Book Review – ‘The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson’ by Louis Barfe

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Having found his comedic feet dodging beer bottles and being made to feel a nuisance on the first rung that was the Northern pub circuit, Les Dawson took the same hostile route to an entertainment career as the likes of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown and Bernard Manning, sharing their Northern ‘thin end of sod-all’ upbringing to boot. Phased out by alternative comedy, Dawson is perceived as someone your Granddad would reminisce over whilst decrying the ‘rubbish we have now’, an honour he shares with his stereotypical bow-tie clad club contemporaries; Mike Reid, Jim Davidson, Jim Bowen etc.
It therefore may strike you as odd that society has not repented for Dawson in the same way; when covered in the media, modern comedians do not ashamedly mutter that we’ve “moved on from all that“, and old school comedians do not tell us that we “just can’t say that these days“.

Dawson’s distinction is covered in great detail and with evidence of slavish research in ‘The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson’, the third book by British entertainment historian Louis Barfe. Having previously authored ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone? The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry’ and ‘Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment’, Barfe knows what he’s talking about, and this is reflected in the many turned stones within the book. As well as an extensive list of Dawson’s broadcasts, the narrative regularly segues into the more peripheral events in Dawson’s life – the political climate of his upbringing, the standard of living in estates such as his own and anecdotal allusions to tension amongst his colleagues are included. Such trails may be seen as superfluous ‘padding‘, but these digressions are invariably vital to better understanding Dawson as a person, and particularly salient when the author has no direct acquaintance with Dawson to draw upon.

Though Barfe’s style is straight and dry, the book is never dull, but a heartening story that one would hope to see adapted to the screen, made so by the rags to riches tale that was Dawson’s life. The gap between the rags and the riches was a long one; Dawson underwent a slog at discovering his voice and gaining recognition that lasted almost a decade, suffering rejection after rejection at TV auditions, dying death after death in the clubs and never shirking the dreaded prospect of giving it all up and feigning contentment back at the coalface. It was a groundswell of resentment and a lot of alcohol which prompted Dawson to stand before a crowd and naval gaze his way through a gig, employing the self-effacing sullenness which would later make him a household name.

Although his new found style saw him receive a steadier stream of bookings and the odd TV appearance, Dawson struggled with many a menial job, married and had children along the way. It was his 1967 appearances on Opportunity Knocks and The Blackpool Show that gave Les Dawson the break he had worked so feverishly for, but this exposure almost never happened; his appearance on the Blackpool Show would have been cut for overrunning, were it not for the passionate insistence of a co-performer that Dawson’s performance be retained in the broadcast, in favour of his own.

Les Dawson truly was a working class grafter, a self made man, yet never became insufferable or egotistical for it. He remained true to his humble roots, and there is not a single anecdote in the book which suggests he was a volatile troublemaker or a selfish performer, not a scrap of scandal or mud in such an all-encompassing and thorough detailing of his life. Some readers may be disappointed by this, but then, anyone disappointed to learn that Dawson never beat his wife or was abusive to other performers isn’t really worth writing for.

‘The Trials and Triumphs…’ makes you connect with Les Dawson as strongly as you would were you watching him perform; to know that he persevered through every obstacle, became a huge success and remained a wonderful human being is  a testimony, and shows us why Les Dawson stands out as a good egg among crowd of bad ones.

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