Vegas hopes to hit right notes as he prepares to play his comedy hero

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:23

When Les Dawson walked on to the set of Blankety Blank as the new host of the popular 1980s quiz show, he ruffled more than a few establishment feathers.

A portly Northern comedian with a penchant for gurning and dressing up as a woman, he was a far cry from the more demure figures who might have been lining up for the job on prime-time television. He soon made clear that he would be conducting matters differently by taking his predecessor Terry Wogan's trademark "wand" microphone and breaking it in half, before quipping: "Been wanting to do that for years".

Now, that tense moment of television quiz-show history is to be dramatised by one of Dawson's most ardent fans, the comedian Johnny Vegas, who is to star as his hero in a self-penned 45-minute radio play entitled Chequebook & Pen, which will be aired on BBC Radio 4 this autumn.

According to the comedian's spokeswoman, the play will explore the "fictional battle for the intellectual integrity of Blankety Blank", taking its inspiration from the idea that the BBC's stalwart presenter Nicholas Parsons had designs on the job.

"[Dawson] was an idol of mine. His stand-up was unlike anyone else – and the way he could hold a working men's club in his grasp with gags that went on for 10 minutes was incredible," Vegas told his local newspaper the St Helens Star.

The spokeswoman added: "Johnny Vegas will portray Les Dawson, who subverts the host's role by highlighting the naffness of winning a Blankety Blank chequebook and pen [the prize offered at the end of each quiz-show]. The play sets up the idea that posh Nicholas Parsons should have been the rightful heir to the throne because he represented the traditional BBC."

Parsons will play a version of himself as the "outraged straight man" who had long held an ambition to host the show, proud of its high standards and enviable prizes, before Dawson was enlisted to do the job instead.

Vegas, who hails from St Helens in Merseyside – not far from Dawson's home city of Manchester – is currently writing the play which, while being a far-fetched fictionalised account, does draw on archive material relating to Dawson, as well as Parsons' own "tongue in cheek reminiscences" about the show.

"The play will set up the idea that someone else should have got the job, that Les Dawson got it by mistake and that people might have thought he was compromising its intellectual integrity. He was a rumpled Northern comedian, but ultimately, he broke the mould," Vegas's spokeswoman added.

Vegas grew up watching Dawson on television and has spoken of his admiration for the comedian, putting in an appearance on the 15th anniversary of his death in 2008, when a bronze statue of the comic was unveiled by his widow Tracy and their daughter Charlotte. The statue stands in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, where Dawson had lived for many years.

"He is a massive Les Dawson fan," the spokeswoman said. "He was a Northern, working man who was ahead of his time, and whose comedy could be quite dark at times, like Vegas's work.

"There are lots of Les projects bubbling around at the moment and Johnny Vegas has been offered a few speculatively in the past, but none have gone all the way."

The comedian is working on the play with Andrew Lynch, whose past work for Radio 4 includes The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Mugsborough 1917 and Mugsborough 1926 – all of which featured appearances by Vegas.

Stars who played their idols on screen

Cate Blanchett

The actress was one of six people to play Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, and said she had always been a diehard fan. She said: "I have always loved his music... I watched the press conference he gave in San Francisco in 1965, or whenever it was, and just think, 'I love you'... the worst thing an actor can do is fall in love with someone they're about to portray, but I'm not playing him... It's a riff on who Bob Dylan could possibly be."

Christopher Eccleston

The actor jumped at the chance to play John Lennon in the new BBC film Lennon Naked, because he said he had always been "fascinated" by the former Beatle. In an interview, he said he had done very little research for the role because he had read so many books about his hero already. "Whenever anything came out I bought it, read it, even the shit stuff..."

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