Les Dennis almost blushes when I call him an actor.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘People are using that word about me now, but it’s taken them a long time to come round.’
That’s a strange thing for a man to say when he’s sitting backstage at a West End theatre, having taken over from Paul Whitehouse as Grandad Trotter in the critically acclaimed musical version of Britain’s best-loved sitcom Only Fools And Horses. But Les Dennis is a complicated soul who has lived an extraordinary life and made a rather astonishing comeback, as we shall see.
‘This is a play with songs rather than a conventional West End musical,’ he says. ‘We get people who might be coming to the theatre for the first time, and others who love the show and aren’t sure about a musical, but they come and love it.’
Quite right too, as it’s surprisingly good. All the big moments from Only Fools are in the musical, including Del Boy falling through an open bar hatch, which has been voted the best scene in any British sitcom in a recent poll by TV channel Gold.
The dance routines and physical comedy are spectacular, there are songs from Chas ‘n’ Dave’s Chas Hodges, and the script by Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan – son of original creator John – packs a big emotional punch.
Les Dennis pictured in the Only Fools And Horses theatre show. All the big moments from Only Fools are in the musical, including Del Boy falling through an open bar hatch
‘I think they’ve done it cleverly,’ says Les. ‘They’ve got a lovely story about Rodney and Cassandra getting married and Del Boy helping them out. There’s the dysfunctional family we know, who love each other. The heart comes across as well as the comedy.’
Now 69, Les Dennis is a survivor. Having won New Faces in the early 70s as an impressionist and comedian, he’s one of very few men left standing from a generation of comics who have otherwise died, been lost to scandal or faded away. And the reason for his survival is a terrific ability to adapt.
It’s right that humour has changed, but it’s difficult now to know what you can and can’t say
Although he’s bashful about being called an actor, Les seems at home now at the Haymarket, his scampish, wide-eyed face decorated with a silvery moustache.
He has earned his acting stripes, starring in Chicago, Me And My Girl and Hairspray, a pair of Restoration plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and HMS Pinafore at the English National Opera.
It’s impressive, but Les is enough of a realist to realise that a lot of people still think of him as the long-running host of quiz show Family Fortunes, the comedian who lost his double act partner Dustin Gee to a heart attack or the sad clown who had a meltdown in front of the cameras on Celebrity Big Brother in 2002, famously pouring his broken heart out to a bunch of chickens.
‘People ask me if Big Brother was a mistake, but I say no. If I hadn’t done it, then Ricky Gervais would not have asked me to be on Extras, and that changed everything.’
Having won New Faces in the early 70s as an impressionist and comedian, Les is one of very few men left standing from a generation of comics who have otherwise died
Les had just been through a very messy and public divorce when he went into the Big Brother house in 2002.
He had met the much younger and more glamorous Amanda Holden when they were both in The Sound Of Music in the West End, and the marriage lasted eight years until Amanda had an affair with the actor Neil Morrissey.
‘It was a very dark time,’ she said later, after going on to find fame as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent.
Les went through a dark time too, and when I ask if they’re still in touch, he says quickly, ‘No. And now we’ll leave that alone.’
Spilling his guts to the housemates and chickens on reality TV soon afterwards seemed to have damaged his reputation beyond repair, until Ricky Gervais and his co-writer Stephen Merchant persuaded him to appear alongside the likes of Kate Winslet and Ian McKellen on their satirical showbusiness sitcom Extras and make fun of himself, winning new fans in the process.
‘They said, ‘How do you feel about playing a twisted, demented version of yourself?’ I decided that was OK, to the point that when there was a shot of my a*** in the script Ricky asked if I wanted an a*** double and I said, ‘No, I’ll do it. You won’t get one worse.”
Les had just been through a very messy and public divorce when he went into the Big Brother house in 2002
He was shown getting out of the shower and baring all to Gervais, in more ways than one. ‘I thought, ‘If you’re going to do it, then do it fully!’
Les had the guts to play himself as a sad and conceited star, trapped in panto in Guildford with a younger, gorgeous but unfaithful girlfriend. It was near the knuckle and very funny.
‘Friends warned me against it, but I don’t think at any point Ricky was trying to blow me up. He was letting me show another side of myself.’
The offers started to come in again. His comeback had started.
Then his life was changed in another way when he met a woman called Claire Nicholson at a charity ball.
‘Claire had seen my a*** just before we met. She watched Extras with her mum.’ Like his previous wife, Claire was 18 years younger.
