Les Dennis on entering his Shakespearean era in Twelfth Night

By Ian Youngs, Culture reporter

Patch Dolan Les Dennis swinging on a chandelier, wearing a yellow furry jacket with his mouth open inside the theatrePatch Dolan

Les Dennis is playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare North Playhouse

Les Dennis has ticked off almost every high and low possible in a long showbiz career, from prime-time stardom and stage acclaim to reality TV ridicule and tabloid torture. He’s now finally fulfilling one of his last long-held ambitions.

If Taylor Swift thinks her career’s had a lot of eras, she should pop a few miles down the road when her tour reaches Liverpool next week and have a chat with Les Dennis.

Les’s own Eras Tour, if he were to mount one, would be quite a rollercoaster.

It would start with material from 1970s working men’s clubs, then TV’s New Faces – he won the forerunner of Britain’s Got Talent – before impressions from his double act with Dustin Gee (his Mavis from Coronation Street would still send the crowds wild).

“My years with Dustin Gee were incredible,” Dennis says.

However, his comedy partner suffered a heart attack on stage when the pair were appearing in panto in 1986.

“When Dustin died tragically early, at 43, that was a very sad time. I then had to prove myself – that I could do it on my own.”

Dennis reinvented himself as a game show host, fronting Family Fortunes for 15 years. In his downtime, he dipped his toe into serious acting, in plays like a David Hare drama in Newbury and Stephen King’s Misery in Oldham.

“Family Fortunes was really great for me on both levels. I was on Saturday night television 26 weeks a year.

“But we recorded them all in three weeks, which meant that then I could go off and, say, work at the Watermill [theatre] in Newbury for £250 a week.”

grey placeholderLes Dennis and Dustin Gee standing together and smiling in matching pink suits

Dennis continued the Laughter Show solo on BBC One after Dustin Gee’s death

grey placeholderITV/Shutterstock Les Dennis smiling on the Family Fortunes set in 1990ITV/Shutterstock

Dennis presented Family Fortunes from 1987 to 2002

He also became Mr Amanda Holden, marrying the actress and future BGT judge in 1995.

But the story soured five years later when her affair with actor Neil Morrissey put them on the front pages. Dennis was a target of phone-hacking by the News of the World for nine years.

Dubbed “Les Miserables” in the press, an attempt to reboot his image by going on Celebrity Big Brother in 2002 backfired, leading Piers Morgan to write in the Mirror that he was “the most pathetic man in Britain”.

Dennis still finished second, but Big Brother was “not the best” way to reinvent himself, he admits.

“When I came out, I had lots of press stuff with what was going on in my life at that time. Lots of negativity.”

grey placeholderPA Media Les Dennis and Amanda Holden at a film premiere together in 2000PA Media

Dennis and Holden were married from 1995 to 2003

The next reinvention came, he says, when Ricky Gervais asked him to play himself – but a “twisted, demented” and somewhat tragic version – in his sitcom Extras in 2005.

By poking fun at both the real Les and the tabloid caricature, he proved he didn’t take himself seriously, and also that he could act.

More theatre roles followed in musicals like Hairspray and Spamalot, as did a two-year stint in Coronation Street as Michael Rodwell, who burgled then married Gail.

From soap to opera, Dennis appeared in the English National Opera’s production of HMS Pinafore in 2021.

grey placeholderGetty Images Les Dennis wearing false ginger moustache, sideburns and hair, and a decorative naval uniform and hat, alongside co-star John Savournin in a blue uniform during a dress rehearsal of HMS PinaforeGetty Images

Dennis played Sir Joseph in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at the ENO

And at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he appeared alongside his niece Jodie McNee after she suggested him for a role in Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy Venice Preserved.

Last year, Dennis returned to Saturday night TV to take part in Strictly Come Dancing.

Judge Shirley Ballas said she wanted to give him a “10 for entertainment” – but gave him a four for actual dancing, and he was the first contestant to be eliminated.

