Paris in the fifties, and in a dimly lit bar a young man tinkles the same tune on the piano over and again.
He looks forlorn, with a hangdog expression that – years later – the British public will come to know and love.
It’s a snapshot from a charming new episode of Urban Myths, the Sky series which puts a comedic spin on a host of scandalous, surprising and surreal urban legends involving the arts world’s most iconic figures.
This one tells the true story of the much-loved comedian Les Dawson’s decision to move to Paris as a young man to pursue his dream of becoming a serious novelist.
Urban Myths, the Sky series, tells the true story of the much-loved comedian Les Dawson’s decision to move to Paris as a young man to pursue his dream of becoming a serious novelist. Pictured, Les Dawson with wife Tracy Dawson and newborn daughter Charlotte in 1992
After a failed attempt to become a writer in a bold move to Paris, France, much-adored Dawson ended up becoming a pianist in a brothel before he found success
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out as he planned, and he ended up becoming a pianist in a brothel – not quite what he anticipated, but rich pickings for the show’s writer Steve Pemberton, who drew from the late entertainer’s autobiographies to paint a picture of this relatively unknown period in the life of what he calls ‘Les Dawson before he was the Les Dawson we all know.’
‘I thought it was just really interesting to look at the man before as it were, and how does someone find their voice,’ Pemberton says.
‘To focus on this period in his life, in his early twenties, when he went to live in Paris, and he wanted to become a serious writer, and he spent a while there.
‘No one knows exactly how long, but he came back with his tail between his legs having failed to be a writer and he tried again to go into comedy and play the working men’s clubs.
‘I think he was, if not 40, then certainly knocking on 40 by the time he became the Les Dawson that we all know, but there were many years of struggle in the working men’s clubs and these adventures like going to Paris and deciding to be a literary figure.
‘Hopefully, this will send people back to find out a bit more about him and his life.’
The new series puts a comedic spin on a host of scandalous, surprising and surreal urban legends involving the arts world’s most iconic figures. Pictured, Mark Addy (left) and John Bradley (right) who were cast to play the comedian throughout his life
The show’s writer Steve Pemberton drew from the late entertainer’s autobiographies to paint a picture of a relatively unknown period in the life of what he calls ‘Les Dawson before he was the Les Dawson we all know’
Dawson died in 1993 at the relatively young age of just 62, leaving behind his widow Tracy and then eight month old daughter Charlotte (he had three older children by his first wife Margaret).
Tracey and Charlotte, both of whom gave their blessing to the project, attended part of the filming and even gave actor Mark Addy – who plays the older Dawson, reflecting on this period in his life – one of Dawson’s signet rings to wear for his scenes.
They also brought along Dawson’s original diary from his time in Paris.
‘It was incredible to see, in this tiny pocket diary, and it felt so vital and it felt like it was with us there in the room,’ says Pemberton.
‘You can tell that when he was writing his autobiography, he was referring back to his diaries anyway because a lot of what was in there he had put in his autobiography.’
The challenge for the actors, meanwhile, was trying to capture the essence of Dawson rather than lapse into impersonation.
Dawson died in 1993 at the relatively young age of just 62, leaving behind his widow Tracy and then eight month old daughter Charlotte, as well as three older children by his first wife Margaret
The series writer said he hopes the programme will send people back to find out a bit more about Les Dawson and his life before he became a household name. Pictured, John Bradley playing a young Les Dawson
‘You’re not trying to look exactly like him,’ says Addy, who describes Dawson as a ‘comedy legend’ who always allowed his audience to feel in safe hands.
‘Things like the signet ring do a great job of making you feel like him, but it’s capturing him through the delivery of lines and trying to get the voice right, and that hangdog delivery.’
We meet Addy’s Dawson at the piano in an empty television studio, from which he recalls his youthful adventures in Paris.
‘It keeps cutting back and forth, and at the very end, you realise that he’s in the studio doing a rehearsal for the ‘An Audience with Les Dawson’ which was due to happen before he died,’ he says.
Pemberton admits Addy was at the forefront of his mind for the older Dawson, but that casting the young Dawson was ‘trickier’.
He opted for 32-year-old John Bradley, who will be well known to Game of Thrones fans as Jon Snow’s companion Samwell Tarly in the epic saga.
‘I knew that I wanted it to be about this young 20-odd year old Les Dawson who wouldn’t necessarily be this kind of paunchy, gravel voiced man,’ says Pemberton.
‘It’s an embryonic Les Dawson. John was one of the suggestions. We met him for a coffee and loved him. And his dad’s from Collyhurst, which is where Les Dawson grew up and we just felt it was meant to be.’
Tracey and her daughter Charlotte both gave their blessing to the project and attended part of the filming and even gave actor Mark Addy one of Dawson’s signet rings to wear for his scenes. Pictured, Les and his wife Tracy Dawson
Steve Pemberton said he found casting the younger Les Dawson ‘trickier’ and in the end opted for 32-year-old John Bradley, (pictured playing Les in the new series) best known to Game of Thrones fans as Jon Snow’s companion Samwell Tarly
For Bradley, the challenge of steeping into Dawson’s younger man shoes was trying to envisage the man’s presence without any visual clues.
