Still besotted by Les Dawson: Twenty years after his death his wife and daughter reveal they're still heartbroken over the comic genius who loved to say he was 'a fat man with a face like a collapsed sponge cake'

By Jane Fryer

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Comedian Les Dawson died in 1993 after suffering a coronary

Comedian Les Dawson died in 1993 after suffering a coronary

Les Dawson has been dead for nearly 20 years. But chatting to his second wife, Tracy, and daughter, Charlotte, it feels more like he’s just popped out for one of his endless secret ciggies.

‘He hid them everywhere! After he died, I found them in the shed, behind pictures, in W.C. Field’s top hat,’ says Tracy.

‘He’d say he was just going to the fishmongers and he’d come back an hour later. He’d have eaten about three pies — ooh, he loved pies — and a packet of chewing gum and smoked about 20 cigarettes.

‘When he had his first heart attack, the doctor told him: “You’ve got to give up smoking, drinking, sex, women, all of that.” And Les said: “Well, you might as well get the gun now and put it to my head!”’

That was 1988. Les died five years later.

He had overcome prostate problems and recovered from two heart attacks and was feeling on top of the world. Ironically, his final massive coronary happened in a Manchester hospital where he’d gone with Tracy for a routine check-up.

He was 62, Tracy was just 44. They had been married for four years, and their daughter, Charlotte, was only eight months old.

Keeping his legacy alive: Widow Tracy and daughter Charlotte have compiled a new Les Dawson's joke book

Keeping his legacy alive: Widow Tracy and daughter Charlotte have compiled a new Les Dawson's joke book

She had two teeth, could say  ‘da-da’, but would never remember her own father — one of the best-loved comics of his generation. A man who could wring a laugh out of any mishap (invariably involving himself, his wife or mother-in-law), could make an audience collapse helpless with a roll of his eyes and a terrible gurn and described himself as ‘a grossly fat man with a face like a collapsed sponge cake’.

‘I know so much about him, but I didn’t actually know him,’ says Charlotte, all very white teeth and enormous false eyelashes, but very pretty. ‘I’ve got everyone else’s memories, but I don’t have my own.’

 

She does, however, have the hundreds of notebooks, journals and jotters that Les had kept since he was a child — through his myriad careers for the Co-op, as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, as an amateur boxer, and his long and often dispiriting journey through northern pubs and clubs until his big break on Opportunity Knocks in 1967, aged 36.

Every page is filled with his tiny, neat writing, recording endless jokes, skits and poems, and revealing his emotional sensitivity and extraordinary talent as a linguist (he spoke Japanese, French, German and Italian), writer and philosopher.

Together, mother and daughter have compiled a new Les Dawson’s Joke Book, containing the funniest — and goodness, they are funny, particularly the perennial wife and mother-in-law jokes. ‘We wanted to use them to keep his memory alive,’ says Tracy, a lovely blonde, dripping in diamante and diamonds. ‘I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to keep his legacy alive — I think it was the shock of his death that made it so important to me.’

Happier times: Les with his wife Tracy and newborn child Charlotte in 1992, but tragically he died a year later aged 62

Happier times: Les with Tracy and newborn Charlotte in 1992 before he died a year later

It must have been a shattering experience. As she and Les waited in a private room for his medical test results (all clear, it later transpired), he asked Tracy to pop out for a coffee and some newspapers so he could do the crossword.

‘So I did — and the awful thing was, I was chatting to a nurse in the café and thought: “I’d better get back before his coffee gets cold.” And when I got back I thought he was asleep — he always loved a cat-nap — and he was lying there so peacefully.

‘But he was dead. I ran out of the door screaming. I was hysterical. I thought I was going mad.’

The doctors worked on Les for half an hour, but it was no good. He’d had a massive heart attack.

The comedy world went into mourning. Les was deeply loved. Not just for his brilliantly lugubrious humour, wonderfully bad piano-playing and alarmingly pliable face — the result of a boxing accident which left him able to pull his bottom jaw over his upper lip — but for staying close to his roots. He had grown up in poverty in Collyhurst, Manchester, an only child with a secret love of poetry and words who could pull some astonishing faces.

