Once one of the country’s biggest entertainers, Les Dennis has turned his back on comedy to focus on acting.
Before making his Coronation Street debut, we find out why it’s all thanks to Ricky Gervais.
“He’s an opportunist, rather than a career burglar, so he doesn’t intend to scare anybody,” says Dennis, 60, explaining his character’s actions.
“He hopes to be burgling an empty house and worries about people being insured. He’s a burglar with a conscience!”
Due to prior commitments (he’s currently on a nationwide theatre tour of The Perfect Murder), Dennis only appears in two episodes initially, although he’s set to return to screens in June. As brief as his introduction is, the scenes set a strong foundation for the character.
“He’s disturbed burgling Gail’s house and tries to make out he’s fixing the gas meter,” Dennis reveals. “He gets chased by Kylie and you later find he’s been caught.”
As a victim of crime, Gail winds up visiting him in prison. “She’s thankful for his apology,” says Dennis, referring to the ‘restorative justice’ storyline that will play out over the summer months - and lead to an unexpected understanding between the pair.
Dennis is “absolutely thrilled” to be working with Helen Worth, who’s played Gail since 1974.
“I think she’s a great actress,” he notes - and it also means there are sure to be run-ins with the Platts. “They’re a family who are really at the hub of the street, so that gives me a lot of potential as an actor,” Dennis adds. While Michael might not mean any physical harm to his victims, he doesn’t understand the effect his actions have. “And the violation you feel,” says Dennis, whose home in London was burgled three years ago.
He’d called London home since 1987 but, last year, Dennis and his wife decided to move their family to Cheshire, a decision he acknowledges might “subconsciously” have had something to do with the burglary.
“But we also wanted to give the kids more space,” he adds. The move also means that Dennis, who hails from Liverpool originally, is nearer to relatives and now has a very easy commute, being just 20-minutes from the Corrie set.
A lifelong fan of the show, he became associated with the soap back in the Eighties, after doing a Mavis impersonation to fellow impressionist Dustin Gee’s Vera. He and Gee had a comedy double-act and their own show, The Laughter Show, from 1984 until 1986, the year Gee died following a heart attack.
“When we did that, Liz [Dawn, who played Vera Duckworth until 2010] said to come down and see the set. It’s a dream come true for me to be playing a serious role in the soap.” It hasn’t all been highs. There was the tabloid frenzy in 2000 surrounding his second wife Amanda Holden’s affair with Neil Morrissey. The pair reunited briefly before separating in 2002.
The same year, Dennis appeared in the Celebrity Big Brother house and suffered something of a meltdown, talking to the chickens and vacantly staring into space for hours. He still managed to finish runner-up behind series winner Mark Owen, though.
“I don’t have any regrets about it,” he says. “When I came out, I thought maybe that wasn’t my greatest decision and the phone didn’t ring for a while.”
The phone did eventually ring though; Ricky Gervais called and offered him a cameo in his TV series, Extras. He’d written “a twisted, demented version of Les Dennis”.
“So every cloud... You’ve got to think of it that way,” adds Dennis, who attributes his career reinvention to the Office star. “If I hadn’t done Extras then I wouldn’t have been offered the roles I’ve been offered on stage, and I wouldn’t eventually have got here.“Everyone needs a reboot now and again.”