Lionel Blair, a showbiz veteran and flamboyant, was a young man when The Beatles were still in their youth.
Fans of the Fab Four discovered him in 1964 when he played the tetchy choreographer driven to distraction in A Hard Day’s Night.
But the actor, presenter and song-and-dance man — who died today at the age of 92 — had been around for a couple of decades before that.
He and his sister Joyce were regulars at London’s famous Windmill Theatre in the 1950s where Lionel helped Bruce Forsyth settle in. Incredibly, Brucie’s mentor was still twinkle-toed and hard at work until the start of the pandemic.
He was a regular on Loose Women’s, The One Show and This Morning. His brilliant smile, bouffant locks and nifty foot patter were trademarks of his appearance.
Lionel Blair, who died at the age 92, danced with Suzanne Danielle on The Morecambe and Wise Show
When he appeared on BBC1’s The Real Marigold Hotel in 2017, tasting life as a retiree in Kerala, India, he was filmed arriving at Kochi Airport doing a softshoe shuffle.
‘Welcome to India!’ he chuckled, to the bemusement of the locals who thought they should be welcoming him. Lionel said that he always brought the party along.
Henry Lionel Ogus, his father was a Canadian barber who was born in 1928. He was raised in Stamford Hill (North London) by his Jewish mother, a Jewish barber, whose parents were Russian refugees.
He was 13 when his father died, which forced him to grow up, he said.
‘We had no money, so I had to work,’ he said.
‘I’d started work as a boy actor and my dad had been thrilled about that, but I became too old for little-boy parts and too young for grown-up parts. I was able to dance, so I started performing in musicals. [sister] Joyce.’
Una Stubbs and Michael Aspel, Lionel Blair on Give Us A Clue
He fell in love with the stage while playing a Munchkin at The Wizard Of Oz in Croydon when he was ten years old. In 1944, he was offered a seat at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
However, after the war, there was intense competition, irregular work, and his natural talent for dancing.
In 1947, he took his stage name and began to work in West End variety acts. It was difficult in the beginning. His mother died, ‘so we were orphans’.
Then Joyce married, and the double act — based on routines created by Fred Astaire and his sister Adele — became a solo career.
Through a hardworking work ethic and a strong personality, Lionel started his own troupe, Lionel Blair and His Dancers, in his 20s. They were regularly seen on TV shows like Harry Secombe and Friends and Saturday Spectacular. He also trained Una Stubbs.
He was a regular on family programs, from Sunday Night At The Palladium to Big Night Out to Frost On Sunday and The Benny Hill Show. He still wanted to be an actor.
After marrying Susan in 1967, he told her he was ready to stop dancing — he wanted to be taken seriously, he said.
‘She said that was fine but the house and our lifestyle would have to go, too. I soon realised how fortunate I was,’ he later recalled.
Lionel and his wife had three children. Despite all his success in showbiz, he always believed that his family was the greatest success in his life.
‘For me, everything comes back to family. We’ve got three grandchildren, and it’s heaven. I love them to distraction,’ he said.
His children initially found it difficult to have a father like him. His camp persona led him to being teased at school. So, Susan and Lionel decided to send them all to a theatre school.
That changed everything. ‘There were kids there who were almost jealous because they [my kids] had a famous father,’ Blair said.
Lionel Blair with Susan, their newborn daughter Lucy Jane, as well as their son Daniel
He never met the son he was destined to have with Susan, which was a regrettable decision. A relationship with a dancer he never named (but referred to in interviews as ‘Katie’) broke up when she was five months pregnant.
After the baby boy was born, Blair was invited through a friend of Katie’s to come to the maternity hospital. He decided it would only cause pain.
‘I knew that once I had seen him, I would never let him go,’ he said. He never saw Katie again.
She wrote to him once at the Palladium, he said — but a cleaner threw the letter away before he had made a note of her new address.
It was, he said sadly, ‘a terrible thing’.
Lionel was frustrated by the fact that people didn’t see him as anything other than a light entertainer until the end of his days.
He was always in demand for game shows such as Give Us A Clue, the charades panel show — but not for his deeper talent. It was ‘terribly frustrating,’ he said.
‘I can act. I could do the same roles Jack Lemmon does. Alan Rickman. But I have become so well known as a dancer I am not allowed to do other things’.
He was particularly irritated by the weekly teasing on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue, where presenter Humphrey Lyttelton and co delighted in making double entendres about his charades.
A typical joke imagined ‘Lionel Blair and Una Stubbs doing All Kinds Of Everything against the clock’.
He didn’t try to temper his exuberance. ‘I can’t help being effusive,’ he protested.
His greatest indulgence was for designer clothing. Susan refused to allow him to have a credit card or a chequebook because he would spend every penny on his wardrobe.
He happily admitted that he was vain and refused to disclose his age. His children discouraged him from calling him Dad, and his grandchildren called him Lionel, not Grandad.
‘I don’t mind getting old,’ he told the Mail in 1994, ‘as long as I can carry on looking good. I’ve already had my nose done. When I have to have nips and tucks, I will.’
He wore a beautiful head of dark hair to the end.
‘It is so springy, too springy,’ he would say, patting it down. The hair bounced back, just like Lionel.