LES DAWSON was described more than once as the best-loved fat man in Britain. But his place in the national heart owed more to wit than girth. At his best he was the most original and unexpected of stand-up comics, combining the coolness and command of Jack Benny with the studied misanthropy of WC Fields, his hero.
It might seem odd to compare a Northern comic with his roots in traditional English music hall to a couple of American legends. But the world-weary, self-deprecating nature of his stand-up act was essentially far more New York Jewish than Manchester Working Men's. His use of language was unique among his generation of comedians. The joy of seeing Dawson on form was always the bizarre spectacle of such an extravagant narrative flow emitting from this tubby little troll with the face of a squashed tomato. It was as if the body of Sir Toby Belch had been inhabited by the spirit of Malvolio.
Dawson was born and brought up in Collyhurst, a working-class suburb of Manchester, where his bricklayer father struggled to find work during the Depression. The podgy schoolboy, nicknamed Dossy, dreamed of becoming a famous writer, spurred on by an enthusiastic English teacher. But he left school at 14 and found employment in the parcels department of the Manchester Co-op. The same conflict between aspiration and expediency dogged him to the end.
The nearest the young Dawson came to a literary career was a brief spell on the Bury Times, cut short after he submitted a funeral report that began, 'On a rain-swept plateau the mourners huddled together as the cold, grey mist embraced them in its clammy shroud . . .' The editor was more concerned about his readers' sensibilities than his reporters' claims to literary expression, so Dossy got the boot.
In the time it took to establish himself as a comedian, he sold vacuum cleaners, washed dishes, did his National Service and played the piano in the bar of a Parisian bordello. So naive was the young romantic, it was weeks before he realised what went on upstairs. His job was to dissuade customers from lingering in the bar, not to entertain them.
Dispiriting as it was, the time in Paris taught him two important lessons in life. You don't become a writer simply by exposing yourself to foreign climes - the creative spur comes from within. Also, a competent pianist can attract far more attention by playing badly.
The familiar Dawson persona - grim-faced, gravel-voiced, determinedly glum - evolved out of desperation. He had already started to relieve the tedium of a routine day job by appearing in Northern pubs and clubs at night, as a pianist and a singer, throwing in the odd joke. The reception had been so dire at one club in Hull, he decided the only way he could face the audience was to consume a large amount of alcohol beforehand. When the curtain went up, the audience beheld Dawson, slumped over the piano, unable to move or, indeed, remember what he was meant to be doing. He started to improvise, insulting the venue, the audience and life in general. To his amazement he brought the house down. As he said, years later, the next morning he awoke with a splitting headache and the germ of an act.
The writer Arthur Hopcraft remembers seeing Dawson in Manchester clubs in the 1960s when he was beginning to make a name for himself. 'He wore Albert Tatlock carpet slippers and a cardigan. His routine flowed from a North Country life which hadn't really existed for about 50 years, a world of clogs, shawls and mothers-in-law with no teeth. What was so unusual was that here was a big fat, heavy slob of a man but with a very sensitive mind.'
Often regarded by his detractors as a purveyor of cheap mother-in-law jokes which bordered on the misogynist, Dawson was always happiest and most effective with his mock-Victorian flights of fancy, revealing the frustrated writer behind the clown's mask. A typical Dawson monologue would begin, 'I was vouchsafed this little message from the gin-sodden lips of a pock-marked lascar in the arms of a frump in a Huddersfield bordello . . .' He believed words were funnier than gags, and that vivid imagery could be lifted and witticised by the right verbal emphasis. Much thought and preparation and scholarship went into his best work.
He boasted a library of some 4,000 books in his palatial house in Lytham St Anne's, and his literary taste ranged from Trollope to Raymond Chandler. His friend Alan Plater, who adapted Trollope for the BBC's Barchester Chronicles, recalls that it was Dawson who turned him on to Trollope in the first place. 'When the BBC approached me to adapt the Barset novels, I hadn't actually read any of them, but I remembered Les saying they were good. I read the lot with his voice in the background.'
Dawson wasn't content to remain an aspiring novelist with nothing to show for it. He produced 12 books, most recently a Chandler pastiche, Well Fared, My Lovely. His autobiography, A Clown Too Many (1986), was probably the most successful, certainly the most honest. On his way to some projected literary Valhalla - 'a blockbuster like Gone With the Wind' - he came up with A Time Before Genesis (1986), a maniacal vision of Britain under the spell of a Satanist conspiracy. The Observer commented that it would have benefited from what John Betjeman once described as 'the gentle mockery of good friends'. Dawson, well aware of the pitfalls of literary dilettantism, would not have been offended by such a remark. 'I don't mind what the critics say,' he once told me, 'so long as I get some reaction. The worst thing is to be ignored.'
He was, of course, used to mixed criticism for his television appearances. In the late 1960s he was the critics' darling, with the long-running Sez Les - the series he landed after winning Opportunity Knocks in 1967. But the favour faded with Alan Plater's series The Loner, three short plays in which Dawson inhabited other characters for the first time, and a quasi-Hancock series written by Galton and Simpson, which invited too many comparisons with the Lad from Cheam. Unlike Hancock, whom he greatly admired, Dawson was invariably funniest as himself.
Hence the huge success of his stint on Blankety Blank, which went from being another mindless quiz show to becoming a vehicle for his po-faced put-downs. 'I've got your picture on my mantelpiece,' he would growl at a celebrity guest. 'It keeps the children away from the fire.' He delighted in the fact that contestants used to leave their trophies - ornamental bird cages, exotic rugs, etc - in the BBC foyer as they left, and he saw the show's downfall as the introduction of prizes worth winning.
His career took another unexpected turn in 1991 when he appeared in drag (not for the first time) to play the centenarian Nona in an Argentinian play of that name on BBC2. While her family's fortunes disintegrated in the wake of the Falklands debacle, Nona's voracious appetite never ceased. It was more grotesque than funny, but Dawson's performance was highly praised. There was tantalising talk of a television screenplay based on the character Falstaff which, sadly, never materialised.
Dawson always denied that he was the clown with aspirations to play Hamlet. There was no doubt, however, that he felt uncomfortable in the confines of his variety bandbox. He told one interviewer: 'You do something you're really quite proud of, and the public doesn't like it. Then you do something that perhaps you're not at all happy with and the public loves it. And that's the moment of truth, because it's the audience that's the final judge.'