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.

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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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.

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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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 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 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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