Les Dennis and Russ Abbot at Christmas

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The Christmas edition of The Les Dennis Laughter Show aired on 22nd December 1990, between Challenge Anneka‘s restoration of a Romanian Orphanage and the TV premiere of Innerspace. Originally titled simply The Laughter Show, and featuring the double act of Dennis and Dustin Gee, the series was renamed for its titular performer, now working solo after Gee’s death in 1986. On evidence of this half-hour, it’s like giving Emu his own show after Rod’s fingers had curled away from the guttering. And I do take particular issue with use of the word ‘laughter’. It could be more accurately called The Les Dennis Reference Show, as there are no jokes, just plenty of references to things the audience has probably heard of.

All English comedy back then had very a strong policy of “fuck the Scottish!” and festivities begin with a fake continuity advert for upcoming programs; The Jock MacSporran Hogmanay Show — illustrated with a picture of Saddam Hussein on the bagpipes — and the Loch Ness Teenage Mutant Hero Monsters, showing the TMNT in tartan gear swigging from cans. Along with its funny ‘Scotch’ names like Hamish McWhiskeybreath, this is bang in that era of reducing an entire nation to red hair, tartan, and crippling alcoholism for cheap weekly laffs. But never mind, Scots, we’ll soon be done with Les, then it’s on to Russ Abbot. Oh.

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An opening musical number has extras in Victorian dress and the requisite sinister snowman lurking in the background. I wish it’d stoved my fucking head in with a shovel and replaced my eyes with coal, on the sinking realisation Les Dennis is about to do a comedy song. I say ‘comedy’, but it’s just him in a Val Doonican jumper singing Winter Wonderland, while falling over and getting his scarf snagged on the set. At one point, he actually steps on a rake. The sleeves are comically long, hanging down to the floor, and as he staggers through the fake snow, you feel you’re witnessing some horrible half-finished melting Les-Beast from Carpenter’s The Thing.

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He continues the trope of the be-jumpered Christmas host, cosied by a log fire, in a running gag where Brian Glover bursts in to repossess various items because of BBC cutbacks, eventually leaving him stood in his underwear in an empty room. It’s one of a series of digs at television’s poor budget and lack of creativity, which is a bit rum considering how utterly woeful this is; like marching into someone’s living room to announce “pee-yew, it stinks in here!” while covered in dogshit. In a sketch in a TV executive’s office, an elderly commissioner blows dust off the scheduling book they’ve been using since 1954, and takes a pop at Jeremy Beadle, who’s the BBC’s secret weapon. “But he works for ITV?” “I rest my case!” Again, this is Les Dennis taking a crack at someone for being bad at telly.

Because it’s 1990, there’s a Gazza impression, though thankfully one of his balls isn’t hanging out of his shorts like when Bobby Davro did it. Like Davro, there’s such contempt for the audience, even doing a Geordie accent in a full England strip, he still has to introduce himself so they know who he is. If you guessed the whole sketch is just Les going “why-aye, man!” and sticking his tongue out, then you are correct. And course he cries — in two of the three Gazza skits — because it’s a thing you remember, isn’t it?

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This shortcut of referring to a thing to incite a chuckle of recognition in lieu of structuring an actual joke, where the punchline is just a reference to the Spice Girls or Sellafield or the Cones Hotline or Myspace, or whatever was in the tabloid headlines six months ago, is absolutely rampant here. When Les plays a scouse department store Santa, it’s a roll-call of the year’s talking points; last Christmas was ruined by “that mad elf from Iraq,” Paddy Ashdown looks stupid, Tinkerbell’s off “writing fairy stories for The Sun,” and Donner and Blitzen have caught “mad reindeer disease.” In another skit when they’re on the pavement in sleeping bags waiting for the Boxing Day sales, “I’ve been here so long they started charging me poll tax,” while an unseen figure beneath a cardboard box is identified as Salman Rushdie.

Even when Les steps aside to give Lisa Maxwell a monologue as a haughty actress slumming it in panto, it’s just a barrage of references. Julian Clary, Nina Miskow, Bucks Fizz, Janet Street Porter and BSB Squarials; George Best likes a drink and Jason Donovan might be gay. They even do the era’s single most overused reference, as there’s a “halfwit from Blue Peter” in the cast, Cinders’ coach is made from “two toilet rolls and a reel of sticky-back plastic.” Perhaps interesting only to me as a writer is forcing the glaringly incorrect description of sticky-back plastic coming on a ‘reel’, because they’d already used ‘rolls’ in the same sentence; rather than just writing something different or good.

