Sez Les – Series Three

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Broadcast during August and September 1971 and running to a measly four editions, series three of Sez Les clips along at a fair rate of knots (although Dawson himself is in short supply). This is due to the fact that he has to share the stage with regular acts The Skylarks (a rather decent vocal harmony group) and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra as well as a number of guest performers. With each edition only running for twenty five minutes, there’s a fair amount to be crammed in …

The formula tends to run as follows. After the Syd Lawrence Orchestra and the Skylarks have welcomed him to the stage, Dawson kicks off proceedings with a short monologue (returning in the second half with a longer monologue). Each edition has a single sketch with the remainder of the time being taken up with the guest performers as well as spots for the Skylarks and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra (who close proceedings). The final two editions also have some brief film inserts, showing Dawson interacting with ordinary members of the public.

Luckily I have an almost unquenchable thirst for 1970’s LE, so the number of musical performers isn’t really a problem for me. But for those who are interested in seeing more of Dawson, you might be advised to skip ahead to one of the later series (plus the arrival of David Nobbs helped to sharpen the series’ comedy sensibilities quite markedly).

Guest wise, Manitas De Plata strums a mean Spanish guitar, Dana has a very credible stab at a George Harrison song (Isn’t It A Pity), Frank Ifield warbles in an entertaining fashion, Anita O’Day jazzes things up (her obituary makes for interesting reading) whilst Georgie Fame and Alan Price are good value in the final edition, as is Kathy Kirby. For those familiar with other LE programmes of this era (such as The Two Ronnies or The Morecambe & Wise Show) many of those names will be familiar.

Brian Glover assists Dawson with the sketches seen in the first two editions – the second (Dawson as an extremely nervous dentist attempting to remove Glover’s tooth) being the better of the two. It’s not subtle, but it’s good fun. After leaving Monty Python John Cleese would become a Sez Les regular, but it’s slightly more surprising to see him pop up here in a couple of brief sketches.

It’s likely Cleese recorded his contributions in something of a hurry. The train sketch in show three should have been tailor-made for him, but it’s rather thrown away and there’s little bite to his reactions of Dawson’s improbably dressed Highlander – complete with caber! The second sketch with Cleese is rather better (it also switches from VT to film in a way that’s almost Pythonlike).

Maybe the budget for the last few episodes was a little greater. In addition to this brief film insert, Dawson also went out and about on the streets, ensnaring unsuspecting members of the public with hidden camera stunts. Presumably these gags were real and not staged (although since Dawson had been a television regular for a few years it’s surprising nobody seemed to recognise him).

Producer/Director David Mallet had worked with Dawson before on Joker’s Wild. Knowing that Mallet would later pursue a career as a top music promo director (Queen and David Bowie were amongst his clients) it’s interesting to look back at his early work to see if there’s any visual flair in evidence. For Joker’s Wild, probably not – but then it was a rather static sort of series (the main highlight being a wobbly camera zoom into Barry Cryer at the start of the show).

He had more to work with during Sez Les though and the Syd Lawrence interludes do have some fast intercutting and unusual camera angles, suggesting that Mallet was interested in shaking up the visual grammar of this type of show.

Not a rib-tickling 100 minutes then, but entertaining nonetheless. As my occasional rewatch continues, it’ll be interesting to see the point at which the series began to grow. Several changes – increasing the running time, dropping the musical acts for a while – helped to shake the format up.

All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part Two

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Christmas With Wogan

I think this could just be the greatest piece of television ever.  Things start sedately enough, with a song from Carl Wayne and Penny Lane (oh, their names rhyme) but after that the fun really begins.

Recorded on the set of Lunchtime with Wogan (all of which sadly seems to have been wiped) you can see that they’ve attempted to get the audience into the Christmas spirit by handing out some party hats.  But since there weren’t enough to go round, the camera tends to focus on the handful of lucky souls who do have one.  The audience shots are fascinating by the way (average age seems to be about eighty).

This segment is a celebration of ATV, so Crossroads naturally features quite heavily.  The sight of Amy Turtle (Ann George) pushing a tea trolley would surely melt even the hardest of hearts whilst Nurses Price and Shaw (Lynda Bellingham and Judy Buxton) from General Hospital also shuffle on.

The fun just keeps on coming as Peggy Mount, Hugh Lloyd, Leslie Crowther and Sylvia Syms appear as two ordinary couples who have been pulled out of the audience to play a game.  The sight of Crowther and Wogan attempting to shovel Mount’s ample form onto a high stool is something that will live long in the memory.

