There’ll be laughter in the Dawson household over the festive season – but nowhere near as much as there was when comic genius Les Dawson was alive, his widow Tracy Dawson says.
“Christmas is always difficult for us. Les loved it, he always did pantomime, he was always the dame, and loved to entertain the children.”
She and her daughter Charlotte – who was a baby when the legendary comedian died in 1993 of a heart attack aged 62 – have recently moved from the family home in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, to a bungalow nearby. But there are still memories of her late husband everywhere, in photos, his piano, books and other memorabilia.
Charlotte, now 20, is an enthusiastic aspiring actress with the world at her feet, but Tracy, who was 17 years Les’s junior, has found it harder to move on.
Her world fell apart when, on June 10, 1993, Les was in Manchester for a medical check-up as a prelude for trying for another child. Waiting in a cubicle, he asked Tracy if she could get him a newspaper. When she returned her husband of four years was dead from a massive heart attack.
“It doesn’t feel like 20 years since his death,” Tracy, 61, reflects. “Everything feels like yesterday. I miss him terribly. The circumstances of his death came as such a shock. You try to move on and then it just comes back again. I still have really dark days.”
During the move, she discovered some notes Les had typed and hand-written for Charlotte’s legacy. She and Charlotte decided to compile some of the previously unpublished material to create Les Dawson’s Joke Book.
Charlotte explains: “Going through the material, I felt I got to know him a lot more. We shed tears some of the time, but they were tears of happiness deep down.”
Tracy continues: “People still want to know about Les. He was way ahead of his time in the material he wrote. It was hard going through his papers and notes and we found a lot of personal stuff as well. He’d left a little day-to-day diary of his time with Charlotte. He only knew her for eight months before he died.”
Over the years, some of Tracy’s attempts to keep his memory alive may be considered by some as bizarre. After his death, she installed a full-size cardboard cut-out of the comedian in Charlotte’s nursery, so the baby would come to recognise him as her dad. She taught her to raise her spoon at meal-times – to “give Daddy a bit in heaven, too”.
“She watched his videos and now that she’s following in his footsteps, she is meeting people who talk about him,” Tracy adds.
Charlotte says: “People have said the cardboard cut-out was a bit freaky but I don’t think it was at all. I’m very proud that I can call him my dad. It’s been hard growing up without him. Take away the name and what he did, it’s hard enough growing up without a father, but when I found out who he was I felt so proud and happy that I had this amazing legacy.
“People say I don’t look like him but I definitely do.”
Each anniversary of his death, mum and daughter go to the church where Tracy and Les were married, and also visit his memorial statue in St Annes to join fans in paying their respects.
Les and Tracy first met when Tracy was working in a hotel bar, where the star used to drown his sorrows as his first wife, Meg, succumbed to cancer. They married in 1989, following a three-year romance, and were thrilled to be blessed with a child.
Keeping Les’s memory alive, and ploughing her energy into charity work, has helped Tracy cope.
“I just didn’t know how to cope without him. Then all the letters came in from charities for the work Les did, and then they asked me to take part. I put all my energy into charity work.
“It doesn’t get easier with each anniversary. I am coping, but he’s so much still alive. He was one of the great comics of his time.”
She believes he would have reservations about some of the contemporary comedy on offer today.
“He was on the cusp (of alternative comedy) and his agent had told him to change direction and start using swear words and Les said, ‘No, there’s no way I need to do that sort of comedy’.
“But comedy is turning round. People are going back to belly laughs and not wanting blue material any more. He would have liked Michael McIntyre and Peter Kaye.”
There’s talk of establishing a comedy hall of fame in Blackpool where much of Les’s memorabilia – along with that of other comedy greats – would be housed, and rumours of a Les Dawson musical and even a Cissy and Ada play (taken from his famous sketches with Roy Barraclough where they took the part of two grumpy old women).
Tracy and Charlotte know they face a tough year in 2013, the 20th anniversary of Dawson’s death, but Charlotte remains optimistic.
“It’s going to be a hard, sad year, but you have to think of the positive side of it – that his memory still lives on. I couldn’t wish for anything better than that.”
Les Dawson’s Joke Book, compiled by Tracy and Charlotte Dawson, is published by Michael O’Mara, priced £9.99. Available now.