Lionel Blair and Garry Bushell
“I have to apologize to you, Garry,” he said solemnly. “The first time we met 25 years ago, I lied about my age…don’t take it personally, I lied to everyone back then!” Lionel, who died Thursday at 92, was about to turn 90. You don’t look like it, I told him. “I don’t feel it,” he replied, smiling back in full beam. “I feel wonderful. It’s about keeping your brain young. You don’t have to wear carpet slippers. The only thing that bothers me is my stomach.
The veteran dancer patted his vest. “It’s not big,” he said. “I had prostate cancer in 2006 and the radiation treatment that cured me made my stomach bloat. I can’t complain, but I wish I could lose him.
We talked about his desire to work more and how his age made him more expensive to book. He was down, but only for a moment. Blair was an upbeat, dynamic guy with enough anecdotes to fill an autobiography the size of War and Peace.
He opened his wallet and took out a silver dollar. “Flip it,” he smiled. On the reverse of the coin were inscribed the words: “To Lionel. Because I dig you. Sammy Davis Jr.”
The British Mr Showbiz had worked with entertainment giants. He tap danced with Sammy on the Royal Command Performance. He played with Peter Sellers and with the Beatles; he taught Yul Brynner how to dance and most recently was handcuffed to Ollie Locke on Celebrity Big Brother.
Okay, maybe not so much the last.
“I never say no at work,” he said, sipping a Bloody Mary. “You never know where a job will take you…”
Lionel Blair is kicked out of the Celebrity Big Brothers house
For example, in 1964, a dance he created for a Mike and Bernie Winters TV show indirectly led to him appearing in the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.
“I was a regular at Blackpool Night Out with my dancers and the producer asked me to come up with a dance,” he recalls. “I invented something called The Kick.
“After the program came out, teachers from all over the country contacted me asking if I could send them the steps! I was supposed to do an exhibition at the Café de Paris. Then Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, contacted and hosted a national tour called The Kick with Cilla Black, Shirley Bassey and Billy J. Kramer! And thanks to Brian, I got a part as Director Dick in A Hard Day’s Night…”
Lionel Blair enjoyed the pantomime
Lionel’s career began in less glamorous circumstances, during the Blitz of World War II. “During the air raids we used to go to Manor House tube station in north Hackney. And my sister Joyce and I used to entertain people there. We sang and danced, played the accordion. Other station managers heard about it and asked us to run their stations as well. So my very first tour was the Piccadilly Line!
“I started dancing because I loved Fred Astaire. I never had any lessons. I taught myself tap dancing on the lino at home. But I never intended to be a dancer. I wanted to be an actor. I was a boy actor. I did Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon.
“But my dad died when I was 15 and I became the breadwinner. And I could make more money dancing than playing so that’s what I did. It was hard but I was working…”
He remembers earning £10 a week on a show called Bob’s Your Uncle, but ‘but it all went to my mum and I got 30 shillings’ – £1.50 – ‘pocket money’.
Lionel’s eyes misted as he nipped at his tiger prawn pasta. “When we were kids, artists were giants,” he said.
“Fred Astaire, Sinatra, Cyd Charisse, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall…it was a golden age, an age of pure class.
“I worked with the Everly Brothers – I was so lucky! And with people like Eric Sykes, Tommy Cooper and Tarby. All geniuses.
When I asked who he rated among today’s stars, Lionel was equally positive.
“I love Jamie Cullum. Paloma Faith has a great voice. Joe Pasquale is wonderful. He’s a unique, completely offbeat character. There’s no other comedian like him. And he doesn’t swear.
“Jason Manford is very good. Graham Norton is brilliant. Fleur East is beautiful, she should be a huge international star. She is an amazing singer and dancer. Adele is very good. Elton John is a national treasure. I love Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks…”
Lionel Blair married Susan Davis almost 55 years ago
Lionel married his wife Susan, who joined us for lunch nearly 55 years ago. “I stole it from my friend,” he confessed. “As soon as I looked at her, I said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry! “”
I asked him what his best qualities were. “We laugh so much,” she said. “We disagree on everything and we argue a lot, but we always end up laughing.”
Their eldest son turned 53 this year.
The Blairs lived in a ranch-style bungalow not far from Epsom in Surrey. Lionel loved TV. “I’m a couch potato,” he said. “I love the Big Bang Theory. Ellen’s sitcom on ITV2 is brilliant. Oh and Mrs. Brown’s boys.
The secret to a long life is laughter and moderation, he said. “I drink but I’m never tipsy. I have never taken drugs. My only guilty pleasure was dark chocolate…but not anymore. He patted his vest wistfully again.
Lionel was born Henry Lionel Ogus in 1928 in Montreal, Canada, after his Jewish parents fled the Soviet Union. Two years later they emigrated to Stamford Hill, London, where her father Myer worked as a barber.
More than forty years later, Lionel returns to Canada with the gift of pantomime. “It was a storm,” he recalls.
In 1980 he led a panto record at the London Palladium with Jim Davidson and Mollie Sugden which ran from December to March.
As a pantomime performer he was earning £15,000 a week but the pressure was too much for him.
His last was in Derby in 2004. “I was Muddles in Aladdin with Sherrie Hewson. I drove home from the Christmas Eve show, had Christmas Day off, and got up early on Boxing Day to get home in time for the matinee. We had two shows that day. I was drained. I had to stop.”
Lionel Blair on the Kenny Everett TV show
Despite a conversation of more than ninety minutes, we only touched on certain aspects of his extraordinary career.
His work with Kenny Everett (“Cleo Roccos whipped me!”), his sister Joyce’s fling with Bob Monkhouse, his friendship with Lionel Bart, the period in Morocco where he ended up appearing in a film called Morocco 7 with Leslie Phillips and Cyd Charisse in exchange for the film company paying his hotel bill…
All of this and his name also carried on in rhyming slang.
“It’s all about experience,” he says with a theatrical wave of his hand.
“The rich model of life. So I never regret anything. I have a wonderful wife, children, grandchildren. I live in the most beautiful country in the world, and I always have fun.
“I’m 90 years old and I don’t give anything!”