Gone for 20 years - but legend Les’ laughter lives on

Tracy and Charlotte Dawson by the statue of Les Dawson on St Annes promenade.
Tracy and Charlotte Dawson by the statue of Les Dawson on St Annes promenade.
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Les Dawson gave his last interview on June 9, 1993, on a Radio 4 programme called In The Psychiatrists Chair.

It was the day before he died but if he was feeling under the weather, he didn’t show it.

Asked if there was a history of drinking in his family, he answered: “Oh yes. To give you an example a few days after my father died you could smell his breath at the inquest. In fact the only flowers that grew on his grave were hops.”

Classic Dawson.

He was also asked about death and his relationship with second wife Tracy, who he had married four years earlier. He was 59 at the time, Tracy 42. “Yes there is a few years difference between us and it’s obviously on the cards that I’ll go before she does, but the point is while we’re here we’ll have a very happy time.”

The next day Les drove to a Manchester hospital for a check up. As they sat waiting to be seen, he asked Tracy to buy some coffee and a newspaper. When she returned, he was dead. He had suffered a massive heart attack.

Exactly 20 years later, Tracy and Charlotte - an eight-month-old baby at the time of her dad’s death - will lay flowers at the statue of Les in St Annes, to mark the anniversary.

For Tracy, it is hard to believe it’s been two decades since she lost the man she loved and she talks about their time together as if it all happened yesterday.

She describes how they met – she worked behind the bar at the St Ives Hotel, Les came in for a drink. “I said to him ‘are you Bernard Manning?’ because a friend told me he was. Les replied ‘no I’m bloody not’. We got talking because he had lost his wife Meg through cancer, and I’d just lost my mum from the same disease,” said Tracy.

Both going through bad times – Tracy had lost her father in a car crash just before her mum died – they shared their stories of heartbreak and soon fell for one another.

But Les was a huge star at the time, one of the biggest comedians in the country, so dating wasn’t easy.

“It was a bit incognito at first. We did most of our courting in the car and ended up eating KFC most nights – I ballooned about four dress sizes,” Tracy said.

“Mo from the Roly Poly’s had a hotel in South Shore. She had an apartment in the basement and we used to go there. She’d bang her foot on the floor if the press came in and we’d wait for the all clear.

“Eventually something came out in the papers and Les said ‘sod it, I’m not bothered’. We did a load of interviews, people realised it was genuine and we got sent chocolates and flowers.

“It was classed as beauty and the beast and Les would say ‘why are you calling her a beast?’”

The couple married at the White Church in 1989 and packed plenty into four years of married life.

They travelled the world twice and Tracy was with Les when he performed two shows in New York.

But it was the simple pleasures he adored most. “Because he was on the road so much, his idea of a wonderful day was being at home and having a cooked meal, nothing fancy,” added Tracy.

“He’d never say ‘let’s go to Lytham. If we went out it was to Blackpool. We’d often just wander along the prom. He loved that. He took a notebook and watched people, that’s where he’d get his material.

“He was a great observer and he loved the people of Blackpool.

“We’d go to the bingo – he loved it, said it was therapeutic – often the Mandarin for a nice Chinese, then on to the Galleon or the Dutchman in the town centre. All the entertainers went in there and Les loved it, he could just be himself.”

There was a reason for Les’ love of the resort. “Don’t believe the myth about him getting famous after appearing on Opportunity Knocks – he made it at the ABC,” said Tracy.

The ABC in the old day was a big theatre, before it became the Syndicate nightclub.

Les was added to the bill of a show at the last minute after another comedian fell ill. The show was screened live on TV, Les earned a standing ovation and it was after that the work began to really roll in.

“Before that he’d been doing the clubs around Manchester with Bernard Manning and Foo Foo Lamarr. They bought a bread van and used to go from gig to gig in it,” said Tracy.

“Les actually finished second on Opportunity Knocks, behind a female singer, and carried on playing the clubs.

“But after the ABC show he was headline news and that made him. It’s why he moved to St Annes. He felt he owed everything to Blackpool.”

After hitting the big-time, Les starred in his own TV series on both the BBC and ITV throughout the 70s and 80s and hosted Blankety Blank.

He was married to first wife Meg at the time. They had three children – Julie, Pamela and Stuart.

It was after Meg died following a lengthy battle with illness that he fell for Tracy.

Charlotte, their daughter, arrived in October 1992. He made home videos and photo albums for his daughter, almost as if he knew she wouldn’t know her dad for long.

“It’s sad that I never got to know him but I do feel lucky that he’s left such a brilliant legacy,” said Charlotte, who turns 21 later in the year.

“A lot of people just have a photograph or two to remember their loved ones by. I have all these television shows and Youtube clips and I’m so proud people still seem to love him today.” For Tracy, the loss of her husband, so soon after her parents, was hard to take.

“I wouldn’t go out. I got my sister to do my shopping,” she admitted. “ I suffered from alopecia and had a breakdown. It was just the shock - that horrible, horrible shock when someone dies so suddenly.”

Les was 59 when he died. What do you miss most about him I ask? “He was the kindest person, never had a bad word about anybody, always happy, always saw the funny side,” she says. “Every day you woke up and it was a pleasure.

“We had a wonderful time and although we weren’t together as long as I’d have liked, I feel so lucky to have had him in my life.”

Last week, two decades on from his passing, a hologram of Les Dawson was used for the ITV show An Audience That Never Was. Seven million viewers tuned in and it was the third-most watched programme of the day behind X-Factor and The Voice.

Les may no longer be around but his humour lives on and his popularity shows no signs of diminishing.

Twenty years after his death, that is the ultimate epitaph to a man who will go down as one of the all-time comic greats – and a great husband and father as well.