The Dawson Watch – Simply Media DVD Review

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Les Dawson’s road to television stardom was a long and rocky one. Born in Collyhurst, Manchester in 1934, Dawson pursued numerous dead-end jobs whilst attempting to break into the comedy world.  After many false starts, thanks to a spot on Opportunity Knocks his luck slowly began to change.

His own show – Sez Lez – which ran on Yorkshire Televison from 1969 to 1976 was key in establishing his brand of entertaining miserablism.  Whilst some of the early editions were a bit thin comedy-wise, the arrival of a crop of experienced writers such as Barry Cryer and David Nobbs gave the show a considerable boost.  Having John Cleese as a regular co-star for a while didn’t hurt either.

Whilst with Yorkshire, Dawson also appeared in The Loner (scripted by Alan Plater) and Dawson’s Weekly (penned by Galton and Simpson) so he didn’t lack for heavyweight writers. Throw in a number of one-off specials, guest spots on other people’s programmes and appearances on panel shows such as Joker’s Wild and Celebrity Squares and it’s fair to say that by the mid seventies Dawson had well and truly arrived.

His defection to the BBC in 1977 wasn’t a shock on the same level as the departure of Morecambe and Wise to Thames, but it still raised a few eyebrows.  Lacking his familiar group of writers (even though they would have been happy to continue working with him) Dawson’s first BBC starring venture – imaginatively titled The Les Dawson Show – turned out to be something of a damp squib.

The writers – including Eddie Braben and a young David Renwick – were strong, but in some respects it seemed to be little more than a Sez Lez rehash (Les interacting with guest stars – such as Lulu – plus regular spots for singers and dancers).  The time was clearly right for Les to do something a little different next time and so The Dawson Watch (1979 – 1980) was born.

Dawson’s monologues (which he wrote himself, the sketches tended to be penned by other writers) often railed at life’s follies, so a series in which Les examined a different hot topic each week (Housing, Transport, Money, etc) was something which played to his strengths.

Along with a new writing team – Ian Davidson as script editor, Terry Ravenscroft and Andy Hamilton providing the sketches – the show began to take shape.  The Dawson Watch has the air of a consumer programme in which Les introduces sketches illustrating the topic of the week whilst moving around a studio packed with high-tech equipment (well, high-tech for the late seventies) and attractive young ladies pushing buttons.

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It’s fair to say that the first series was a learning experience for all concerned.  Dawson seemed a little ill-at-ease in the first programme, only coming to life when he began to banter with the audience about where they live.  Once he does that – and presumably starts to go off-script – he visibly perks up.  Although there’s plenty of new material in his monologues, several old favourites (“until I was fifteen, I thought that knives and forks were jewellery”) also receive airings.

There are so many gems which can be mined from Dawson’s routines, such as this bleak portrait of Christmas.  Les confided that he could “only remember being given one Christmas present by my father. It was a do-it-yourself electric train set. Turned out to be a roll of fuse wire and a platform ticket”.

Possibly the major failing of the first series is the fact that Dawson doesn’t appear in many of the sketches.  Familiar faces such as Cosmo Smallpiece and Cissie and Ada do pop up, but most of the sketches are handled by others.  There’s certainly some very talented performers on view during these early shows – Sam Kelly, Johnny Ball, Michael Knowles, John Junkin, Patrick Newell, Terence Alexander, David Lodge, Andrew Sachs – but it would have been much more enjoyable had we seen Dawson playing off against them.

However, one of Les’ early sketch appearances (with Roy Barraclough as Cissie) is a Dawson classic.

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.
ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.
CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?
ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.
CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?
ADA: See it? We were never off it.

Clearly lessons had been learned for series two as Dawson takes a much more central role in the sketches whilst Vicki Michelle (as one of the computer girls) proved to be a welcome additon to the line-up. The girls in the first series were rarely called upon to be anything more than mute and attractive – acting simply as fodder for Dawson’s remarks – but Michelle possessed the comic chops to be able to engage in banter with him (which made Les’ lecherous advances seem a little less uncomfortable).

The astonishing roster of familiar faces making guest appearances during series one was reduced for the second and third series.  As was more common with series of this type, a “rep” of performers was used instead – Roy Barraclough headed the list, with Daphne Oxenford and Gordon Peters amongst the other regulars.

