Lionel Blair: a showbiz phenomenon with all the right moves

Lionel Blair, who has died aged 92, was that modern phenomenon: the all-round entertainer. That meant he might turn up as a stage or film actor, choreographer or star performer on a TV show such as Give Us a Clue. But all-rounders, as any cricket-lover will tell you, have to shine in one particular discipline and, in Blair’s case, it was as a dancer.

If you want proof, you have only to look at a clip of him doing a competitive tap routine with Sammy Davis Jr in a 1961 Royal Variety Show. The joke is that they are both playing bowler-hatted English gents vying for supremacy. Davis performs with his usual elan and departs saying “Toodle-pip”. He leaves the stage clear for Blair who, with his slim frame and galvanised elegance, if anything outdoes the master. Dancing was clearly Blair’s forte, which is why he formed his own troupe – who regularly adorned stage and TV variety shows.

I first saw Blair on stage in a 1968 revival of a George and Ira Gershwin’s 20s musical, Lady, Be Good! The original London production had starred Fred and Adele Astaire as a brother-sister act that had fallen on hard times and, although the revival failed to draw the town, it showed that Blair could evoke memories of the nimble feet of his legendary predecessor.

The big surprise came in 1987 when Blair turned up as the Player in a West End revival of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I’d classified Blair as a talented hoofer and amiable TV host but here he showed he could wrap his tongue around such quintessential Stoppardian ideas as the subjectivity of truth. As I wrote at the time, he also invested the role with “the right touch of seediness as if he were the Elizabethan equivalent of a purveyor of filthy postcards”.

Stoppard certainly demanded more of him than his last role on the London stage. It came in 2000 in a show called Pageant in which he acted as compere to an all-male beauty contest. In a sense the show was a forerunner to RuPaul’s Drag Race, in that the men were all in skirts: it lacked, however, the slickness of the RuPaul show and Blair, with his spangled hair and salmon-pink dinner jacket, seemed all too complicit with the evening’s air of fake glitter.

Blair was nothing if not versatile and scored a popular triumph as a team captain, alongside Una Stubbs, in Give Us a Clue. The show depended on the two stars’ ability to encapsulate the title of a play, film or book through energetic mime. It also turned into a running gag on a BBC radio show, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, where I can still recall Humphrey Lyttelton paying tribute to Blair’s ability to pull off Twelve Angry Men in 30 seconds. It says a lot for Blair – a happily married man with three children – that he never complained about the programme’s portrayal of him as a camp icon. But, while Blair had something of Bruce Forsyth’s capacity to be a showbiz chameleon, it is as a dancer that he was at his considerable best.

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