Impressionist Jon Culshaw on paying a heartfelt tribute to Les Dawson with his new Edinburgh Festival Fringe show

He was the son of a bricklayer who went on to become one of Britain’s best-known comics.

Wednesday, 6th April 2022, 4:55 am
Updated Wednesday, 6th April 2022, 9:10 am

Now the legendary Les Dawson is to be celebrated at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with the premiere of a new play looking back at his life and career.

Impressionist Jon Culshaw will be portraying the late Dawson, one of his lifelong comedy heroes, as part of Assembly’s Fringe programme at George Square in August.

Culshaw, the actor and comic best known for Dead Ringers, has joined forces with writer Tim Whitnall and director Bob Golding to create the new show, Les Dawson: Flying High, which is billed as “hilarious yet humbling, heightened yet grounded and poignant yet ultimately uplifting.”

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It will be partly inspired by the comic’s autobiography, which was published in 1992, the year before he died of a heart attack.Culshaw will be depicting Dawson months after playing Opportunity Knocks host Hughie Green in a new play about the late Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni, which was recently premiered in her home town of Greenock. His other dramatic performances have included depicting David Bowie for a radio play and Tony Blair in a film.

Culshaw said: “I’ve been a fan of Les all of my life, for as long as I can remember. I really enjoyed the effect that his programmes had on our house. I’ve got great memories of watching him with my mum, dad, brother and sister, and the laughter just filling the room.

“He is someone who has just always been with me in my heart and mind.

“Les said himself that good comedy came from within and that if it came from the heart it really meant something and people could relate to it.

Jon Culshaw will be portraying Les Dawson at this year's Fringe. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

“When I did the photoshoot for the Fringe show a few weeks ago, I don’t think I’ve ever been more comfortable in the guise of somebody else.”

Born in Manchester in 1932, Dawson suffered at the hands of bullies when he was at school, worked in the drapery department in his local Co-Op, had a spell as a newspaper reporter, was a trainee electrician and was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

However his skills as a pianist saw him get his first work as an entertainer in clubs in Manchester and Hull, before he made his TV debut in Opportunity Knocks in 1967, an appearance which paved the way for his own series in the sixties, seventies and eighties, when he also took over from Terry Wogan as the host of the game show Blankety Blank. Dawson was also a prolific writer, with more than a dozen books to his credit.

Culshaw said: “The show will be a real celebration of Les’s comedy, but also his skill, flair and talent as a writer, and how those two worlds came together.

Jon Culshaw will be portraying Les Dawson at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“It’s about following your dreams and your aspirations, but we also want it to reflect how much Les was loved as an entertainer, as well as his dedication.

“We want it to have meaning, as well as the big laughs. It will be lovely to dig a bit deeper and let people see the beauty of his writing and what a wordsmith he was.”

Whitnall and Golding previously worked together on a one-man show devoted to Eric Morecambe, which was a sell-out hit at the Fringe more than a decade ago and went on to win an Olivier Award. Whitnall’s other work includes a TV drama based on the life of the late comic and DJ Kenny Everett.

Culshaw added: “It’s so interesting how characters from these areas are making fascinating subjects for us now.

Jon Culshaw will be appearing in Les Dawson: Flying High at this year's Fringe. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

“I remember going to see Bob Golding appearing in Morecambe and it really sparked my imagination.

"It definitely played a big part in me thinking I would love to try to do something on Les Dawson, so it’s wonderful that Bob is going to be directing this new show.

“The seed for the show actually happened by accident. My brother had a piano tuner round one day and he improvised the most beautiful thing, a cacophony of swirling chords.

“It sparked a memory of seeing Les at home playing his piano beautifully in the same way. That feeling is very much part of the sense that we want for this show.

“I approached Bob with the idea of doing a show on Les and he suggested that Tim should write it, which was just beyond my wildest dreams, but Tim was fascinated by it, and he started reading all the biographies of Les and all of his books, to get to the bottom of him and what made him tick.”

Les Dawson: Flying High is one of hundreds of new Fringe shows going on sale for the 75th anniversary of the event in August.

Les Dawson was one of the biggest names in TV entertainment in the 1970s and 1980s. Picture: ITV/Shutterstock

Underbelly has announced the return of cabaret favourites La Clique and The Tiger Lillies, magician Tom Brace, Irish hip hop sensation Abandoman and Irish comic Jason Byrne, who will be staging a new one-man play inspired by his father.

Gilded Balloon’s programme will feature magicians Pete Firman and Kevin Quantum, comedy from Maisie Adams, Lost Voice Guy, Elf Lyons. Esther Manito and Jamie MacDonald, and the return of Basil Brush to the Fringe.

Highlights of the Pleasance line-up include a revival for Trainspotting Live, an “immersive adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s debut novel, and Porno, a new stage version based on the sequel, which reunited Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy.

The Pleasance programme also includes rising poetry star Luke Wright, Scottish-African singing group Shona the Musical Choir, South African ventriloquist Conrad Koch, magician Magic Gareth, and Covid for Kids, which has been created by Professor Tom Solomon, director of the National Institute for Health Research at Liverpool University.

Jon Culshaw will be paying tribute to Les Dawson in a new stage show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Comedian and actor Les Dawson pictured in Edinburgh in January 1974. Picture: Joe Steele