The formula remained the same for the third and final series (broadcast in 1980 and culminating with a Christmas Special discussing the obvious topic of Christmas). Vicki Michelle wasn’t featured so prominently, although one of her future Allo, Allo! co-stars, Kirsten Cooke, made a few appearances whilst it was also nice to see the likes of George Sweeney and Michael Keating.

Compared to some of his contemporaries, such as Mike Yarwood and Dick Emery, Les Dawson is very well represented on DVD. Virtually all of his surviving ITV material can be purchased from Network whilst this release from Simply constitutes a welcome chunk of his later BBC work. Hopefully more will surface in the future.

Whilst some aspects of Dawson’s humour haven’t aged well, there’s still so much of interest here – his wonderfully crafted monologues, the impressive parade of supporting actors – to make it easy for me to wholeheartedly recommend this release.

The Dawson Watch consists of nineteen 30 minute episodes spread across three discs (six, six, seven) and is subtitled. It’s released tomorrow (4th March 2019) by Simply Media and can be ordered directly here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

 

 

Sez Les – Series Four, Show Six

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Several times during the last series, Les took to the streets in order to confound the residents of Leeds with some hidden camera stunts. This idea gets another outing today – he’s disguised as a German tourist – although as before it’s difficult to believe that he wasn’t identified. This quibble not withstanding, the grimy film sequence does provide a brief window into a vanished world, so it’s of interest from that standpoint.

Today’s first studio sketch is a little different from the norm. It’s mainly just Dawson (as a police sergeant) on the phone to someone who may or may not be royalty. The answer to this question is provided when one of his colleagues walks in with a polo mallet. A break from the slapstick seen previously, but it’s hardly a rib-tickler. One innovation is that the same set is used again in part two for another sketch.

American singer Esther Marrow impresses with a rendition of the Love The One You’re With. The performance is given a little extra punch by the way that the camera moves around – at one point it’s positioned behind her, giving the viewers an unusual shot of the watching audience.

The Skylarks are back! With the assistance of the Syd Lawrence Orchestra they chug very nicely through We’re In The Money. Although since the Denys Palmer dancers were dressed in stockings and suspenders I’m afraid my attention wandered a bit …

After the break there’s something of a curio. Dawson had made a few attempts to break into the music business, but he would never enjoy the success of some of his contemporaries such as Ken Dodd. Promise Me, released by Decca in 1971, failed to set the charts alight but it’s still interesting to hear it (the song accompanies a filmed item featuring the journey taken by Dawson and his significant other – from childhood sweethearts to old age pensioners).

Peter Noone pops up with a jaunty version of the Buddy Holly classic I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.

Although the audience were generally very warmly approving towards Dawson’s convoluted monologues, occassionly the odd line fell flat. This happens today (“Pilbeam Bottlecrud was a strange looking woman. She was short, fat and always wore a black dress. When you first met her it was like shaking hands with a ginger beer”). But there’s something about the way Dawson pauses to acknowledge the sparse laughter, raises an eyebrow and then presses on which keeps the audience on his side.

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show Five

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The fun starts right from the opening few seconds, as Les comes crashing through the YTV indent! Kenny Everett later did this with the Thames logo, but did anybody do it before Les, I wonder? It’s only a throwaway gag, but the concept of disrupting the established grammar of televison is an unusual one for this era of Sez Les – the surviving episodes so far tend to contain much more traditional comic fare.

The fact that Dawson wears the same suit and tie each week when delivering his monologues and links is slightly intriguing me. Did he only have the one suit and tie or was it because all his studio work was shot over a short period and then spread out through the whole series? The Two Ronnies did something similar when they had regular musical guests (that way the artist wouldn’t have to return week after week). Possibly Louis Barfe’s excellent book on Les Dawson might contain some of the answers, I think I’ll have to dig it out for a re-read.

Roy Barraclough returns to the fold in a sketch which features him and Les as a pair of clerical artists. It’s another cheaply mounted studio skit – the countryside is represented by a painted backdrop and some sound effects – which relies on wordplay to begin with. Although it doesn’t take long before it descends into slapstick (like most of the S4 sketches have done) with the pair putting more paint on each other than on their canvases. I’d have preferred more wordplay than slapstick, to be honest. The chief pleasure I derive from this sketch is watching Les’ inability to keep a straight face as he gets messier and messier.