Les pictured in the Only Fools and Horses theatre show. The dance routines and physical comedy are spectacular, there are songs from Chas ‘n’ Dave’s Chas Hodges
She was described as a life coach, but he says that’s wrong.
‘She was originally in HR. She worked for M&S then the National Physics Laboratory. Then she worked as a business coach. Now we’re renovating our house so we’re living in a static caravan on the drive. She’s project-managing that. We’re about to get back into the house in the next few weeks. She never stops.’
The couple were married in 2009 and have two children together, Eleanor and Tom.
‘The kids are 14, 11 and 43,’ he says with a laugh, mentioning his other son Philip, who was born during his first marriage to Lynne, which lasted until 1990.
‘You know what? The 43-year-old and the 11-year-old are great mates, so that’s lovely.’
He smiles at the memory of a theatre trip with the family.
‘We went to see Les Misérables and Claire said to the kids, ‘Your dad was known as Les Miserable for a while.’
That was his tabloid nickname during the divorce from Amanda.
‘They asked why and we talked about it and they laughed. I wanted to show I wasn’t Les Miserable any more and that I had a sense of humour about it all.’
They used to live in north London, but have moved to Cheshire. ‘I think as you get older you start to want to go back towards your roots and home. I lost both my parents before I was 30 but my sister is the rock in our family. She’s in Liverpool.’
Les was born there in 1953, the son of a docker called Les and a factory worker called Winnie, who had wanted to be a performer but was blocked by her mother.
‘She saw something in me that she hadn’t been allowed to have,’ he says. ‘I started playing the working men’s clubs as a comedian when I was about 15 and Mum drove me around.’
After winning New Faces, Les became a performer on The Comedians, a series starring Bernard Manning and now notorious for its dodgy humour.
‘Luckily I was never part of that. I was so young I couldn’t do mother-in-law jokes. It’s right that humour has changed,’ he says, then pauses.
‘It’s difficult now to know what you can and can’t say. Not because you want to say things, but because you’re going to upset somebody with comedy, whatever you do. There’s a cancel culture and you’ve got to know where to draw a line.’
But his humour was never that hard-edged, more joyful, like his impression of Mavis from Coronation Street.
Les formed a double act with Dustin Gee and the pair were invited onto the TV show Live From Her Majesty’s in 1984 – the night the comedian Tommy Cooper collapsed on stage, was dragged out of sight and the young pair were sent on.
‘Tommy was just behind the stage curtains as we performed in front of them. Dustin could hear them saying, ‘It’s OK, he’s been sick.’ Tommy died on the way to hospital. It was shocking.’
I’m nearly 70 and still working, I keep wanting to prove something. I have impostor syndrome
But there’s a terrible twist to this tale. ‘That night Dustin said, ‘That’s the way I’d like to go.’ Two years later he collapsed backstage in the middle of a show. He went into hospital in a coma and didn’t come out.’
They were playing the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella. ‘The decision was made, and not by me, that the pantomime would carry on,’ says Les.
Jim Bowen stepped into the role at short notice. Wasn’t that sad and strange, doing the jokes and routines he’d learned with the friend he’d just lost?
‘Jim was hilarious and lovely, but he was in Dustin’s costumes and it was weird. It was a hard time.’
He suddenly looks a bit lost. How did Les feel about both these deaths happening in front of him?
‘They were massive hammer blows.’
Still, he recovered his composure and thrived as a solo performer, hosting Family Fortunes for 15 years and using the money he earned to broaden his talent.
‘The pay meant I could afford to go and do places like the Oldham Coliseum or the Watermill in Newbury and learn my craft as an actor. I started preparing a long time ago for the way things are now.’
So Les was ready when Extras changed his image. As well as putting together a seriously impressive theatrical CV, he has worked hard on television, including a couple of years on Coronation Street, and he’s just been announced as a guest star on the new series of Death In Paradise.
Now he’s appearing in Only Fools And Horses, and there’s more than a little of the Trotter spirit in the way Les keeps bouncing back.
‘I’m nearly 70 and still working, so I clearly haven’t got over the craving for attention,’ he says. ‘I keep wanting to prove something. I have both fear and impostor syndrome. I remember going to do opera last year thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’m always trying to prove that I’m qualified.”
Will he ever get over that?
‘I don’t know. I think the one thing that still eludes me is Shakespeare. If I get a Shakespearean role, maybe I’ll think, ‘That’s it. Now I can stop.”
Only Fools And Horses The Musical, Theatre Royal Haymarket until 1 April 2023. Tickets: OnlyFoolsMusical.com