His head was never turned by success or money, and he was always happier chatting to cleaners and doormen than celebrities.

Les and Tracy were together just six short years — they met in 1986 when his first wife, Meg, and mother of his three older children, was dying after an eight-year battle with cancer. Les started drowning his sorrows in the St Ives Hotel in Lytham St Annes, where Tracy was a golden vision (and 17 years his junior, with two children and a crumbling marriage of her own) behind the bar.

Joker: Les Dawson was famed for his expressive face and he is pictured here with his beloved daughter Charlotte

Joker: Les Dawson was famed for his expressive face and he is pictured here with his beloved daughter Charlotte

Les was, in his own words, ‘an overweight, ageing man raddled with excesses’, who was also getting through a bottle of whisky and 50 cigarettes a day. Or he was until Tracy took him in hand.

‘Someone up there smiled on me,’ Les once said. ‘This grubby little man found this great girl.’

Tracy had had her own share of heartbreak. She’d lost her mother to cancer and her father to a car accident, had suffered four miscarriages before having her two elder children, Samantha and Richard, and had nearly died of peritonitis a week after Richard was born — ‘they read me my last rites’.

Les was her knight in shining armour, and friendship turned to more — far more quickly than Les’s children were happy with.

And soon Tracy moved into the family home — a huge pile down a private road in St Annes, packed to the rafters with chandeliers, thick-pile carpets, roman statues, vast mirrors, garden gnomes, a swimming pool and an ornate Italian dining suite eternally set for a banquet.

‘Les loved all that over-the-top stuff, but it was like entering a different world,’ says Tracy. ‘And it was difficult. Meg hadn’t long died and two of Les’s kids were still at home.

‘It was tough, but you get on with it. I was happy just to live together, but Les said: “No, we’ll get married and we’ll do it properly.” So we did, and it was a massive wedding.’

Despite being the world expert in misogynist jokes, Les adored women and was ridiculously soppy. He doted on Tracy, told her he loved her every ten minutes, whisked her to Paris, was forever turning up with vast bouquets and called her Princess Poo to his King Larry Lump — he even had the initials P and L inscribed in gold on the vast electric security gates guarding their home.

‘We did everything together. We went to the shops together. We went round the world twice. When I was pregnant with Charlotte, he came to aqua aerobics with me and jumped in the water with all the pregnant women. They couldn’t believe it was Les Dawson. He kept saying “knickers, knackers, knockers” and made them all laugh.

Glamorous: The teenager said it was difficult growing up without her father as she always felt she would have been a daddy's girl

Glamorous: The teenager said it was difficult growing up without her father as she always felt she would have been a daddy's girl

‘We’d even wake up at exactly the same time in the night and go to the loo. It’s very special, that stuff. Some people don’t let their husbands see them without their make-up — that’s not normal.’

Theirs does seem to have been a wondrously happy, if unlikely, relationship.

‘He made me feel so safe and so loved.’

So when suddenly he was gone, Tracy fell to bits. ‘I wasn’t coping at all. But then all the letters started pouring in — everyone loved Les, everyone. And all the charities ... I had no idea he did so much. God, he was amazing.’

So she threw herself into his charity work, keeping his legacy alive, and continued chatting to and talking through any decision with him.

And, of course, there was Charlotte, barely eight months old and the apple of her daddy’s eye.

Tracy was determined that her dad would never be a stranger to her. So she talked about him to Charlotte constantly. She put a life-size cut-out of Les (apparently taken by David Bailey when Les was modelling for Burtons!) in Charlotte’s nursery so she could kiss him goodnight. And she taught her at meal-times to lift up her spoon first ‘to give Daddy a bit in heaven, too’.

Sadly, with Les the protector gone, things went awry for Tracy. First, there was a silly dispute with Les’s older children about his will and who should pay for his funeral, which cost them all far too much in legal fees and has left the two sides of the family estranged.

