Jon Culshaw on Les Dawson: ‘even his most savage mother-in-law lines were written with love’

Who knew, growing up in the 70s and 80s, that we weren’t watching mere comedians, but the dramatis personae in plays that would one day light up the Edinburgh festival? Bob Monkhouse, Tony Hancock, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams have all had their biographies splayed across the fringe, and this year they’re joined by the great Les Dawson – rubber-faced Blankety Blank host, pretend-bad pianist and purveyor of deathless mother-in-law gags to the nation. And more besides, says actor, impressionist and fellow Lancastrian Jon Culshaw, who’s bringing Dawson (who died in 1993) back to life. “What a wonderful writer he was,” says the Dead Ringers star, “and what a passion for words. I want to remind people of that, and of the affection and warmth of his comedy.”

The solo show in question is called Flying High, and finds Dawson writing his autobiography while on Concorde to a rare Manhattan gig. The writer is Tim Whitnall and the director Bob Golding, re-assembling after their smash hit Morecambe (about Eric), which brought tears of nostalgia to many an eye – mine included – at the fringe in 2009. Whitnall also wrote a recent play about the 1970s singer and TV personality Lena Zavaroni, in which Culshaw starred. The Dawson play focuses in particular on Les’s writing ambitions (he was a novelist as well as a comic), and his circuitous route to fame, from inauspicious beginnings.

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“There’s a lovely line in the play,” says Culshaw, slipping – as he does throughout our interview – into an uncanny Les. “‘All six of us, crammed into that two-up, two-down on Thornton Street, a gaslit hovel so decrepit, the cockroaches go around on stilts’. That’s typical Les: beautiful gag, but so imaginative.” It’s Culshaw’s contention too – contrary to the idea that comedy’s interest in authenticity is a recent phenomenon – that Dawson strived to speak from the heart. “‘Good comedy that comes from within’ was his mantra. It had to mean something; it had to reflect life. Even the most savage mother-in-law lines were written with love in their heart.”

Dawson is just one of scores of characters Culshaw brings to life in the show, including Dawson and Roy Barraclough’s gossipy housewives Cissie and Ada, plus Alan Whicker, Clement Attlee, Charles Dickens and the Opportunity Knocks host Hughie Green, who gave Dawson his break on the show (which Les later presented) in 1967. He was already 36 by then, having worked at the Co-op, as a pianist in a Parisian brothel, as a journalist on the Bury Times and as an electrician. “Which was like a Laurel and Hardy sketch,” says Culshaw. “Everything he touched exploded. He re-wired a pub jukebox and knocked out all the street lighting half a mile into Manchester.”

But it’s not mainly the knockabout comedy that attracted Culshaw to the project, which he initiated. “There was this one time, when a piano tuner came to my brother’s house to give the piano its yearly check-up,” he says. “And my brother asked him, ‘could you just play something, to inspire our son to keep up his practice?’ And this chap said ‘yeah, OK’.”

“And I think he just improvised, he noodled around some chords. But it was the most beautiful thing. And I just thought: I bet when Les Dawson played his piano at home – and Tracy, his wife, told me he used to play it every day – I bet it sounded like that! Really emotional; something really quite beautiful about it. And that made me think: we’ve got to get this show on the road.” And play piano as part of it? Culshaw hesitates. “I have vowed to start taking lessons,” he promises. “And for now, I can mime it quite nicely …”

But, let’s face it, no one’s coming to Flying High for Culshaw’s piano abilities. His extraordinary mimicry skills have been a fixture on the airwaves for almost 30 years, since his work on Spitting Image in the mid-1990s. He can summon a famous person into the room (a Boris Johnson, a Gove, a Tom Baker) in a way that resembles spiritualism more closely than entertainment. I wonder, though, where that leaves him when shows such as Flying High come around. Can audiences ever get past his impressions to appreciate his acting too?

“A Dead Ringers sketch, that’s a bank job,” he replies: “you’re in, you’re out, you’re playing for exaggeration and aiming for the punchline. Doing an acting piece like this, telling a full story, it’s like changing up into a higher gear. You’re aiming for the nuggets of truth rather than gags. Les Dawson would probably say” – here he comes again – “‘it’s like a comedy sketch with O-levels’. You can go in deeper and use different parts of your brain.”

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Characteristically, for a man happiest when hiding behind his thousand voices, Culshaw has dodged the question about how he’s perceived. He prefers talking about Dawson, Barry Cryer, Mike Yarwood – that postwar generation of entertainers about whom we just can’t stop writing (and watching) plays. “I just think it’s this rich period, full of characters like this, who paid their dues and worked the clubs. I do think it makes for a lovely golden era” – all the more nostalgic, perhaps, at a festival, and in a time not known for the breaks it affords to working-class talent.

But maybe that’s the point. “We’re in a period,” says Culshaw, “where the warmth of Les’s comedy is quite welcome. It’s like an old uncle coming to visit when you’re feeling perplexed and uncertain.” Just as Les’s jokes came from the heart, so too does Culshaw’s enthusiasm for Dawson and his work. “I hope everyone who sees this show feels that warm glow too.”