'I envy the fact you got closer than I did,' said Henry, totally without envy. This was a reference to a trilogy of half-hour television plays I wrote for Les in 1975. Its collective title, The Loner, was his idea. The central character lived halfway up a hill in a small Pennine town. Each story began with our hero, a quiet and melancholy man called Dawson, leaving the house and walking into a small adventure. At the end, he walked home again.
Our favourite episode was called Dawson's Brief Encounter, a gentle parody of the famous original with flattened vowels. Two middle-aged romantics meet in a downmarket snack bar where the waitress, challenged about the congealed skin on the custard, replies: 'That's the goodness floating to the top.' They graduate to a pub, where a juke-box suddenly and miraculously fills the bar with Gregorian chant. It was a fragile piece, and light years removed from the mighty anthology of mother-in-law jokes that dominate the Dawson bequest to the nation. After all, this is the man who gave us: 'I'm not saying the mother-in-law's fat but she hung her bloomers out to dry and a camel made love to them.'
Nor were wives exempt. 'The missus is in the bar. You can't miss her, she's in her Gestapo uniform.'
On the face of it he was politically as incorrect as it was possible to imagine. His explanation was simple: 'All men are terrified of women.' (Though the women in his life adored him, including his mother-in-law). But there were complexities and an edge of darkness that we only glimpsed in the stand-up routines. He was Falstaff rather than Hamlet, but the mature Falstaff, who knows about rejection.
His stage act was in the classic Northern tradition of Dave Morris, Jimmy James and Norman Evans, but he added extra dimensions of hyperbole. 'I took the wife on a cruise. I'm not saying the ship was old but it had a thatched funnel.'
He was besotted with the English language and drew on sources as diverse as W C Fields and Anthony Trollope. In a Scarborough summer season, I heard a routine that ran, from memory: 'I went for a walk through a beautiful forest. And in the heart of the forest I suddenly beheld an enchanted garden. Roses, tipped with dew, nodded in a gentle breeze. Buttercups and daisies formed a carpet at my feet, bumble bees and butterflies hung upon the fragrant air. In the corner of the garden I spied an old man, bending over at his labours, tending a flower bed, a kaleidoscopic rainbow of carnations. He saw me and stood up, weary from his toil, yet clearly proud of the beauty he had created. 'Prithee tell me,' I said, looking at his wrinkled face lined with the wisdom of the ages. 'What is the secret of this enchanted garden? What is the miracle that has made this possible? What is the mystic spell you cast upon this place?' He smiled at me gently and yelled, 'Horse-muck]' '
It is a comic device shared by comedians and playwrights: seeing how big you can blow up the balloon before you burst it.
Les was the reason I wrote Barchester Chronicles. One evening in Yorkshire Television's bar, he hectored me because I had never read Trollope: 'You should read him, young Plater, he's exactly right for the likes of you.'
He was a writer at heart, observant, endlessly curious about people, a devout worshipper in the temples of the bizarre. At matinees on rainy afternoons in Bridlington, he said, 'you could see the dampness rising from the wet raincoats like mist on the marshes'. He was baffled that people should holiday there from choice, and one day stopped a family on the promenade to ask them:
'Why do you come here?'
The Yorkshire matriarch replied:
'Well Mr Dawson, the thing we like about Bridlington is it's so flat.'
He was blessed with a writer's innocence. As a young man he went to Paris, because that's what writers did. He ended up playing piano in a brothel, then came home in despair and became a standard issue comedian on the Northern club circuit: a song, a smile and a piano. 'If they liked you, they let you live.'
It is part of the legend that he found his true performing self during a dismal week playing a trawlermen's club in Hull. 'There were all these lads, fresh from the Arctic. Their hair and eyelashes were still caked with ice. They hated me and I don't blame them.' Halfway through the week Les abandoned his cheerfulness and told the audience he hated them, himself and the universe: an uncontrolled, alcohol-induced celebration of gloom. The audience loved it. Les sailed to glory on a sea of melancholy and arguably invented alternative comedy en route.
The climax of his stage act was a thing of beauty and hysteria for ever. He would sit at the piano and invite the audience to join in a medley of old favourites. Once the audience was singing, he would change the key and the tempo, filling the air with fractured harmonies and discords, shouting: 'Come on, sing up, you all know this one]'
He would smile, beatifically, through the conspiracy of escalating chaos, as if suspecting that Norman Evans, W C Fields and Anthony Trollope were up in the gods, doing their best to join in the chorus; and, for all practical purposes, they were.
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