“The audience loved what I did. I came out first but, you know, I entertained, so that was what I wanted to do.”

grey placeholderLes Dennis and dance partner Nancy Xu both saluting during a routine on Strictly Come Dancing

Dennis’ spell on Strictly last year was short-lived

A natural-born crowd-pleaser, Dennis will always be the cheery, cheeky face of light entertainment. But there’s another side of him that craves credibility.

Trying to be taken seriously as an actor has been “like turning the Titanic around”, he says.

“My wife said, ‘Be careful because the Titanic sank.’ But what I meant by that is, you get pigeonholed, you get put in a box.”

‘Not a sad clown’

Meanwhile, some misconceptions remain from the era when his personal life was in the spotlight, he believes.

“Because I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and I’ve talked about things – being in therapy and that kind of thing – I think there’s a perception that I might be the sad clown.

“But I’m not sad. I’ve got I’ve got a great, wonderful family – my wife Claire and my three kids – who are really supportive.”

grey placeholderGetty Images Claire Nicholson and Les Dennis standing together while guests at a theatre in 2018Getty Images

Dennis married Claire Nicholson in 2009

In recent years, asked in interviews whether he had any ambitions left after that varied career, Dennis would reply that he did – to act in a Shakespeare play.

Now he’s ticking that off the list, playing pompous servant Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, just outside Liverpool.

It’s a play he first saw at the RSC on a school trip school at the age of 17.

“I just was blown away by it. I loved it. The Shakespeare that I was finding difficult to read and understand, suddenly was very clear.”

That experience made him want to act in Shakespeare, but TV came calling first.

“So I’ve gone from 17 to 70 and eventually got here. A long, circuitous route.”

grey placeholderPatch Dolan Head and shoulders of Les Dennis wearing black glasses in the rehearsal room for Twelfth NightPatch Dolan

Les Dennis in the rehearsal room for Twelfth Night

After finally being cast in Shakespeare, he was daunted by the prospect of delivering the Bard’s lines.

“This is the biggest mountain because I was always worried about the iambic pentameter, about blank verse, and not being trained as an actor,” he says.

“There’s a sense of imposter syndrome. I mean, I talk to all actors and they say they all have it anyway – ‘What am I doing here? I’m going to get found out.’

“I was never trained, so I’ve learned on the job.”

Twelfth Night director Jimmy Fairhurst had his own lightbulb moment with Shakespeare when he was at school in Warrington.

“Theatre was never my thing,” he says. “I was playing rugby league.”

He credits an “incredible teacher” with helping him understand and love it – and has brought that same teacher, Stephen Harrington, in to help Les and the rest of the cast.

“He had his teacher at school, who was great,” Dennis says. “He flicked through it and he went, ‘Malvolio only has one speech in blank verse. The rest of it is prose.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s OK then.'”

grey placeholderPatch Dolan Purvi Parmar with one arm in the air in rehearsals as Olivia in Twelfth NightPatch Dolan

Purvi Parmar plays Olivia in Twelfth Night

As well as having a stint as a rugby league player, Fairhurst spent time managing rock bands on tour – which inspired him to set this production of Twelfth Night in music festival season. Shakespeare’s countess Olivia is now a pop star.

“Malvolio being Olivia’s tour manager is perfect,” Dennis says. “He’s obsessed with his job. He does do it well, but he’s a little bit of a jobsworth as well.”

At first, the character is “uptight, serious, buttoned up”, and Dennis has to curb his natural instincts to play up to the crowd.

‘Be less Les’

“That’s difficult for me because I’m an entertainer and I’m when I’m on stage, the first thing I feel I’ve got to do is smile.

“Malvolio is a great part to play, but Jimmy has to keep telling me, ‘Stop the Les Dennis’.”

As the play goes on, Malvolio does become the source – and butt – of comedy, as well as some tragedy.

The actor “does comedy and pathos better than anyone”, Fairhurst enthuses.

“You’ll laugh with him, at him, and he’ll break your heart.”

Put like that, it will be a medley of the many eras of Les Dennis.

Twelfth Night is at the Shakespeare North Playhouse until 29 June.

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