Les Dennis has turned his back on comedy to focus on acting. He makes his Coronation Street debut on Monday. Les has come a long way since his comedy partner Dustin Gee collapsed during in pantomime in Southport on New Year’s night 1986 and died following what was a severe heart attack
A new but recognisable face will soon be popping up on the famous Coronation Street cobbles, as Les Dennis joins the cast as burglar, Michael.
“He’s an opportunist, rather than a career burglar, so he doesn’t intend to scare anybody,” says Dennis, 60, explaining his character’s actions.
“He hopes to be burgling an empty house and worries about people being insured. He’s a burglar with a conscience!”
Due to prior commitments (he’s currently on a nationwide theatre tour of The Perfect Murder), Dennis only appears in two episodes initially, although he’s set to return to screens in June. As brief as his introduction is, the scenes set a strong foundation for the character.
“He’s disturbed burgling Gail’s house and tries to make out he’s fixing the gas meter,” Dennis reveals. “He gets chased by Kylie and you later find he’s been caught.”
As a victim of crime, Gail winds up visiting him in prison. “She’s thankful for his apology,” says Dennis, referring to the ‘restorative justice’ storyline that will play out over the summer months - and lead to an unexpected understanding between the pair.
Dennis is “absolutely thrilled” to be working with Helen Worth, who’s played Gail since 1974.
“I think she’s a great actress,” he notes - and it also means there are sure to be run-ins with the Platts. “They’re a family who are really at the hub of the street, so that gives me a lot of potential as an actor,” Dennis adds.
While Michael might not mean any physical harm to his victims, he doesn’t understand the effect his actions have. “And the violation you feel,” says Dennis, whose home in London was burgled three years ago.
His wife, Claire, was about to give birth to their son, Tom, and the car, which was also been stolen, had been packed with baby clothes and a camera.
“That was the least of our troubles, it was the idea of them being in the house,” says Dennis, whose daughter Eleanor, then two (he also has a grown-up son, Philip, from his first marriage to Lynne Webster) had been asleep at the time.
The police found the perpetrators but they weren’t prosecuted.
“It was one of those things where it became so frustrating,” he recalls.
“We lived right on parkland and it meant that people could get over the fence quite easily. I said I was going to put barbed wire up and they [the police] said that’s an offence, against their [burglars’] human rights. You know, it might hurt their hands when they’re burgling you. I just wanted to draw a line under it.”
He says he would have liked to have met the burglars face to face, but, unlike Gail, doesn’t know “how sympathetic I would’ve been”.
He’d called London home since 1987 but, last year, Dennis and his wife decided to move their family to Cheshire, a decision he acknowledges might “subconsciously” have had something to do with the burglary.
“But we also wanted to give the kids more space,” he adds. The move also means that Dennis, who hails from Liverpool originally, is nearer to relatives and now has a very easy commute, being just 20-minutes from the Corrie set.
A lifelong fan of the show, he became associated with the soap back in the Eighties, after doing a Mavis impersonation to fellow impressionist Dustin Gee’s Vera. He and Gee had a comedy double-act and their own show, The Laughter Show, from 1984 until 1986, the year Gee died following a heart attack.
“When we did that, Liz [Dawn, who played Vera Duckworth until 2010] said to come down and see the set. It’s a dream come true for me to be playing a serious role in the soap.”
Dennis was on his way to Bath with The Perfect Murder when he received the call from his agent saying the soap’s bosses were interested in seeing him for a screen test.
Fortunately, former cast member Gray O’Brien [who played Tony Gordon] also happened to be on tour with the play and helped him with his lines. “He was Gail for the week, he even did her voice, and got me absolutely word perfect.”
The preparation paid off; Dennis was on set a week later.
“It was a fantastically exciting whirlwind,” he says, admitting that he didn’t even suffer first-day nerves as “I only had to run down the cobbles”.
The second day proved more nerve-racking: “It was a very short scene but you have to establish your character very quickly and hit the ground running.”
It helped that the soap’s recent move to Salford meant he wasn’t the only one feeling like a new kid on set.
“Weirdly, everybody was going, ‘We don’t know where we are!’ We were disorientated together,” he says, chuckling.
Although known for his skits, Dennis actually started out as an actor, landing theatre jobs in Liverpool.
“But then I went down the working men’s club route and made a career out of comedy,” he notes.
He won the TV talent show New Faces in 1974 and later teamed up with Russ Abbot for Russ Abbot’s Saturday Madhouse and The Russ Abott Show.
“Comedy’s the hardest thing to do and I think it’s a young man’s game, really,” says Dennis, who began hosting the game show Family Fortunes in 1987, a role he continued until 2002.
“The luxury that show gave me was we’d film for three weeks, and the rest of the year I could go and work for £250 at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury and do a David Hare play,” says Dennis.
“But it’s been a conscious decision to keep reinventing [myself], because it’s a fickle business and the variety era I was part of has all gone now.”
It hasn’t all been highs.
There was the tabloid frenzy in 2000 surrounding his second wife Amanda Holden’s affair with Neil Morrissey.
The pair reunited briefly before separating in 2002.
The same year, Dennis appeared in the Celebrity Big Brother house and suffered something of a meltdown, talking to the chickens and vacantly staring into space for hours.
He still managed to finish runner-up behind series winner Mark Owen, though.
“I don’t have any regrets about it,” he says.
“When I came out, I thought maybe that wasn’t my greatest decision and the phone didn’t ring for a while.”