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Perhaps it’s best to keep them from attempting proper gags, with class material like telling a pair of dwarves to stand up when he comes in the room — “oh, you are standing up” — and announcing the death of store elf Harry Little with “such a short life… about 3ft 6.” In an office party scene where he’s doing the Mr. Bean nerd voice, leering at an attractive co-worker, you have to remind yourself Les is getting paid actual money to be on actual television and say everyone’s grandad at Christmas dinner’s annual joke about “pulling a cracker!

In the most confusing moment, we’re back on the Victorian street, in what first appears to be the start of a sketch where a man in a leotard with a bowl cut and Wolverine sideburns starts playing with a yo-yo, until gradually it dawns that, no, this is an actual yo-yo demonstration; all 2 ½ minutes of it. With the poor visual quality and tiny screens of 1990, I doubt anyone could even see the yo-yos against the snowy background, performed against a tableaux of extras who’ve been told to stand completely still, their faces wearing the rictus grins of freshly made-up corpses looking all pretty for an open casket, adding a further nightmarish David Lynch quality. There’s more variety, with a violin performance in front of people who’re supposed to be waiting for the sales, but it looks like a homeless Les Dennis, laying on a freezing pavement on Christmas Day with his fellow tramps, as a tragic backdrop to an upbeat jazz medley of Yuletide hits.

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But nothing’s as baffling as the big closer, which begins with a pan across the empty stands of unseen dolls — JANET JACKSON DOLL, MADONNA DOLL, NINJA TURTLES — under 1950’s American doo-wop music. Les is one of many unsold Rock n’ Roll dolls, dressed like Bill Haley era rockers, and coming to life for a 3 ½ minute musical number. It’s played almost completely straight; not quite Mike Yarwood going “and this is me,” but still an obvious attempt by Les to demonstrate his skills as an all-round entertainer; a song-and-dance man as well as virtuoso comedian. What’s the obsession with 50’s diners-and-hot-rods Americana for this generation of comics? 1993 had Bobby Davro’s Rock With Laughter, while Russ Abbot was doing his Teddy Boy character decades too late.

The whole thing’s excruciating, and when they mime air guitar, saxophone, bass, and piano, I was gnawing on the desk like a big rat. The most notable bit happens beneath a sign marked “M.C. HAMMER DOLL,” when a drumbeat kicks in for Les to (very slowly) start rapping. “What an awesome dude is that MC Hammer, it’s hard to rap when you got a st-st-st-st-st-stammer.” This is a frankly unbelievable piece of thievery from Morris Minor & Majors’ Stutter Rap, which was a decent-sized hit two years earlier (“but it’s hard to rap when you’re born with a st-st-st-st-st-stutter!”). This is what our Christmases were in the 90s; watching Les Dennis, dressed like a stag-do Elvis on Blackpool high street, as he spits mad rhymes about M.C Hammer in a shite American accent — “he shakes his grove thing and he just can’t miss, with his baggy pants you know… you can’t touch this.” Remember that? U Can’t Touch This? It was a thing, wasn’t it? You know things. You like things. Laugh at the reminder of a thing.

06

The closing credits do at least get to add another to our growing collection of continuity panto announcements, giving us a few second’s much-needed respite from Les’s earnest cover of Winter Wonderland, with the news that “Lisa Maxwell is currently appearing at the London Palladium in Russ Abbot’s Palladium Madhouse.” Speaking of old Russ, let’s skip back to Christmas Day 1987, for one of six Russ Abbot Christmas Shows that aired during his BBC run. I’ve previously covered Russ in a Past Laugh Regression, so my expectations are way down the u-bend, especially when it opens on C.U. Jimmy, weirdly sitting down to watch the show he’s in, saying what we’re all thinking, “I just hope he disnae do that Scotchman!” At least they’ve dubbed sleigh bells over the opening theme.

07

When I was eight, me and my mates had a playground joke where we’d pull the head off a daisy and stick it on the stalk of another daisy, forming a kind of tiny daisy dumbbell. “This is He-Man,” we’d say, making strained noises, struggling to lift it off the grass, before announcing “and this is Weed-Man,” and blasting out easy reps. This, in a nutshell, is the comic mind of Russ Abbot. Regard, the opening Batman skit, where Abbot’s sumo-suited ‘Fatman’ struggles to squeeze through a window to rescue Les Dennis’ Robin from the Penguin. The Riddler repeatedly grabs his crotch and runs to the toilet for a piss (Riddler/Jimmy Riddle/Piddle), while — of course — Bella Emberg plays Fatwoman. Showcasing the almost-admirable lack of effort, Fatman’s still got the bat symbol on his chest, and not a pie or something, yet still the audience shriek with laughter as he waddles about the set, getting chairs stuck to his arse. There’s a strong contender in the battle for the night’s worst joke, when Penguin threatens them with an ultron bomb. “Don’t you mean a neutron bomb?” “No, I couldn’t afford a new one — wack, wack, wack!

