Lionel makes a song and dance of 60 showbiz years

VERY few performers can rival the showbiz achievements of Lionel Blair over the past six decades.

Singer, dancer, actor, choreographer and TV presenter, he has worked with a cavalcade of stars from Sammy Davis Jnr to Tommy Cooper, Bruce Forsyth, Mike and Bernie Winters, Kenny Everett, Sir Jimmy Savile, Cilla Black, Roger Moore, Tony Curtis, Ant & Dec, Harry Hill, Peter Kay and Ricky Gervais.

Born in Montreal in 1931, the son of Lithuanian Jews Myer Ogus and Deborah (Della) Greenbaum, his parents moved to London when Lionel was a year old.

Lionel has fond memories of growing up in Tottenham and Stamford Hill.

"I had a great family life, "he recalled.

"My parents were really supportive and I was really close to my late sister Joyce.

"I went to Egerton Road School in Stamford Hill, which was near a shul. We were not particularly shulgoers, but at Pesach we got new clothes and it was nice to show them off.

"Dad learned to shave with an open razor on a balloon, but there was never any thought of following in his footsteps as a barber - and he did not want it."

Changing his name to Blair in his youth after his dad took advice from a friend, Lionel and his sister Joyce performed in London Tube shelters during World War Two and were always encouraged to entertain.

The duo went on to become a professional double act.

"At a wedding, barmitzvah or parties, Joyce and I would sing, tap dance and jitterbug," he said.

"Mum would take us to the pictures to see the musicals, but everything started when I went into acting at 12.

"I really enjoyed acting but I was 15 when dad died and we had no money so I got into a musical as it was steady work.

"Dad's death affected me tremendously because I knew suddenly I was the breadwinner."

He could never have dreamed of the success that was to follow. From the 70s to 90s, millions of TV viewers switched on to see Lionel on iconic shows such as New Faces, Name That Tune, Celebrity Squares and Give Us A Clue.

And he was also at home entertaining on classic shows like Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game, Kenny Everett Television Show, Jim'll Fix It and Surprise Surprise!

Light entertainment in the best traditions has been Lionel's forte, whether on The Royal Variety Show or at the London Palladium, but he also played cameo appearances in sitcoms as diverse as Bless This House, Birds of a Feather, Last of the Summer Wine and Extras.

Featured on This Is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews in 1974, a new generation has marvelled at Lionel's talent in more recent times during appearances on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, Britain's Got More Talent, Soapstar Superstar and Strictly Come Dancing.

And in the festive period when panto comes alive, his legions of fans have laughed along as he's taken up his favoured role of Buttons in Cinderella.

Lionel's rich lifetime of experiences are now captured in his autobiographical solo show Tap and Chat with Lionel Blair, which he is taking to the Leeds Jewish International Performing Arts Festival in June.

Although acting and singing were Lionel's first breaks, dance was not far behind.

"Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were my heroes," he recalled. "They were so stylish and I loved the glamour surrounding them."

Lionel's big break came at the Royal Variety Command Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in front of the Queen Mother in 1961.

A black-and-white clip of the iconic routine with Sammy Davis Jr appears on YouTube.

During the comedy sketch Lionel is cast as a posh Saville Row-style shop assistant while Davis is an American looking to become posh. The subsequent eight-minute routine sees Lionel match the legendary US entertainer step for step to rapturous applause.

"Working with Sammy was amazing," he recalled.

"Sammy knew where I was at and was unbelievable to work with, just wonderful and in the number gave the ending to me.

"We became good friends. Meeting and performing with him was the highlight of my career."

Sammy gave Lionel a silver dollar, which he treasures. On the back reads the inscription: "To Lionel Blair. Because I dig you. Love Sammy Davis Jr."

Lionel was now in the big-time and the 1960s saw his dance troupe appear on many TV variety programmes. But his great gift over six decades in the business has been adaptability.

"I'm remembered for dancing rather than acting or singing because of television," he said.

"I also did choreography and then when Give Us A Clue came along, I became known for that.

"It's just the way it is. With Max Bygraves, people wanted to hear Tulips from Amsterdam but he could do so much more.

"Being part of Give Us A Clue with opposing team captain Una Stubbs was unbelievable.

"We made six to start with but the first three got into the top 10 in television viewing figures so we made another 12 and made over a 1,000 in the end.

"The success of the show did not surprise me but the variety of guests that wanted to come on did."

Television has been great for Lionel, but live theatre is where he also feels very much at home.

"Every theatre has its own magic and when you go to say The Palladium there is something wonderful about it because the atmosphere is really special," he noted.

From Forsyth to Cooper, Kay and Gervais, Lionel has worked with the cream of British entertainers.

"Mike and Bernie Winters, old choochy face, and Tommy Cooper were wonderful," he said.

"The Two Ronnies were absolutely brilliant and not a swear word. It was just comedy genius.

"Nowadays, I love Ant and Dec, and Peter Kay makes me laugh while Ricky Gervais can be brilliant."

So what does this star of stage, screen and gameshows galore put his longevity down to?

"Work keeps me going, I enjoy it so much," he said.

"I love meeting people and working with all the new comedians. Dancing of course keeps me fit and I still have my hair so I'm not doing bad."

As for things that did not quite work out, Lionel cites a Tom Stoppard play.

"I thought it would lead to everything and I got great reviews but was never offered a straight play", he said

"I'd loved to have done a Broadway show and Hollywood movie but it was not to be."

Lionel was a hit with his solo show Tap and Chat with Lionel Blair at the New End Theatre, London and subsequently Edinburgh Festival last year.

At the festival he also won acclaim for his part in Sheridan's School for Scandal in which he led a cast of stand up comedians.

Regarding the future, Tap and Chat headlines in Leeds soon and his official life story may be on the cards.

"With Tap and Chat I go from my childhood through to people I worked with, shows I've done, perform a soft-shoe tap routine and end by dancing with a lady from the audience," he enthused.

"We finish with a question and answer session. It's great fun.

"I will probably do a book and call it the Blair Facts.

"People often ask who I did not like working with but I can count them on probably one hand. I've loved everyone. They all had their own special thing."

When it comes to the secret of his success, Lionel is succinct.

"To be successful in show business it's down to hard work but you also need a touch of luck.

"Meeting Sammy was great for me but I also went to school with Mike and Bernie (Winters).

"When the boys got their own show I was doing choreography and they said we want Lionel but you have to deliver.

"I have been so lucky to be in this business. I cannot believe I'm 78 - I feel that I'm coming up to 28."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph