Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Lionel Blair, entertainer

'I tap danced from the age of three'
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The Independent Online

Lionel Blair, 74, is a dancer, singer and actor. His television work includes Give Us a Clue, Name That Tune and Crossroads. He played the Child Catcher in the West End show Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and his album, Blair Sings Astaire, came out two years ago. He will be hosting Simply Ballroom, the dance spectacular that starts its UK tour in Milton Keynes on 30 January ( www.qdosentertainment.com).

When I first had an agent, at about 10 or 11, I thought they'd send me to Hollywood. I'm still waiting for the call! I was born in Montreal and my father put us down for the immigration quota to America, but my mother, who had me very young, at 19, was homesick and we returned to Tottenham in north London when I was a year old. I often wonder what would have happened if my family had gone to America. Would I still have gone into show business? I think I would.

I remember my first day at Crowland Road school. At playtime, I went into the senior, rather than the junior, cloakroom and couldn't find my coat. A teacher found me in floods of tears. It was so traumatic, I can't tell you.

Then I went to Craven Park school, and that's where I met the comedians Mike and Bernie Winters. (Bernie was the best man at my wedding, and my wife and I are going to Barbados with his widow, Ziggi, who was one of my dancers.) When I was 10 or 11, Craven Park school closed down and I went to Egerton Road school in Stamford Hill. That was my last school.

I was pretty indifferent to school: they just didn't think like I thought. At school, they laughed when my mother said I was going into show business, which didn't exist where we lived: my father was a barber. I was not a very good student: my mind was always on show business. The highest I ever got to in class was third. I liked composition and spelling bees, and I quite liked art. I hated mental arithmetic; my wife does all that sort of thing now. I didn't play cricket and football; when there was a school concert, I sang and danced. I was sent up a lot: "'Oo do you think you are?"

I could tap dance at the age of three. My mother used to meet my sister Joyce and me from school and we'd go to the pictures. We'd see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films - and that's what we wanted to do. We performed at weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs. When I was eight, Joyce and I entered a talent contest at the Alexander Theatre, Stoke Newington - and they liked us so much they kept us on for a week.

When I was 10 or 11, I remember going up to the West End with my parents and looking round the shops. We passed a building full of offices, one of them called the Lionel Wallace Agency. I said, "That's my name!". I went up to the agency, where they took a shine to me and put me up for Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I played him at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.

I left school at 12 and would be looked after on tour by a "matron" who gave us maths and spelling tests in the afternoon. That was my schooling, with shows in the evening. When I was 13, I didn't have any more lessons. But my god, I learnt a lot about life in my job. And Shakespeare. If I had done Shakespeare at school, it would have been boring, but I was actually doing Hamlet - at 15, I was the Player Queen - and The Taming of the Shrew, the "Scottish play" and Richard II. But there was one play at Stratford that the director wouldn't even let me watch because it was too naughty: Ben Jonson's Volpone. I've always wanted to play Mosca, Volpone's younger sidekick, but I'm old enough to play Volpone. I always say that I'm 49 plus VAT.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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