Les Dennis: Sing When You're Winning

If, in true Family Fortunes style, we asked 100 Liverpool fans to name their most memorable moment of the ’70s and ’80s, what would the top answer be? The club winning the FA Cup for the first time in 1974? One of the four European Cup successes? A hat-trick of league titles between 1982 and 1984?

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“My abiding memory is of a pigeon,” says light entertainment legend and lifelong Red Les Dennis. “It flew down from the roof at half-time, I can’t remember which game, and landed on the centre spot.

As it slowly wandered towards the goal, the whole stadium went quiet. Everyone was waiting for it to cross the goal line when it did,  the place erupted as if we’d just won the European Cup.”

The man who started his career doing the rounds at Liverpool’s working men’s clubs before graduating to The Laughter Show and Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, isn’t a purist when it comes to Liverpool nostalgia. It’s not goals, games and players that matter – “I’m crap at remembering that stuff” – it’s the laughs that count.

And there were plenty of those to be had when watching matches with fellow Liverpool fan Russ Abbot. “We went to Wembley in 1988 to see Liverpool play Wimbledon,” recalls the 54-year-old, already on a roll. “With 10 minutes left, the fans started shouting for Russ to get his character Cooperman!”

As John Motson announced that “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club”, the result had grave consequences for Dennis. “Before the game, me and Russ were called into the Grandstand gantry and Des Lynam asked for a prediction.

I felt confident so I said 3-1. After the game, we were invited into the players lounge and Ronnie Moran walked past, gave me a dirty look and mumbled ‘Bloody 3-1’.”  

A year later, however, after Liverpool’s 3-2 defeat of Everton, Dennis received a warmer welcome from players and staff. “That night after the game, Russ and I went to Stringfellows for dinner, as you do, and the Liverpool squad were there. Kenny Dalglish even let me drink from the FA Cup!”

As for Moran, all had been forgiven. After all, the two were old pals. “In 1985, I dropped a case of wine on my foot when I was doing Cinderella in a theatre in Southport,” explains Dennis. “I was limping so badly it looked like I might not be able to continue with the show, so the theatre arranged for me to have some physio with Ronnie Moran. I went to the Liverpool treatment room and he did something, magic sponge maybe, and I was walking almost straight away.”

“I got lucky, as the morning I got there, it was Sammy Lee’s testimonial lunch. So Sammy asked if I wanted some food – they were serving pineapple, ham and cheese – and then he signed my toe.”

Impromptu run-ins with Liverpool legends seem to be an everyday occurrence for Dennis. “In the summer of 1980, Stan Boardman was meant to come to my son’s christening with his wife but instead he turned up with
Ron Yeats and Ian St John. It was an amazing surprise.”

The Anfield greats were welcomed by everyone, despite being the enemy to many of the Dennis family. While his dad played for Liverpool – he still has the copy of the contract he signed in 1935 – he supports Everton, accusing his son of being a “Bloody turncoat”, when, aged 11, he decided to become a Red.

His mother, an ardent Manchester United fan, named her son after Denis Law – “It sounds like Les Dennis backwards” – while his brother is possibly the only Scouser who supports Manchester United and Scotland.

In 2003, this disparate family’s support came together to help Dennis through the trauma of his break-up with actress wife Amanda Holden, the fallout of which was televised on Celebrity Big Brother. The subsequent tabloid furore portrayed him as a lonely loser, dubbing him ‘Les Miserables’, an image that was parodied two years later in Dennis’s painfully good send-up of himself on Extras.

�.“I went back to Liverpool and a little old dear came up to me and asked if I was alright after the documentary on my life! She thought that episode of Extras was real, that I actually got naked in front of Ricky Gervais and did Mavis impressions while shagging.”

Ah, the Mavis impression. While surprisingly there haven’t been any requests from fans at matches, that’s not to say she hasn’t made an appearance at a football ground. “I was doing a sketch for the BBC Laughter Show – as Mavis in goal for Accrington Stanley.

We were in Birmingham so we got permission to film at Villa Park. There I was, dressed as Mavis, in goal, at Villa Park, letting in goals...” He rolls his eyes up and to the right, purses his lips and becomes Mavis: “‘Oh dear, I let that one in. Oh dear, there goes another. Oooh, I’m not doing very well, am I? What am I going to do? Ooh, I don’t really know!’”

Funniest footballer
I met Robbie Fowler at Jan Molby’s testimonial and he has a  very dry sense of humour. 

Favourite goal
I scored at Anfield, in front of the Kop, during one of Stan Boardman’s charity games.
A few months later, I did the Royal Variety performance and all I could think was, “This isn’t as good as scoring at the Kop”. 

Favourite footballer
I used to love the way Peter Thompson would dribble past players. He was a bit greedy at times, but in a team full of big players, he was an unsung hero.

Footballer-style pre-performance ritual
It’s from De Niro in Raging Bull. I look at myself in a mirror [stares intently at imaginary reflection and throws a flurry of punches] and say, “You’re the boss, you’re the boss, you’re the boss”. It builds belief.

Best advice
I met Bill Shankly when I was starting out and he said “Keep it up. Have the passion, have the passion”. So I did.

Les Dennis’s autobiography Must The Show Go On? is published on April 3 (Orion, £18.99, hardback)

From the May 2008 issue of FFT