It’s clear that Abbot’s entire shtick is making a pun on a pre-existing character and turning it into a sketch. Fatman, Basildon Bond, Cooperman and Blunderwoman, and now, Idiot Ness and the Untouchables. In this black and white noir parody, Idiot’s got two brothers, Happy and Loch, and Les Dennis runs about doing a rubbish 1920’s radio announcer’s voice. The most Christmassy thing is more jokes about little people, with a killer midget — “how tall is he?” “3ft 6.” “Well, if he’s guilty, he’ll get a long stretch!” That’s the second 3ft 6 of this post. Is that considered the optimum height for humour? In another familiar-feeling bit, Abbot does his own ‘backstage at a panto’, where Cooperman and Blunderwoman replace a pair of actors who’ve come down with salmonella, giving us another powerful gag. “I like them.” “Like who?” “Sam and Ella.” Fucking save me.

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Perhaps my brain blocked out the previous trauma, but I’d forgotten how much of Abbot’s work consists of dreary musical numbers. There’s one where he’s dressed like a dad in post-war Britain, singing about his family Christmas, with the distressing choice to have the dog played by a full-grown adult in a costume. I can’t lie, there’s a line here that I did like for its weirdness, where he and the wife catch his daughter and the neighbour in bed together, but as it’s the parents’ bedroom, he hand-waves it with a relieved “oh, of course, it must be us!” Another number parodies Freddy Mercury’s Barcelona duet with Montserrat Caballé, titled Macaroni, with loads of jokes about Bella being fat. She’s great value as always, even with the absolute toilet material, growing bigger as the song goes on and eventually exploding. Just as Freddie was in the original, Abbot’s clean shaven, not even bothering with a big set of comedy gnashers, and singing in his normal voice, with none of Freddie’s mannerisms, so if you don’t get the reference, who he’s meant to be is anyone’s guess. Macaroni, it turns out, was written by Bobby Crush, of Opportunity Knocks and Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly). What a fucking resume.

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Other sketches go backstage at a circus and on holiday, with Abbot in a wig that makes him look like Jeffrey Epstein. The latter’s another Russ Abbot staple, of spouting lines made up of complex-sounding words which rhyme, like the Two Ronnies after a bad fall. Following a breakdown where he got fixated on the phrase “Dr. Hector Dexter Proctor of 25 Henty Drive, St. Ives,” another holidaymaker introduces herself as “Phoebe McCreaby Beebee.” Unbearably naff as it is, this somehow induces the single strangest, most hysterical reaction I’ve ever heard, from one audience member.

Is that pleasure or pain? Is she sitting on a Sybian? We desperate jokers and mirth-makers (and sex-havers) could only dream of someday causing a human being to emit to such a noise.

09

After the final of multiple visits back to C.U. Jimmy and his red-headed family knocking back the booze, it’s mercifully time for the closing number, where Abbot’s Santa has a rooftop party with other fairytale characters. Like Les Dennis’ rock n’ roll, it’s played pretty straight, with Abbot’s desire to be a serious singer once again trumping the urge to be funny, though there’s time for one last little person joke — “the Mad Hatter’s drinking tea, and all the dwarves are drinking shorts.” A Jingle Bells dance-break is the most festive thing that happens all night, before Les Dennis dressed as Mary Poppins flies in on an umbrella, demolishing a chimney stack. Russ signs off as himself in a lovely jumper, wishing us a Merry Christmas and — in his Scottish accent — “a happy, happy Hogmanay,” which, considering, is like when Trump’s secretary grabs his phone to tweet out warmest greetings for Eid al-Fitr. But we do get another continuity announcement, and it’s a double! “Russ Abbot is currently appearing at the Lyric Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue in One For The Road, and Les Dennis the Theatre Royal Nottingham in Babes in the Wood.” No wonder suicide rates spike at this time of year.

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~ by Stuart on January 13, 2020.

3 Responses to “Les Dennis and Russ Abbot at Christmas”

  1. […] Shagnasty,’ who tells Kenny Baker to stand up, in a reprise of a joke last seen in the Les Dennis Christmas Laughter Show. Then Jim comes out, dressed like a schoolgirl, holding his crotch and doing a child-voice that […]

  2. […] the Grave) credited as writers, though a jokester for Noel, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, and Russ Abbot‘s also listed, which makes entirely more […]

  3. […] but can eventually be seen on the Celebrity Big Brother they’ll make you watch in Hell, with Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Arthur ‘Living Mushroom’ Mullard, Max Beesley’s dad, and big Michael […]

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