After a brief hiatus, we return to celebrate Matt’s new Fleet Street appointment, touching on the hidden versatility of Colin ‘Private Sponge’ Bean, Anita Harris’ gin preferences, Ken Jones and Eric Chappell in Hollywood, and the terrible fate of good old Bertie Bassett, no longer Britain’s greatest asset.
The latest Qualcast is up, slightly late because of the distractions of the back end of last week – http://cheeseford.net/qualcast/?p=65
Lynn Barber has reviewed The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson in today’s Sunday Times. It’s a stinker of a review and she says I’ve managed to make an interesting subject seem dull. In particular, she has a problem with the full list of Blankety Blank guests. Fair enough. I like that level of detail. She doesn’t. The only real problem I have with her review is that it’s one of those that summarises the book’s content and saves the critical bit for the last paragraph, almost as an afterthought. I’d dislike it just as much if the review had been favourable. To me, it’s not a proper review, just a reading comprehension exercise.
In contrast, former Grauniad editor Peter Preston has given it a glowing notice in the Observer. I was properly thrilled when I read it, and remain chuffed to bits nearly 24 hours later. It’s not a ‘will this do?’ job.
I’ve been thinking a bit more about the Express serialisation. The serial buyer said that people want the personal stuff. Yes, well, there’s personal and there’s personal. I really don’t believe people want to read bad things about people they admire. Journalists just think they do. People who loved Les Dawson want to see the best in him. The same with Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, etc. A biographer is duty bound to present the uncomfortable details that come up. Nobody’s perfect, so there will always be something. However, it’s a question of how you present it. I try to avoid being judgmental about anything or anyone, not just in my work, but in everyday life. Unless the subject’s flaws become overwhelming, and sometimes they do (Tommy Cooper sounds like a nasty piece of work – but even his manifold flaws were set in context brilliantly and sympathetically by John Fisher), the biographer has to say “OK, he did one or two less than wonderful things, but he also did this, this, this and this, all this good work – which matters more?” Also, I’m an anorak. I’m far more interested in who wrote which sketch, who directed which show and who was floor manager on what than who the star of the show went home with that night. Sorry, Lynn.
According to Les’ youngest daughter, Charlotte (@charlottedawsx on Twitter), the book that she and Tracy Dawson have written will be out in time for Christmas. I wish them and it nothing but the best, and I’ll be the first person to buy it when it comes out. Charlotte is also currently touring in Dave Freeman’s farce A Bed Full of Foreigners. Lowestoft and Stevenage next week, so if you’re anywhere near, book up and give the show and Charlotte your support.
Saturday saw the first bit of press attention for The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson, in the form of a review in the Daily Telegraph by Michael Holden. My prose style is “doggedly plain”. Fair comment. I’ve always taken the view that when I’m writing something serious, the subject is more interesting than I am. Just tell the story and avoid showing off. However, I would take issue with the list of broadcasts in the back being “padding”. It’s the sort of thing that makes me decide whether to buy a biography or not bother. Also “padding” are the descriptions of sketches and details of TV company politics. I thought the former were vital to explaining why Dawson was so funny, and the latter were vital to explaining why ‘Sez Les’ went from late night to prime time, and why the format of the show changed utterly when David Mallet was eased out by Duncan Wood. Reviewer also suggests that everyone in the business thinking Les was a bloody great bloke gets a bit wearing. Well yes, my tolerance of the sad clown cliche is less than zero. It’s hard to escape the conclusion Holden is disappointed that Dawson wasn’t a depressive wife-beater.
Maybe Holden should have read the book about Dawson extracted by the Daily Express this week, which presents a picture of the comedian wildly at variance with the one depicted in The Trials and Triumphs. The first extract was headlined “The dark secrets of laughing Les Dawson”. What does the standfirst say? “A revealing new book uncovers the hidden life of comedian Les Dawson whose poor upbringing and destructive vices fuelled his hilarious act.” Aha, now you’re talking. What’s the title of this rip-roaring account of a tortured soul’s life? The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson? Hang on, wasn’t that the one that the Telegraph found woefully lacking in the bastard factor?
I was pissed off, I admit, at the cliched ‘dark side’/’hidden life’ presentation of the extract, but the bits chosen were harmless enough. So, I sent an email to the Express’s serial buyer:
“While I don’t have a problem with the bits chosen, the headline and blurb did make my heart sink into my buttocks. He didn’t have a dark side and his ‘hidden life’ was so well hidden that I found most of it in press cuttings and his own autobiographies.
