A ‘national treasure’ has been in Shaftesbury this lunchtime Star of TV, film and theatre, Lionel Blair, officially opened the town’s Churchill Homes development.
ThisIsAlfred chatted with the 90-year old entertainer as he offered advice for Shaftesbury Arts Centre Youth Theatre members and 93-year Fringe performer Tony Hawkins.
Lionel Blair has never been to Shaftesbury before today. “There used to be a reality TV show called ‘The Farm’, which I did in Warminster so I have been in this area before. And that was a wonderful experience. I learned about every animal. They said ‘you’re going to learn from the birth to the table,’ and I did,” said Lionel.
The actor, dancer and TV presenter was in Coppice Street to cut a ribbon, officially opening the Churchill development. Lionel had not seen Gold Hill when we chatted but he knew all about it. And in the Churchill lounge, a framed picture showed the famous scene that Lionel hoped to view before he returned back home to Surrey later. He worked with child actor Carl Barlow, who pushed the baker’s bike up the cobbles in the iconic Hovis ad. “The little boy that did it originally, I did a show with him once,” said Lionel.
He was just as you would imagine him to be, full of enthusiasm, smiling, laughing and refreshingly down-to-earth for a celebrity who has been at the top of his game for so long. There were gasps of admiration when Lionel revealed his age to the assembled crowd.
“Last December, I was 90 and I’ve been in this business since I was about 12 or 13. I was a Munchkin in The ‘Wizard of Oz’ pantomime in Croydon,” he told the crowd. “Then I did Shakespeare and I was an actor for quite a while. When my dad died, unfortunately, I was the breadwinner. I got into a West End show as a dancer, because I could dance. I’m not trained as a dancer. It was a natural gift, I suppose,” Lionel laughed.
Lionel is known for being nice on TV. I’ve only seen him play an unpleasant character once. He portrayed a cynical and pushy choreographer coaching pop wannabees in Peter Kaye’s send-up of the X-Factor. “Two Up, Two Down,” exclaimed Lionel, recalling the names of the supposed talent show entrant group. “I was evil. He made me say it and do it. I had some choice language. And the girl in that (Sian Gibson) was Peter’s partner in ‘Car Share’.”
Lionel has enjoyed portraying the occasional villain. “I played the Child Catcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ at the Palladium. So that was pretty nasty. But all the children loved me. It was extraordinary. When I would leave the theatre at night, most of the fans waiting were children that wanted to meet the Child Catcher. But I loved doing that,” he smiled.
There is one role Lionel really wanted to play. “Before I got too old, I always wanted to be Doctor Who. I’m too old now, but I’d love to be a villain in that, you know, maybe a ghost or something. I’d love to be a Bond villain too. I could do that, I suppose.”
Lionel has been a high profile TV personality for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, he starred on game shows ‘Name That Tune’ and ‘Give Us A Clue’. And that fame meant that the public often felt they could interrupt him for a chat when he was going about his business.
“When I was young it was a big intrusion,” said Lionel. “I’ve been married 52 years now and my wife found it very intrusive. She wasn’t showbiz at all. When I’m with my family, because I have got three children and three grandchildren, nobody bothers me. They say ‘Hello’. But if I go out alone, I can get a train from my house right into the centre of London and as I get on board, everybody does this,” said Lionel, and he reached into his breast pocket, pulling out his mobile to mimic the act of taking a picture. “God, he can travel by train. Isn’t that wonderful.”
Lionel was preparing to address the residents at Hardy Lodge and their guests. He’s been doing this at Churchill developments around the UK. “During my talk, I say ‘now, are there any questions?’ And I almost know the questions they are going to ask. I know they’re going to ask me about India, because I did ‘the Marigold thing’.” said Lionel. He later told the audience that he liked the experience but he wasn’t a fan of the heat and the food was curry all the time. “They’re also going to ask about my ‘Gotcha’. I got one from Noel Edmonds,” he suggested.
I wanted Lionel’s professional advice for the members of the newly-formed Shaftesbury Arts Centre Youth Group. What would he tell any young people who wanted to pursue his showbiz success? “Never turn a job down. If you think, it’s not big enough or it’s not really me, do it. Have a go at everything. And if you do it, there will be somebody in that audience – it could be a producer or director – who will say he’d be good for something. Never reject a job because you don’t think it’s good enough for you. One thing always leads to another. The first Churchill Homes event I did, I did my very best for it and I have been with them nearly 15 years now, opening their wonderful homes,” he said.
Lionel was recently named ‘Oldie of the Year,’ by The Oldie magazine. He’s proud of that. Older Britons are often overlooked and he thinks that TV programme makers rarely cater for our ageing population. “That’s why I think shows like ‘Vera’ are so wonderful. Brenda Blethyn is superb in that. And then ‘Downton Abbey’ was so great because there were older people in it. There aren’t enough of those shows.”
I told Lionel about Shaftesbury Fringe and how Tony Hawkins is taking singing, violin and saxophone lessons to prepare for his performance, at the age of 93. Lionel was impressed and offered encouragement.
“Keep going. Keep doing it. Try something new. I love doing something new. It’s wonderful. When I did Celebrity Big Brother, I thought I was going to hate it but it was an experience. I met Evander Holyfield, the boxer. I enjoyed myself,” he said. “Learning an instrument – that’s my one regret that I can’t play the piano. I wish I’d learned when I was younger.”
There’s still time, I suggested. “I suppose,” accepted Lionel. “Computers and things like that, I am no good at. See my phone. Look how old that is! When I was in Celebrity Big Brother, my children had computers and there were some nasties, some trolls. If people want to be nasty, let them do it to my face. Not behind my back. It’s awful,” he said.
Lionel was introduced to the applause of a lounge full of residents and friends. He shared some stories from his 78-year career. His first performances were impromptu, morale-boosting shows to entertain Londoners hiding from overhead wartime bombing in the Piccadilly Line’s tube stations. Less than two decades later, he was a household name, sharing the 1961 Royal Variety Performance stage with Sammy Davis Jr.
He’s worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Bob Hope. Lionel later travelled to The States to arrange Danny Kaye’s appearance at the Queen Mum’s 80th celebrations. Kaye, whom Lionel described as ‘tricky’, wanted the Queen Mother to wear a microphone so the crowd could hear her sing along to one of his numbers. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t happen.
Lionel also gave a serious message to the men in the audience. “If you feel unwell, see to yourself.” He revealed how he had seen his doctor for a check-up recently and had undergone a successful radiotherapy course for prostate cancer. “It’s important not to assume that problems will go away,” Lionel advised his attentive crowd.
After a short singsong and ribbon cutting, the champagne flowed as Lionel signed autographs. And Lionel’s fans will be delighted that, true to his word, this appearance was a job he did not turn down.