The lovely Aimi Macdonald returns for another large-scale song and dance number. And very nice it is too. Les’ other guest today is New World. If you’re a Two Ronnies fan then they should be familar (the previous year they had guested throughout the first series). As with their Two Rons appearances, NW offer a very laid back performance, although they seem to be cut off a little abruptly.

Dawson’s monologue today is all about love.

The one person who loved me was my grandfather. He stood six foot four and had a hamster. He was a boyhood dream, he was a Red Indian chief and he came from the Who-Ha-He-Ha tribe. So called because they used to run through long grass with no underpants on.

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show Four

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The lovely Aimi Macdonald is one of this week’s guests. She performs a song with the backing of both the Syd Lawrence Orchestra and the Denys Palmer dancers. It’s a big production number – at one point the dancers move away to a separate set – so it seems that most of the budget for this show was spent right here (today’s sketch by contrast is a simple affair – only utilising a small set).

David Mallet continues to pull out some unusual camera angles – during this sequence there’s a series of crane shots, for example – which helps to give the performance a little more impact. As do the few clothes which Aimi just about manages to wear ….

Given her skills as a comedy performer, it made sense to recruit her for the sketch (and probably saved a little money too). The premise is simple – Aimi is a hotel guest who has lodged her toe in the bathtap and Les is the helpful plumber who comes to assist her. She’s naturally a little reluctant to let him in, but is reassured when he tells her that he’ll be blindfolded the whole time.

There’s something a little queasy about this sketch. Not only the way that Dawson “accidentally” drops his tools into the bath so that he’s got an excuse to give Aimi a quick fondle, but also the final reveal – when we realise that Dawson was only blindfolded in one eye (he gives the camera a self-satisfied leer to hammer this point home). Not something that’s aged very well then although neither has the brief musical skit featuring Les as a Chinaman(!).

Ah well, there are better pickings elsewhere – a few brief film sketches amuse, my favourite being the one featuring two doctors operating on a car … they eventually extract a baby car. Silly, but amusing.

Today’s other guests are The Peddlers. No, me neither, but they’re good fun – a musical trio who favour the organ very highly. I’m going to have to dig into their history, this website looks to be a good place to start.

One of Les’ monologues is directed towards a familiar subject – marriage. It offers a selection of choice cuts, such as this one.

I was reading a horror story the other day, it was a terrifying account of a man who was trapped under a ton of whale blubber. And it reminded me it was me wedding anniversary. That’s ten years, which is a decade, and you’ve never seen such a decayed looking woman.

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show Three

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This week’s sketch features Les as a myopic waiter in a curiously empty restaurant. Either this was done for comic effect or it was simply because the show couldn’t afford any extras. Never mind, it’s not long before two customers (played by Hugh Walters and Joan Savage) wander in. From the moment she opens her mouth for the first time it’s clear that she’s the dominant one (no surprises there, since Walters excelled at playing hen-pecked and inconspicuous types). It’s always a joy to see Walters – but his one-off appearance as a Dawson stooge makes it clear that, as yet, Sez Les didn’t have a regular group of comic performers (Roy Barraclough would later fill one of those roles, but at present he was only one face amongst many).

Dawson – dressed in an impossibly small waistcoat – creates the expected level of comic mayhem due to his inability to see anything at all. He affects an Italian accent for a few seconds before dropping it (although there doesn’t seem to be any comic reason for this). Since Savage is so incredibly shrill and annoying it’s no surprise that the audience approves when most of the food ends up in her lap rather than on the plate.

Walters is positioned as the sympathetic one (I like his plaintive statement that he should have listened to his mother and stuck with his whippets!) with the eventual punchline reveal being that he’d paid Dawson specifically for this service. With Dawson concentrating on crafting his monologues, a small group of writers were responsible for the sketches. At present they’re workmanlike but not terribly inventive (fresh blood in later years would see the standard rise).

Dawson’s close encounters with pianos were always notable, but one of the best gags from this second half sequence comes before he sits down – he flicks the tails of his evening dress so hard they fly off!