Spilt milk and all that. Next time you’re in the office, [name of serial buyer], give the subs a slap from me.”
In her reply, she admitted she was “inclined to agree with your opinion of the the ubiquitous dead-comic strap and headline, but it gets it in the paper I suppose”. She added that “I hope the book does really well. I really enjoyed reading it. My boyfriend has now jumped on it, and will also love it, I know”.
The next day, Thursday 2 February, which would have been Les Dawson’s 81st birthday, I was to appear on Iain Dale’s LBC 97.3 radio show talking about the book. The interview begins well enough, with Iain (whom I have known for years and like, despite his politics) asking about how the book came to be, etc. After a bit of chat, we have a caller. It is Tracy Dawson, Les’ second wife, and she’s on the warpath. She said she was upset that I never tried to make contact with her about the book. I pointed out that I sent her emails and a copy of Turned Out Nice Again with a covering letter asking for her co-operation at the start of my researches. She said she never received them. She then went on to ask if I ever met Les. I reply that I hadn’t. She then suggested that I can’t possibly write the complete book on her late husband. This is flawed logic, obviously. Michael Holroyd didn’t know George Bernard Shaw personally. Then she announced that her book will be the definitive version when it appears. I’m afraid to say that I burst out laughing. The problem was clearly that she thought I’d stolen her thunder or trodden on her toes. Not so. I’d be the first person to buy a book by Tracy Dawson on life with Les. There’s room for both the personal accounts and the overview.
Then she mentioned the Daily Express. She wouldn’t let me get a word in edgeways, so I found myself shouting “Tracy, TRACY, TRACY!” in order to let her know how annoyed I was at the paper’s presentation of yesterday’s extract. The call ended in something of a blur. I recall laughing at the surreality of it all. The next call came from a person who had worked for Dawson’s management, who wanted to say what a smasher Les had been. I chipped in by saying that Les had been loved by producers, writers and crews for his lack of side. Order seemed to have been restored, but I was still shell-shocked. The friend with whom I’d been for dinner before the interview accompanied me to the pub for a debrief before heading our separate ways. The conversation did much to restore perspective. The interview is here – http://lbc.audioagain.com/index.php?sid=1&player=showchannel&channel_id=361 – by the way.
Once back to my hotel, I got out my netbook with a view to writing a blog post about the whole experience. Searching for the ‘Dark Secrets’ lash-up, I made a horrifying discovery. A second extract had appeared in the Express, headlined “Les Dawson – the Lothario”. In Dawson’s rather good debut novel, A Card for the Clubs, the lead character, a comedian called Pete Warde, had been at it with anything that moved. The degree to which the novel was autobiographical was, I thought, a matter worthy of discussion. Concluding that it was a fiction with autobiographical elements, I mentioned a lovely story told to me by David Nobbs about Dawson claiming to have gone on a disastrous date in Leeds with a female Israeli tank driver, and said that it wouldn’t have been too surprising if Dawson had occasionally succumbed to the temptations of the touring life. Indeed, I pointed to passages in his own autobiographies where he suggested that it might have been the case. I also highlighted the hypocrisy by which we expect rock stars to have groupies, but get sniffy if our family entertainers play away. Somehow, this bit of deduction makes him a ‘lothario’. Then, the extract covered Les meeting and marrying Tracy, so widowers remarrying must be lotharios as well. The funniest thing of all is that Roger Lewis has reviewed the book in today’s Mail,saying:
“He wasn’t even a womaniser. Apart from Meg and Tracy, there was a bus conductress, ‘a formidable matron of generous proportions’, and a redhead with ‘more teeth in her mouth than a basking shark’, with whom he had a tryst in a cemetery. He was hardly Russell Brand.”
I had been content to express (ha!) mild reservations about the first extract. The framing of the second extract, however, I thought was beyond contempt. So, the red mist having descended, I sent another email to the serial buyer.
“I’ve just seen today’s extract. I didn’t realise there were going to be any more, after yesterday’s. I’m sorry, but I am now absolutely livid. None of this is worth the fee or the publicity. I wrote a fair and balanced portrait of a comedian I admire. You seem to have picked out the few unfavourable bits and presented them in the shittiest, most prurient way possible. Get the book back off your boyfriend and try reading it properly. Or stuff the book up your arse. I’m easy either way.”
I’ve calmed down a bit now, but I’m still livid. With that Express extract clearly fresh in her mind, I can’t say I blame Tracy Dawson for being upset. We both have a problem with the way the serialisation has been done. I hope she gives the book a second chance and realises that it’s been researched and written with care and love.