Larry Grayson, resplendent in a black cloak and mask, is brought on as the mystery guest. He has to recite his most famous catchphrases whilst the others attempt to guess his identity.  Simply sublime.

And just when you think things can’t get any better, Meg Richardson (Noele Gordon) arrives …..

Easily worth the price of the DVD alone, this is a rare Christmas treat.  Indeed, had the whole show come from the Wogan studio I would have been quite happy (although had this happened no doubt it would have been wiped along with the rest of his shows).

The Wandsworth School Choir are up next, entertaining Jimmy and the studio audience with The Holly and The Ivy.  Then Jimmy gets in the act and joins them for a trot through Do-Re-Me.  Bob Todd, as a drunken milkman, causes a little havoc for Jimmy.

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On The Buses

Like Love Thy NeighbourOn The Buses was one of those programmes which pulled huge contemporary audiences but hasn’t (in critical terms) aged well.  Although unlike Neighbour it does run regularly on ITV3, so clearly somebody still seems to enjoy it.  Like a number of later episodes, this was written by Stephen Lewis (Blakey) and Bob Grant (Jack).  Reg Varney is conspicuous by his absence, but he seems to have left the show after the 1972 run.

If you enjoy broad slapstick and incredible feats of mugging to the camera then this should appeal.  The story – a goose has been left on the bus and they have to stop it escaping – is the cue for everybody, including Olive (Anna Karin) and Mum (Doris Hare), to get covered in soot and flour.  For me, a little of On The Buses goes a very long way, so this is another series that I don’t have in my collection (but I don’t feel I’m missing out).

Jimmy welcomes David Nixon, who restores a touch of class to the programme.  It’s a mystery why Nixon’s existing magic shows aren’t available on DVD as he’s such an affable entertainer.  He does the eggs in the glass party trick which Tommy Cooper also attempted on his 1973 Christmas Show.  Tommy managed to get two out of four eggs in the glasses whilst David went one better – three out of three.

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Sez Lez

Les Dawson is on fine monologue form here.  “I bought my mother-in-law a nice fireside chair which cost me twenty five pounds and the first time I plugged it in, it fused”.  The Syd Lawrence Orchestra and Les’ dancers (Les Girls) also get in on the act.  The band are clearly all professionals as the sight of a group of attractive young ladies leaping about in silk pyjamas doesn’t put them off, not one little bit.

A moustachioed Tony Jacklin has a chat about golf with Jimmy.  They also sing ….

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The Fenn Street Gang

Spun out of Please Sir! after it became painfully obvious that the actors were no longer convincing as schoolchildren (they were well into their twenties by this point) The Fenn Street Gang followed their misadventures, post school.  Never as popular as Please Sir!, possibly due the fact that the characters no longer had a reason to be together and therefore the plotlines had to be split up, it still racked up an impressive thirty eight episodes.  This sketch has a good excuse for a reunion – Christmas dinner – and it passes the time nicely enough, although it’s not exactly an all-out showstopper.

Jimmy leads everybody, including Moria Anderson, Rod Hull & Emu and David Nixon, in a rousing singalong of White Christmas.  A traditional end to a real selection box of a programme – not every chocolate is especially tasty, but luckily there’s only a few hard centres.

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That’s Christmas Sez Les!

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That’s Christmas Sez Les!, Les Dawson’s 1973 Christmas extravaganza, certainly doesn’t lack on the guest front.  Along with regular contributors Eli Woods, Roy Barraclough and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, Clive Dunn, Jack Douglas and Ronnie Caroll are on hand for comic duties whilst Slade, David Essex, the Kessler Twins and Lynsey de Paul provide the music.

If you watch all the surviving episodes of Sez Les in sequence then there’s a considerable progression from series three (broadcast in early 1972) to this special in late 1973.  The third series shows were very tightly formatted – each twenty-five minute edition contained an opening and closing monologue from Dawson, a spot from the Syd Lawence Orchestra, a couple of musical guests, one studio sketch and possibly a brief bit of location filming.

By 1973 there was clearly more money in the kitty, as the regular shows had been extended to forty minutes (this special runs for an addtional ten minutes). Another change is that there’s now a considerable number of very short sketches rather than a couple of longer ones, which means that in some ways it feels like The Fast Show twenty five years early. You certainly can’t complain that the sketches are too drawn out, since many only consist of an establishing line and a punchline.

One slightly longer sketch features Dawson as a barman and Barraclough as a customer who’s confused when Dawson keeps throwing the drinks into his face.  A basic rule of comedy – repetition – is in play here, every time Barraclough complains, it appears that Dawson has finally understood, only for him to repeat the drink throwing once again.  There’s a predictable pay-off, but it’s pleasant to see a young Gordon Kaye pop up.