There’s only one guest today – Miss Shirley Bassey. Possibly she was more expensive than some of the previous acts (if so, they got their money’s worth out of her as she performed two songs). She closes the first half with Till Love Touches Your Life but the main point of interest is that she opens part two with Diamonds Are Forever, just a week after the Batchelors performed the same song.

If these shows were recorded in order then this seems a little odd. True, the Bachelors had released it as a single, but with La Bassey due to appear the week after, it’s a strange duplication. No prizes for guessing who comes out on top – backed by the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, Bassey’s live vocal has all the punch and control that you’d expect. Easily the highlight of the show.

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show Two

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There’s an interesting moment early on, when during a sketch featuring Les as a clerical golfer, his comment of “balls” is muted. Given this was such a mild profanity it’s surprising to see it taken out. Especially since it was plain what the word was (especially the punchline is that he’s then pelted with golf balls from a helpful God).

The set-piece sketch of this show is a two-hander between Dawson and Kenneth Connor. Connor is an earnest academic lecturing about the mechanics of comedy …

What makes this sketch work is that whilst both continue to soberly discuss the nature of comedy, their actions (involving an ever increasing cycle of slapstick abuse) are in such sharp contrast to the serious tone. Dawson’s inability to keep a straight face as the pair get messier and messier is a joy as is Connors’ straight-faced control. The climax of the sketch – Connor attempts to light a bomb – seems to be scuppered after he’s unable to get the matches to work. He carries on in character (berating the props man) whilst Dawson dissolves into a fit of giggles. If this sketch teaches us anything then it’s how actors and comedians react differently to the same series of events.

A familiar part of Dawson’s act was to start a monologue with a deluge of evocative wordplay before bringing the tone right down. There’s a perfect example in this show, as he discusses how evocative memory can be. “A drift of perfume on the stairs, a snatch of laughter on a balcony or a song in the night can evoke forgotten memories. This happened to me the other week – I was watching the wife suck a hot chop with her teeth out”.

The Skylarks and The Bachelors are this week’s guests. I’m not sure why three of the four male Skylarks are wearing the same sort of jacket, but the fourth isn’t. Either dress the same or don’t! Their performance is enlivened by the Denys Palmer Dancers (the regular dance troup) who flounce about in green whilst the Skylarks are warbling.

Now this is mildly noteworthy. The Bachelors (whom I’m glad to report were clothes coordinated – all wearing nice pink shirts) perform Diamonds are Forever. Quite good it is too, even if they do have to change all the “I’s” and “me’s” to “she” or “her”. This won’t be the last time we hear this song though – stay tuned ….

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show One

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Returning in early 1972 for a run of six episodes, the format’s pretty similar to what has gone before – the Syd Lawrence Orchestra (“the only musicians I know who are mentioned in the Doomsday Book”) are still in residence, although the Skylarks are nowhere to be seen (but fret not, Skylarks fans, they’ll be back next week).

David Mallet continues to feature unusual shot selections at various points (fish-eye lenses, for example) whilst one innovation is that there’s now a selection of “quickie” sketches. These provide a change in pace between the longer items.

One of my favourite short sketches from the whole series features Les as a roadsweeper who lifts up the pavement in order to shovel the dirt underneath! It’s a lovely moment which Dawson later used (during an interview with Michael Parkinson) as an example of the difference between British and German humour (German televison executives didn’t believe this sketch would work in their country as their pavements didn’t lift up …)

As for the longer sketches (still only one each edition) today’s features Roy Barraclough as the impossibly camp owner of a crockery shop. Les, the flat-capped handyman, doesn’t tell his workmate to watch his back in so many words, but the inference is there. As a time-capsule it’s interesting, as a piece of comedy rather less so (partly because it’s obvious that everything in the shop will be destroyed somehow. It would have been more of a surprise if they hadn’t gone down this route).

Musical guests for this first show are Jeannie Lamb and Gilbert O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan I was familar with, but Jeannie Lamb didn’t really ring a bell. A quick search on the internet hasn’t left me much wiser (apart from a few scattered references to her jazz career and a collaboration with Ray Davies). But my researches continue ….

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