The secrets of Lionel Blair’s success — by the stars who knew him

For decades the Canadian-born entertainer was a mainstay of British television. After his death, some of his contemporaries share recollections.


BOREHAMWOOD, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 03: Lionel Blair enters the Celebrity Big Brother House at Elstree Studios on January 3, 2014 in Borehamwood, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

The Jewish showbiz icon Lionel Blair, who died last week aged 92, was known for many things: his appearances onthe iconic game show Give Us a Clue, his relentless on-stage energy, and, most of all his tap dancing, which would sometimes pepper his conversations.

But the secrets to his extraordinary success in so many areas of performance are less well-known.

Singer and Carry On star Anita Harris, who knew Blair well and worked with him several times during her acting career, revealed to the JC that whatever he was involved in, he always visualised in advance how a show would come across to those watching and then make sure he hit that standard.

“He had a picture of how things should look and then he would present that to make sure there was something perfect for the audience,” she said.

Blair’s idea of how a show should land with the audience was so fine-tuned that, according to Harris, “he would make sure that he was involved in the costuming, in how you looked, in the hair and the wigs”.

Another “X factor” that made Blair such a star was that he knew how important it was to motivate those who performed with him and whose energy his own performance would feed off.

“You would arrive at a rehearsal in the morning and he would already be so alive and ready for the job that he enticed you into wanting to do your best and he helped you into doing your best as a performer,” Harris said.

Jive Aces lead singer Ian Clarkson, who recorded an album with Blair in 2004 paying homage to the entertainer's tapdancing hero Fred Astaire, recalled how "amazing" he was to work with. “Once the songs were chosen, getting the right key for his voice and the correct rhythm for the song,  because he was a dancer this was very important."

To Allo Allo star Vicki Michelle, he was "Mr. Showbiz" and ever "the consummate professional". She recalled how he had "time for everyone and everyone loved him" and felt that his passing was "a great loss not only to those who knew him but to our profession."

Blair also had an extraordinary ability to put himself in the shoes of others and to empathise — a key quality for an actor. Harris, who worked with him on a duet performance of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town as part of a Thames Television Christmas special starring the likes of Bruce Forsyth and Tommy Cooper, recalled once taking part in a photocall with Blair and other megastars. “I was standing away from a lot of names of major artists and he said, ‘Hold on, hold on, come over. You are missing it,’” she said. “He made me aware that you keep your feet firmly on the ground, whether tapping or not tapping.”

Three Degrees singer Sheila Ferguson, who spent over a month in India with Mr Blair while filming the BBC1 reality series The Real Marigold Hotel, also praised his generosity.

“That was when I really got to know the man. He was deeply feeling, caring, and giving. Especially to younger performers. He was of an age when the idea was ‘if you don’t have anything good to say about a person, say nothing,” she said.

Stepney-born Jewish actress Sandra Caron, meanwhile, remembered their gatherings with her sister, the pop star Alma Cogan, and the singer Sammy Davies.  “They were all great mates, always at our flat,” she told the JC. “The sixties as you know were legendary. Lots of laughs.”

Mr Blair, she revealed, "always joked with my mum, wanting her to make chicken soup. He was such a talent, our own Fred Astaire!” 

Former BBC Radio Jersey presenter Murray Norton, who interviewed Mr Blair many times during his career, recalled how he once “introduced his daughter, then the model in the Special K TV ads, saying she was more interesting than him to talk to”.

For decades the Canadian-born entertainer was a mainstay of British television, presenting Name That Tune and gracing programmes from Give Us A Clue to Celebrity Big Brother.

After his Russian-Jewish parents migrated to London, Blair and his sister, Joyce, began performing in Underground stations during the Blitz. The presenter described his background as “Jewish, but not Orthodox”.

He told the Guardian that during the war, “Dad brought bacon home and we’ve eaten it ever since. I think that was frowned upon by certain people in the community when they got a sniff of our bacon sandwich. But every Friday we had chicken and my mother would light candles.”

Asked how the son of a “Baltic barber” caught the showbiz bug, he told the JC in 2009: “The pictures. Fred (Astaire) and Ginger (Rogers). That’s what did it for me. I used to watch them and think: ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to do’. My dad didn’t want me to be a hairdresser... And academically I wasn’t that bright. But I knew I could dance.”

After his father died, Mr Blair danced for a living in musicals to help provide for his family. In the 1960s, his dance troupe began to feature in TV variety shows, and he made a memorable appearance as a choreographer in The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night. A 1961 dance-off with Sammy Davis Jr at the Royal Variety Command Performance was one of the highlights of his career.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive