Les Dawson

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Les Dawson (2 February 1931 – 10 June 1993) was a popular English comedian, remembered for his deadpan style, curmudgeonly persona and jokes about his mother-in-law and wife.


Life and career

Raised in the Collyhurst district of Manchester, Dawson began his entertainment career as a pianist in a Parisian brothel (according to his entertaining but factually unreliable autobiography). As a club pianist ("I finally heard some applause from a bald man and said 'thank you for clapping me' and he said 'I'm not clapping - I'm slapping me head to keep awake'"), he was to find that he got laughs by playing wrong notes and complaining to the audience. He made his television debut on the talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1967 and became a prominent comic on British television for the rest of his life.

His most characteristic routines featured Roy Barraclough and Dawson as two elderly women, Cissie Braithwaite and Ada Shufflebotham. Cissie had pretensions of refinement and often corrected Ada's malapropisms or vulgar expressions. As authentic characters of their day, they spoke some words aloud but only mouthed others, particularly those pertaining to bodily functions and sex. At one time, no respectable woman would have said, for instance, "She's having a hysterectomy." Instead they would have mouthed, "She's having women's troubles." (Dawson's character, of course, mistakenly said "hysterical rectomy.") These female characters were based on those Les Dawson knew in real life. He explained that this mouthing of words was a habit of millworkers trying to communicate over the tremendous racket of the looms, and then resorted to in daily life for indelicate subjects. To further portray the reality of northern, working-class women, Cissie and Ada would sit with folded arms, occasionally adjusting their bosoms by a hoist of the forearms. Many of the Cissie and Ada sketches were written by Terry Ravenscroft. This was also typical of pantomime dame style, an act copied faithfully from his hero, Norman Evans, who had made famous his act Over The Garden Wall.

Les Dawson was of portly build and often dressed in the traditional 'John Bull' of England costume. He introduced to his BBC television shows a dancing group of very fat ladies called the Roly Polys.

He loved to undercut his own fondness for high culture. For example, he was a talented pianist but developed a gag where he would begin to play a familiar piece such as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. After he had established the identity of the piece being performed, Dawson would introduce hideously wrong notes (yet not to the extent of destroying the identity of the tune) without appearing to realise that he had done so, meanwhile smiling unctuously and apparently relishing the accuracy and soul of his own performance. He also used a grand piano in a series of sketches where it became animated, for example, trying to walk away from him across the stage, collapsing or shutting its lid.

Dawson's style as a comic performer was world-weary, lugubrious and earthy. He was as popular with female as with male audiences, and genuinely loved by the British public. A news reporter from The Sun looking for him after a show to interview him found him backstage joking with some cleaning women and making them laugh.

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