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Celebrity Interview – Les Dennis

Celebrity Interview – Les Dennis
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After an amazing year in which he made his Royal Shakespeare Company debut‭, ‬the all-round entertainer is preparing for a season in panto and he can hardly wait to return to Nottingham‭, ‬a city that has so many fond memories for him‭.‬

When we spoke on the phone Les held nothing back as he told me what made him go into the business in the first place‭, ‬how he credits Ricky Gervais with reviving his career and how he’s determined to return to Stratford to do more serious theatre‭.‬

Les is relishing coming back to Nottingham where he will appear in the Theatre Royal’s festive feast Cinderella‭.‬

“I know Nottingham really well‭. ‬I did panto at the Theatre Royal in 1987‭, ‬Babes in the Wood‭. ‬I was also there not long ago when we did The Addams Family musical and then of course I did Family Fortunes from Lenton Lane‭ (‬Central TV’s studios‭) ‬for many years‭. ‬I used to spend at least three weeks a year in Nottingham‭. ‬

“I love the city‭. ‬I love the atmosphere there‭. ‬It’s a beautiful theatre to work‭, ‬intimate and lovely‭.‬”

In Cinderella Les will be reunited with his Coronation Street nemesis Connor McIntyre‭. ‬In the soap Les played former convict Michael Rodwell while Connor was Pat Phelan‭, ‬regarded by some people as‭ ‬“the ultimate soap baddie”‭. ‬They will team up again in Cinderella as the Ugly Sisters‭, ‬with their characters renamed Phelina and Michaela‭.‬

“It works great‭,‬”‭ ‬says Les‭. ‬“The Uglies aren’t dames‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬it’s men in dresses but they’re the villains‭. ‬Of course when you get two villains there’s always one badder than the other one and that certainly has to be Phelina‭.‬”

The pair were in Cinderella in Manchester last year‭. ‬Now the same show is coming to Nottingham‭. ‬The only difference is that Sooty and Richard Cadell who plays Buttons have been added to the bill‭.‬

Les can hardly wait to work with Connor again‭: ‬“When we were in Corrie we shared a dressing room and when I knew that the end of Michael was going to be at Phelan’s hands‭, ‬I was delighted‭. ‬I thought I would rather that than go off in a taxi to the airport‭. ‬

“Michael was his first victim‭. ‬In a way it was crueller than the others because he didn’t kill me‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬he let me die‭, ‬which is in some ways sadistic and weird‭. ‬But it was great to work with him‭.‬”‭ ‬

Last year’s Cinderella was Connor’s first panto‭: ‬“He said‭ ‬‘I’m completely in your hands’‭,‬”‭ ‬says Les‭. ‬“He let me explain exactly how a gag will work‭. ‬Once he started he took to it like a duck to water‭. ‬I should imagine this year he’ll be teaching me a few things‭.‬”

Les agrees with my assertion that panto is really hard work‭: ‬“It’s two shows a day every day‭. ‬I’ll have a holiday in January‭.‬

“You have a responsibility in panto because the kids are seeing theatre for the first time‭. ‬You’ve got to get it right and you’ve got to make them want to come back again‭.‬”

Leslie Dennis Heseltine was born on 12‭ ‬October 1953‭ ‬in Garston‭, ‬Liverpool‭. ‬When he was 17‭ ‬he went on a school trip to Stratford‭ ‬to see Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and thought‭ ‬“Oh‭, ‬I really want to do this‭.‬”

But he’d already started playing working men’s clubs as a comedian and an actor’s life seemed out of reach when he won the ITV talent show New Faces‭.‬

He joined Russ Abbot on his television show before forming a comedy partnership with fellow impressionist Dustin Gee which ended‭ ‬with Gee’s unexpected death in 1986‭ ‬at the age of 43‭.‬

Les then hosted Family Fortunes for 15‭ ‬years‭. ‬He’d been divorced from his first wife and during the quiz show’s run he married actress Amanda Holden‭.‬

While they were separated Les appeared on Celebrity Big Brother‭. ‬Although he finished runner-up he had what the press perceived‭ ‬as a breakdown live on television‭.‬

Afterwards the phone didn’t ring for a while‭. ‬Then Ricky Gervais offered him a part in his series Extras as a washed-up‭, ‬middle-aged television star who is cuckolded by a younger man‭.‬

“People kept saying it was a brave move but it gave me a chance to show that I’ve got a sense of humour about myself‭. ‬I took it with both hands and it’s opened me to a whole new demographic‭. ‬

“There was a poll recently about which was the best episode of Extras and I’m in the final‭. ‬Which is amazing when you consider you’re knocking out Kate Winslett‭, ‬Samuel L Jackson and people like that‭.‬”

He worked with Gervais again on the series Life’s Too Short with Warwick Davis‭, ‬Keith Chegwin and Shaun Williamson‭. ‬Then‭, ‬in 2014‭, ‬it was announced that Les was joining Coronation Street where he stayed for two-and-a-half years‭.‬

“It was brilliant and I loved it‭. ‬But it got to the stage where I wasn’t allowed to do other things that I wanted to do because you’ve got to commit to Corrie‭. ‬In the end I thought it was time to move on‭.‬

“When I did leave I went straight into The Addams Family and then into other theatre jobs that I really enjoyed‭.‬

“I think if you’ve got a name before you go into a soap‭, ‬you’re not defined by that soap when you come out‭.‬”

In 2014‭ ‬Les showed his acting prowess at Derby Theatre when he played Victor Smiley in Peter James’‭ ‬play The Perfect Murder‭.‬

Then earlier this year Les was cast by the Royal Shakespeare Company in two Restoration plays in its smaller Swan Theatre‭. ‬He played a corrupt senator in the tragedy Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway‭, ‬acting alongside his niece Jodie McNee‭. ‬He was also in John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Provoked Wife‭.‬

“It was a real bucket list job‭,‬”‭ ‬says Les‭. ‬“I had a ball there and worked with some amazing directors and actors‭. ‬It’s like a kitemark‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬suddenly you’ve got‭ ‬‘RSC actor’‭ ‬behind you‭. ‬It kind of makes you more legitimate‭.‬”

He’s also thrilled to have played the lead in a new film‭, ‬Sideshow‭, ‬which the producers are hoping will be released in cinemas next‭ ‬year‭.‬

“I play an ageing clairvoyant‭. ‬We shot it in three weeks in Bristol on a very low budget but it looks amazing‭.‬”

Les is now looking forward to Cinderella which will be watched by all his family‭. ‬He has a grown-up son from his first marriage‭ ‬as well as 11-year-old Eleanor and Tom who is eight‭. ‬He married their mother Claire Nicholson in 2009‭. ‬“They’re a total joy‭,‬”‭ ‬he says‭.‬

In the future he wants to return to Stratford‭: ‬“I did consider going back next season but I just want to do some other things first‭. ‬I haven’t done Shakespeare yet but it’s something I want to do‭.‬”

He’s also in talks on a‭ ‬“really exciting”‭ ‬project‭. ‬“I can’t reveal what that is at the moment but it’s something that’s close to Nottingham’s heart and maybe we’ll bring it here‭.‬”

By this time I’d worked out that Les probably wouldn‘t be offended by anything I asked him‭. ‬So my final question was a bit facetious‭: ‬did he regard playing alongside Sooty in Cinderella as the pinnacle of his career‭?‬

He took it in the spirit it was intended‭: ‬“I’m so excited to work with Sooty‭. ‬And Sweep‭. ‬It is a pinnacle‭. ‬It’s on my bucket list‭.‬”

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