‘Les Dawson is a persona that everybody is so familiar with, but there’s only real extensive documentary evidence of that from his forties onwards, so any time before that is a lot of guesswork,’ he says.
‘From some of his writing from earlier on you do get a flavour of where he was intellectually and what his likes and dislikes were from that, but in terms of his kind of demeanour, there’s a lot of guesswork going on.’
His father’s Collyhurst roots helped. ‘My dad comes from exactly the same part of Manchester, Colliers, that Les came from, so just from my dad’s anecdotal description of what it was like I know exactly what that world was like, and what a product of that world was like,’ he says,.
‘It was a very tough environment and people didn’t necessarily have a lot of patience with people who thought they were above it.
‘So, to be in that environment and have these aspirations, I kind of know where this character started from and why he came to Paris and what the motivations were.’
Actor John Bradley, who plays the younger Les Dawson, said the challenge of steeping into Dawson’s younger shoes was trying to envisage the man’s presence without any visual clues
The actor said his father’s Manchester Collyhurst roots helped him get into character and figure out just what it was like to grow up in that world. Pictured, Steve Pemberton and John Bradley
Madam Gaudin is played with verve by Darling Buds of May’s Pam Ferris, complete with ill-fitting wig
Whether or not Dawson used a degree of poetic licence when he documented his time in Paris can only ever be guessed at, but Pemberton believes it to be largely true.
‘He definitely did go and he found a job playing the piano in this bar, and he could never understand why the bar was sometimes full of men and sometimes completely empty and no one seemed to stay and have a drink; people were always passing through, and he just was told to play the same tune over and over again,’ he says.
‘And he later found out he was playing in a brothel and upstairs the trade was going on and his job was just to keep playing the piano. And he had to play the same tune over again, which was Limelight from the Charlie Chaplin film because it would drive the people out. ‘
‘I mean he doesn’t talk at length about this time in his life, but I felt there was a freedom to write it the way I wanted it, but he talks about meeting this beautiful barmaid, Emerald, and he talks about the Madam who worked there who would come and hum along with him and wore a beautiful red dress.’
Step forward Madam Gaudin, played with verve by Darling Buds of May’s Pam Ferris, complete with ill-fitting wig.
Whether or not Dawson used a degree of poetic licence when he documented his time in Paris can only ever be guessed at, but Pemberton believes it to be largely true
‘We juggled about with the idea of wigs and no wigs, and we talked about turbans quite a lot because glamorous turbans were fashionable,’ she says with a smile.
‘But something happened when I put that wig on – everybody can see it’s a wig, but you don’t mention it. I knew people like that 20, 30 years ago – people used to walk around with terrible wigs on. So, she’s not getting away with it, but I like that, I love that look.’
While Gaudin’s character is not fleshed out in the diaries, Ferris said she allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps.
‘I should think this is a very common practice – of someone who was a prostitute who probably gets too old for it finds a way of running some kind of a bar or something,’ she reflects.
‘I’ve imagined that she’s in the world of prostitution from younger and that her contacts have blurred having to be a madam rather than a career madam, as it were, and she’s definitely too old for it now – although she may have a regular or two, for all I know.’
We meet Addy’s Dawson at the piano in an empty television studio, from which he recalls his youthful adventures in Paris
Pemberton, meanwhile, allowed himself the indulgence of a cameo as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who Dawson talks about in his autobiography.
‘I thought wouldn’t it be fun if we had Les Dawson having a conversation with Jean Paul Sartre?’ he confides.
‘And it’s almost like it’s not really happening, it’s in his head, at his lowest ebb, this existential ‘’who am I?’’, this young man struggling to find out what he wanted to do, struggling to find his voice.’
And when it came, it came by accident. ‘It wasn’t until this one night in Hull which we also reference in the programme, where he got so drunk he went on stage and didn’t do his normal act, which was playing quite a jazzy piano and trying to be quite show business-like.
‘He was miserable and he just said, “Well, it’s nice to be here in this renovated fish crate. What an audience. I’ve seen more life in a tramp’s vest.” And he was just speaking about his own misery about getting nowhere, failing as a writer, failing as a comedian,’ Pemberton says.
‘And the more miserable he was, the more the audience laughed, they loved him, and so that’s the night he says that he found his comic voice.’|
Yet nor did he ever give up on his writing, penning several novels and telling his widow ‘’always remind them – I was a writer too.’
‘Tracy Dawson said he wanted to be remembered as a writer,’ says Pemberton. ‘ So, I hope this will change people’s opinion of him, showing that he did have literary aspirations and he did bring that out in his comedy.’
Urban Myths: Les Dawson’s Parisienne Adventure will air on Sky Arts on 7th October at 10pm, now available for everyone to watch on Freeview Channel 11.