Les Dennis is the master of reinvention. As he brings Uncle Fester to Yorkshire, Phil Penfold meets the man behind the make-up.
He was as described by friends as “sociable and debonair”. Married three times, he was often seen in the company of Joan Fontaine, Jacqueline Kennedy and Greta Garbo. His name? Charles Addams, the creator of one of the funniest and most popular series of cartoons ever printed.
His Addams Family strip first appeared in The New Yorker in 1938, and continued for another 50 years until the artist’s death. Then came the hugely successful TV franchise, animated films, movies and several books. And now, a musical, currently packing out theatres all over the UK.
The original production, which had a run of nearly two years on Broadway, has now been trimmed and somewhat filleted, but it still has at its core a ghoulish American family who have a taste for all things macabre. While a limited West End run is on the cards, rather than it opening cold, the canny producers would far rather see it touring the country to selected venues building up its own fan base as it travels.
It’s a gamble which appears to be paying off, due in large part to the casting. Who would have thought that Les Dennis would have made such a perfect Uncle Fester? Or that Samantha Womack, who spent almost 10 years playing Ronnie Mitchell in EastEnders would be such a gloriously sinister Morticia?
“I think it’s brilliantly done, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?,” says Les, almost unrecognisable under a thick layer of pallid make-up and shaved head. “We toyed with the idea of me wearing one of those scalp-like wigs. I even tried it out. But it didn’t work at all.
“So I had a chat with my wife Claire, and I said ‘I’m a bit reluctant to go under the razor, what do you think?’. She told me to follow my instincts. And here I am. Bald.”
We are speaking in a break between a matinee and evening performance, but he keeps the make-up on until the final curtain.
“It would be just too much faffing about wiping it off between afternoon and evening shows, and putting it all on again. So on matinee days I quite happily wander around as Fester for eight or so hours.”
Which means that he is restricted to backstage at the theatre, right? “
“Wrong,” he laughs. “We opened in Edinburgh in the late spring, and I thought ‘Oh hell, I’m going to be trapped here for hours’. And then I thought ‘Now come on, Edinburgh is a very cosmopolitan city, they’ve got street performers galore, surely nothing shocks them’, so I took the plunge.
“I used to nip out for a coffee or a snack and no-one turned a single hair. Not one. I think that they thought I was part a ghost tour. Mind you, that was during daytime. I might have a different effect on folk if they spotted me with all this kit on after dark, and lurking near the nearest bus-stop.”
Les, who has two young children, will be 64 in October, but as he grows older, it seems that he is getting more and more adventurous with the roles he takes on.
“I started off on telly on the Hughie Green talent show Opportunity Knocks when I was 17,” he says, “And opportunity has kept on knocking ever since. Rather to my surprise at times. I have always joked that I have never ever held down a proper job.”
While he spent 15 years hosting Family Fortunes, he has somehow avoided being typecast as the genial game show host. He’s done everything from straight plays (he was a memorably endearing Herbert Soppitt in Priestley’s When We Are Married at the West Yorkshire Playhouse) to musicals like Spamalot, Legally Blonde, Hairspray, and Chicago (in the West End). He had a two year stint in Coronation Street, playing the petty criminal Michael Rodgers, is a pantomime regular – once opposite Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney, about which less said soonest mended – he’s written a warts-and-all autobiography and, perhaps most notably, allowed himself to be mercilessly lampooned in Ricky Gervais’ Extras.
“I don’t regret it for a single moment. Every time that someone thinks that they have me sussed, I pop out and do something else. Everyone forgets that I can sing. I had one set of reviews for this show which said something like ‘Les Dennis is a revelation’. Well, thank you very much indeed, but I want to go on surprising people for as long as I am spared.
“I loved a piece about me in one of the papers the other day, which was headlined ‘The long and strange career of Les Dennis’, that made me chuckle. But I’ve always believed in keeping busy – it is harder to hit a moving target.”
Dennis was a fan of The Addams Family long before he was cast in the musical.
“I think I fell in love with The Addams Family when it first came out on TV, but I never for one moment thought that I’d have the great good fortune to follow in the footsteps of the original Uncle Fester, who was played by that great actor Jackie Coogan. I loved his childlike sense of fun, which is precisely what the man is all about. I think that I’ve nailed the accent – I went for a slight American burr, and then put in a little bit of Coronation Street’s Mavis and he ‘I don’t rightly know’, with a rising inflection.”
He also likes Fester because he has a slightly dreamy side to him. Does that chime with him? Under the make-up, Les blushes a little and admits that he did indeed propose to Claire by sending her a postcard with a Breakfast at Tiffany’s illustration. On the back he invited her to meet him at the famous jewellery store to choose a ring.
Samantha Womack has also taken a radical career swerve. When her EastEnders character was killed off earlier this year, she knew that she had to do something totally different.
“This is different in so many ways. Not least is that I am a natural blonde, and Morticia has jet black hair,” she says. “But acting for TV is very different from acting for a live audience. A completely different discipline.
“Actually, I think that Morticia would feel quite at home with some of the people who live on Albert Square or who drink in the Queen Vic. Who would she hang out with – remember Mary the punk, and Lofty? She’d get on very well with them. I lived with Ronnie for nearly a decade, and yes, I felt a little lost when I left, but now, working with this team, is a whole new experience. Believe me, it genuinely is a lot of fun, The Addams Family on stage, and a lovely family atmosphere backstage. We are always in and out of the other’s dressing rooms. The whole cast is a joy. I don’t think that I’ve had as much fun for ages – and I think that that sense of enjoyment really does flow over into the audiences.”
But then there’s a word of caution from Les.
“I might,” he says, with a cheeky twinkle in his eye, “actually try that idea of standing in a bus shelter after the show, in Bradford or Sheffield when we play those dates. Just saying. Be warned...”
The Addams Family, Bradford Alhambra, July 4 to 8. 01274 432000, bradford-theatres.co.uk; Sheffield Lyceum, September 12 to 16. 0114 249 6000, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.