There was a time when Lionel Blair was so famous you could be forgiven for forgetting what he was famous for.
In the 1980s he was best known as the captain, no less, of the men’s team on that cosiest of television parlour games, Give Us A Clue.
To most viewers he was a celebrity who danced a bit — as opposed to a celebrity dancer — and to most TV producers, the embodiment of light entertainment, a composite of blinding smile, awe-inspiring hair and swivelling hips.
But turn back the clock another 20 years, to the Royal Variety Command Performance of 1961 to be exact, and you would discover or rediscover the original Lionel.
This was the show in which Blair stepped on to the Prince of Wales Theatre stage in front of the Queen Mother with none other than Sammy Davis Jr. The unlikely double act was built around a creaky comedy sketch that cast Blair as a stuck up, Saville Row-style shop assistant and Davis as a gauche visiting American who needs lessons in being posh. The routine turns into an anything-you-can-do dance-off, with Davis in his prime setting the standard by rattling out taps like a machine gun. And, guess what? Lionel Blair matches him all the way.
A black-and-white clip of the routine introduces Blair in his solo show Tap & Chat With Lionel Blair, which opens at the New End Theatre in London next week. It is a wonderful piece of film. “It’s a good bit, isn’t it?” Blair says modestly, but with pride too.
Blair took Tap & Chat — billed as a convivial trawl through the enduring variety performer’s life and times — to the Edinburgh Festival earlier this year. It was one of two daily shows he appeared in. Tap & Chat was at 12.45pm and then he was the main draw in a production of Sheridan’s School for Scandal in which he led a cast of comedians, including Stephen K Amos, most of whom were half his age. Clearly, Blair’s appetite for performing is as strong as ever. When Tap & Chat — a combination of anecdote and dance — arrives at the New End it will open the day after Blair’s 78th birthday.
He does not want to give too much away but he cannot help himself.
“I sing a song about all the dancers I’ve known and I go into a soft-shoe tap routine,” he says. “I talk about how I started in the business in pantomime. I was a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. Not the film, I hasten to say — they were real munchkins. Oh! I shouldn’t say that. I don’t want to be politically incorrect.
“And then I get a lady from the audience to come up and have a little dance with me.”
One time he was doing cabaret in Hong Kong and the lady who got up to dance had one leg shorter than the other. “She was a cripple,” he remembers. “I said: ‘I’m so sorry’, and she said: ‘Let’s get on with it’, and we did a wonderful cha cha.”
Henry Lionel Blair Ogus was raised by his Lithuanian parents in Tottenham and Stamford Hill, but he was born in Montreal, in 1931. His parents had been living in Canada for five years before they decided to return to London. The Ogus’s were a close family. Whenever Myer and Deborah had people round to visit, their children, Lionel (then still answering to Henry) and his sister Joyce (who was also a performer — she died in 2006), would be the entertainment.
“We’d sing, we’d tap dance, we’d jitterbug,” says Blair. Later the siblings would become a professional double act. But how did the son of a Baltic barber get bitten by showbiz?
“The pictures. Fred and Ginger. That’s what did it for me. I used to watch them and think: ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to do’. I think I wanted to be famous. My dad didn’t want me to be a hairdresser. Or Joyce. And academically I wasn’t that bright. But I knew I could dance.”
And he could act, too. In fact, it was as a child actor that he became the family bread-winner at the age 15. The thing he loved to do became the thing he had to do when his father died.
“It was pretty awful,” he says. “And what was even more awful was that because I was a boy actor, touring and playing little-boy parts, I was leaving my mother alone. But I had to send money home because that was the only money we had.”
It gave Blair the discipline of the archetypal showbiz pro. Always know your lines, always be on time was the mantra. He acted in Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, he did Stoppard, he did Ayckbourn. But once he was known as a dancer that was pretty much it as far as acting was concerned.
“Everybody said: ‘Give us a twirl, Lionel’. If that’s what they want, that’s what they’re going to get.”
The typecasting still irks, but bitterness is not a thing Blair does.
“People still say almost in a derogatory way: ‘Oh, you’re a dancer’. Or: ‘You’re so showbiz’. Well, what’s wrong with that? I am. I love it. I’m thrilled to have been part of showbiz for so many years.”
He is less thrilled about some of the jibes that have been directed his way. Especially by the late Humphrey Lyttelton in the radio game show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Lyttelton told the bluest possible gags about the performer. It was not fun for his three children when they were young, says Blair, or for Susan, his wife of over 40 years. But with a cameo part in Ricky Gervais’s sitcom Extras, in which Blair played himself as a fading celebrity, no one could accuse him of taking himself too seriously.
What comes across is a man who loves his life and appreciates every minute of it. And it is telling that the thing he values most about his time working with Sammy Davis Jr is not so much the fame it brought him, but the friendship.
“It was the highlight of my career, meeting Sammy and working with him. That was one of the most thrilling things, ever. He was just so kind to me. He gave me a silver dollar. I carry it with me all the time.”
On the back of the dollar is an inscription. It says: “To Lionel Blair. Because I dig you. Love Sammy Davis Jr.”
BORN: Henry Lionel Blair Ogus in Montreal, in 1931, son of a Lithuanian Jewish barber
FAMILY: Married to Susan for 42 years. Three children
CAREER: Actor, tap dancer, choreographer and TV presenter. Team captain on TV quiz show Give Us a Clue in 1980s. Appeared in Ricky Gervais’s sitcom Extras in 2007. Currently performing in his own show