‘It’s a shame because they’re my family,’ says Charlotte. ‘And I don’t think my dad would have wanted that.’ A couple of years later, five masked men broke in and stole £50,000 of silver and jewellery. Next, Tracy was investigated by the Department for Work and Pensions for wrongly claiming widow’s benefit. They alleged that her relationship with local insurance broker John Chadwick made her ineligible: ‘Fortunately, that’s all gone away now.’

And then there were the stalkers. ‘You think people are normal,’ she sighs. ‘But they’re not.’

There was the local man who wanted to throw acid in Tracy and Charlotte’s faces when they were fundraising to erect a £65,000 statue of Les in St Annes. ‘He sent loads of poison pen-letters, threatening us. We needed police protection for a couple of months.

‘Oh yes, and another guy who claimed he’d been watching television and that Les had come out of the screen and told him to come up to St Annes and look after Charlotte. The gates were open that day and he got right in.’

The man was arrested. But it was a nasty shock.

Enlarge   mother in law jokes

Meanwhile, Charlotte has immersed herself in everything Les. She has watched thousands of hours of his TV appearances, listened to his radio programmes, talked to his friends and fellow comedians, read his journals and is now determinedly following him onto the stage and, hopefully, television.

‘It feels completely right and natural for me to be on stage,’ says Charlotte.

She talks about him constantly and, if she’s feeling down, will wear one of his (very large) jumpers in bed to feel closer to him.

‘The sad thing is, I think I’d have been a real daddy’s girl,’ she says.

It’s all horribly poignant. This year has been particularly tough. In March, Tracy and Charlotte finally downsized from the vast family home (where Les’s large, messy and untouched study still smelt comfortingly of him), to somewhere more manageable down the road.

‘It felt like we were leaving my dad behind,’ says Charlotte.

The timing was terrible. Tracy was in a wheelchair with a broken foot, all pinned and plated after a fall in a theatre. Since then she’s had pneumonia, still hasn’t unpacked and, with Charlotte about to flee the nest for a new life in London, seems rather vulnerable with just her little dog, Lucy, for company.

‘We’ve got to move on,’ she says. ‘Les was a great believer in that. He was always saying we were just a blink and we had to move on.’

So would she ever entertain another relationship? She says ‘no’. Her brief relationship with Chadwick quickly wilted, presumably under the blaze of her love for Les.

‘But I do feel I need to sort my life out. I just want to relax and try to enjoy life a bit.’

Tracy is a lovely, warm, attractive woman and clearly a first-class mum. She also seems desperately lonely and sad. It doesn’t sound at all what Les would have wanted for his beloved Princess Poo.

Indeed, exactly a week before he died, he gave an interview to Anthony Clare for his radio programme In The Psychiatrist’s Chair. When asked if he could ever be alone, Les replied: ‘Oh no. Oh dreadful. I need to give affection and love, because without that I wither. I need to give that love to someone. Without that, I’m rudderless.’

He also made it clear he wanted Tracy to move on pretty sharpish if something happened to him.

If only she could.

 

The comments below have been moderated in advance.

Not too impressed by the catty descriptions of Charlotte and Tracy. Really, DM, why do you dislike women so much??

Click to rate     Rating   191

For those who did´nt read the article, the reason for the publicity is his wife and daughter are making some money from there new book !

Click to rate     Rating   204

Les has been dead 20 years. let it go.

Click to rate     Rating   178

Charlotte stop using your dads death as a way to try and propel you into Z list stardom........it's pathetic!

Click to rate     Rating   338

Back in the 80s Les stayed at a hotel I worked in. He was one of the nicest men I have ever met. He was friendly, polite and just as funny off stage as on. There was nothing self important about him...I liked him very much.

Click to rate     Rating   491

How can such a ugly guy produce such a HOT daughter??

Click to rate     Rating   331

So when does the book come out ?

Click to rate     Rating   88

Knickers knackes knockers! That made me smile!

Click to rate     Rating   179

It's a shame that Les Dawson will never know what a lovely girl his daughter has grown into.

Click to rate     Rating   189

No, what they are missing is constant publicity and their names in the papers!!

Click to rate     Rating   124

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