Dunn, Douglas and Caroll, along with Dawson and Barraclough, are good value as a group of wise-cracking vicars.  This enables them to rescue gags from the old jokes home (“do you save fallen women?”) but they’re good enough to get away with it, just ….

With so many very brief sketches,  Dawson sometimes struggles to make an impression whilst the deluge of guests also helps to reduce his screen-time. Still, at least the musical performers are pretty top notch, although was Noddy Holder really upset at Dawson’s trademark mocking introduction?  Noddy’s rejoinder (“ta for that introduction, fatty. Don’t call us, we’ll call you”) could be taken as good-natured banter, or maybe he really didn’t see the joke.

No matter, as Slade’s performance – lipsyncing to Merry Christmas Everybody – is just about perfect.  The average age of the typical Sez Les audience tended to be a little outside of Slade’s usual demographic, which explains why director David Mallet elected to surround the group with an enthusiastic young crowd.  With Noddy’s trademark mirrored hat and platform boots, together with Dave Hill’s gleaming Super-Yob guitar, this is a classic Christmas moment.

David Essex elected to sing live, the pick of his two songs being Lamplight.  He doesn’t have the teen audience around him, instead he’s on a darkened stage (rather apt I suppose, considering the song title) but showman that he is, he soldiers on regardless.  Lyndsey de Paul is possibly one musical guest too many, but her dancing with Les is a nice comic moment.

Actually thinking about it, Clive Dunn’s musical spot is definitely one too many.  The good news is that it isn’t Grandad, the bad news is that it isn’t as good as Grandad.  As with his earlier smash hit, he’s surrounded by a group of cute children, which is either endearing or sickly, depending on your point of view.  But it’s Christmas, so let’s be generous ….

More Les Dawson would have been welcome, especially some decent monologues (always his comic strength) but That’s Christmas Sez Les! is a compelling selection box of entertainment from a diverse group of performers.

The Glories of Christmas

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Broadcast on the 25th of December 1973, The Glories of Christmas boasts a host of familiar faces. John Bluthal, Dora Bryan, Patrick Cargill, Diana Coupland, Les Dawson, Arthur English, Gerald Harper, Kathleen Harrison, Melvyn Hayes, James Hayter, Gordon Honeycombe, John Laurie, Alfred Marks, Bob Monkhouse, Pat Phoenix and Patrick Troughton were amongst those making an appearance (although some were very brief).  But the undoubted star of the show was Princess Grace of Monaco and it was a considerable coup that Yorkshire Television were able to recruit her.

We open with the Beverley Sisters and the Batchelors taking it in turns to sing excerpts from Christmas favourites.  If you can keep a straight face as the Batchelors sway their way through Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer then you have more self control than I do.  This sets the tone for the show – a selection of middle-brow entertainment that in some ways seems a lot further back than 1973.

The music hall setting of part one reinforces this – in quick succession we see the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar, Francis Van Dyke and his violin, Janet Baker singing Cherubino’s Aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rostal & Schaefer tickling the ivories.  Let’s stop for a moment and consider that ITV decided this was just the sort of thing audiences wanted to watch on Christmas Day afternoon.  You certainly wouldn’t see anything like it today (especially the young boy blacked up as a golliwog) which makes it a window into a vanished television age.

Much more worthwhile is part two – The Glories of Literature – in which the cream of the British acting and entertainment profession make fleeting appearances as some of Charles Dickens’ immortal characters.  John Laurie is a perfect Scrooge, Gerald Harper is a fine Mr Jingle whilst Les Dawson is an interesting Mr Micawber (for some reason he chose to play it as W.C. Fields).  Dora Bryan has an amusing few lines as Sarah Gamp and Patrick Troughton reprised his role as Mr Quilp (albeit for twenty seconds or so).  It’s a great pity that his original turn as Quilp (from the 1962 BBC adaptation) is wiped – maybe one day it’ll return from a dusty overseas archive.  We can but hope.

Part three sees Princess Grace read the story of the nativity, which serves a reminder that The Glories of Christmas was produced by ITV’s religious department.  The visual representation of the story is either charming or shoddy (depending on how forgiving you are).  Everything is studio-bound and very false-looking, but maybe they were aiming for the slightly unreal feeling of a school nativity play.  Or it could just be that they lacked the budget to shoot on location.

The Glories of Christmas is a real curio that’s certainly worth a look (if you want to track it down it’s on the Les Dawson at ITV – The Specials DVD).