brexit, which was really scary.”
He’s keen to do more straight theatre, but part of the problem is that the people who would consider casting Dennis presume he’d be too busy. “When I met Prasanna, he said: ‘You know we thought you might not do it.’ But my imposter syndrome was like: ‘Les Dennis at the RSC? Don’t be ridiculous.’”
Over the years, it feels like Dennis has bared pretty much all he has to bare, and not just on stage. The early 2000s saw his private life spill into endless tabloid headlines. In 2002, when he entered the Big Brother house, his marriage was ending and he had what the press at the time perceived as a breakdown live on TV. Later he gallantly, and searingly, lampooned himself in one of the most iconic scenes from Ricky Gervais’ Extras.
While he acknowledges a gap between his public persona and his private self – “Les Dennis is not Leslie Heseltine, Les Dennis is a persona that I inhabit whenever I have to” – he admits that he’s never really left anything off the table.
“I don’t have any fear about ‘I shouldn’t say this or that’. After Big Brother, the phone didn’t ring for a while, but then Ricky Gervais rang.” He credits that experience on Extras for resuscitating his career. “So I don’t look back to Big Brother and go: ‘Oh that was something I regretted doing.’”
The musicals followed – Hairspray, The Addams Family – and the CV got longer, full of those left turns. Then plays such as last year’s End of the Pier at the Park Theatre Maybe the next step will be finally achieving his own nirvana: doing Shakespeare. Now at the RSC, he’s only a breath away.
While walking through Italy as part of the BBC’s reality show Pilgrimage, Dennis’ friend Katy Brand gave him some advice. “‘A career is in three acts,’ she said. ‘All the stuff with Dustin Gee and Family Fortunes was Act I. Then the middle act was you branching into theatre and doing musicals. And now you’re into the third act and graduating towards…well, maybe Shakespeare, maybe Chekhov, maybe some of those roles in classical theatre that I would
love to play.’ So that’s where I am. That’s me at the moment.”
Born: 1953, Liverpool
• Me and My Girl, Adelphi Theatre, London (1992)
• Skylight, Watermill Theatre, Newbury (1998)
• Art tour (2003)
• End of the Pier, Park Theatre, London (2018)
Agent: Lisa Toogood, United Agents
The Provoked Wife is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, from May 2 to September 7 and Venice Preserved from May 24 September 7. Details are available at: rsc.org.uk