A darker side of Les Dawson
GeorGe White considers the fortean side of the much-loved funny man – from his weird fiction to his ghostly encounters
Mention the name Les Dawson to a member of the general public and they will think of a much-loved comedian and TV host who for 30 years entertained the nation with his piano playing, mother-in-law jokes and unique wit. What’s less well known is that the great funny man was fascinated by the supernatural, and that this interest gave birth, in 1987, to his only serious work of fiction.
A Time Before Genesis was published that year by Elm Tree Books, described in the blurb as being “in the nightmarish tradition of James Herbert”. Despite being written by a ‘family’ television personality, the book is an astonishingly visceral apocalyptic pulp extravaganza, a delightfully schlocky and surprisingly bloody mash-up of various genres. There is indeed something of Herbert’s very British mix of sex and violence to be found in the book, along with hints of Omen
III: The Final Conflict (1981) and an echo of the outrageous punch and Von Däniken-gone-wrong æthestics of Larry Cohen’s 1970s films like God Told Me To and The
Visitor – all set off by a sprinkling of Northern grit. The book is far from perfect. Structurally, it’s a mess, full of mismatched diary entries, newspaper cuttings and supposed archive material, assembled in a manner that suggests both Bram Stoker’s
Dracula and Don Estelle’s autobiography, Sing Lofty, in its chronological uncertainty. However, there is something to be cherished in this peculiar literary effort.
The story begins in Dallas, 1963, with John F Kennedy arriving at the airport, “rich Texan earth catching the wheels of the mighty ship as it scared to a halt,” as Dawson’s lurid prose has it. From here, we follow David Gates, a disgraced Fleet Street journalist. He’s told by a CIA operative about a man called Roman, a mysterious White House advisor (“a queer, not a fag, just queer”) who doesn’t age and who killed Marilyn Monroe to spite Kennedy (because Roman, you see, is actually Nazi Martin Bormann). The CIA man is murdered, and Gates is offered a job on a local newspaper by his mentor John Mason. Gates and his family head north, where our hero starts work on the Huddersfield Courier.
All this takes place in a richly described and dystopian 1995, a gruesome world of state-owned banks and pubs, where hotels are now dorms and churches homeless shelters; religion is gone, King Charles and his family live in Canada, It’s far from perfect, but there is something to be cherished in this peculiar literary effort and the Pope has been exiled from a demolished Vatican by a Communist Italy. John Mason turns out to be a member of Winston Churchill’s secret Dennis Wheatley-advised “paranormal relations” cabinet, which has become a sort of league of good guys called ‘the Crusaders’. Along the way, Gates chases after a children’s book,
Fairies in the Garden by HV Potter, which is for some reason being destroyed, while the likes of Count St Germain, Rasputin, Moses and Bormann are revealed as near-immortal evil-doers bent on causing disorder (the latter is revealed to be the real baddie behind Hitler’s reign, and the Führer actually quite a nice chap). JFK’s death, it turns out, was a direct result of his challenging Bormann/Roman. Meanwhile, the Marchments, an Aryan Satanist and his Eurasian lesbian wife, turn Gates’s wife Anna into a Sapphic she-devil and put his daughter Jayne’s decapitated head in the chest freezer.
Then we get an increasingly
deranged quest for a nun named Margaret Chatterton and a Tibetan monk’s revelation that God is a cosmic life force in a crystal web and that the alien Old Ones (was Les a Lovecraft fan?) landed on Easter Island, drilled cross-continental subterranean tunnels and created a clone race of manmachines (or humans). Women are clone incubators and MiddleEastern/East Asian people all come from the clone colony of Atlantis. We also learn that there were two advanced clones – Lucifer and his rival Jehovah – and that evil is rooted in karma and the love between men and women. Meanwhile, a Herod-style British government culls all disabled children and HV Potter turns out to be the father of Christ reborn, his books revealing the true location of Hell on Earth and the new Sodom: Glastonbury. One by one, the Crusaders are murdered and mutilated, resulting in a massive battle at the now-boarded up BBC TV Centre (the national media have shut down), while mass sex kicks off in Hyde Park before humanity reboots itself...
The book is a classic exploitation concept writ large, the kind of stuff that Christian horror writers would hammer to death 15 years later, but Dawson’s style, with its distinctly lurid prose, lifts this well above myriad instalments of Left Behind. And its ideas – a cabal of elderly men from all over the globe (African-American civil rights activists, reluctant Nazis, blacklisted Hollywood types) gathering in Huddersfield, secret codes hidden in subEnid Blyton children’s books, mass teenage suicides caused by a bullying, slimmingobsessed media – are a mix of the pleasingly absurd and the spookily prophetic. We get hints of the fuss over the supposed ‘Satanic’ writings of JK Rowling (note the use of the name Potter, though presumably a reference to Beatrix rather than Harry) and cyber-bullying. Dawson seems to revel in descriptions of gore and mutilation, particularly in the scenes of the resurrected Satanic pilot, Farrow, doused in fuel and melting in the flames. The character of David Gates seems at times to be an avatar for Dawson himself. One wonders whether he envisaged a possible movie or TV adaptation of his book. I can imagine a British TV mini-series with David Warner as Gates, Charles Durning as the CIA man, Peter Cushing and John Mills as Mason and Torrance of the Crusaders, Earl Cameron as the elderly black activist and Malcolm McDowell as Roman. Such fantasy casting is testament to the vividness of the story, even though it does get hard to follow towards the end.
It’s a shame the book appears to be so hard to come by. It seems never to have had a paperback release, and copies go for at least £30 online. It deserves to be republished so people can discover this other, darker side of Dawson. He did write several semi-fictional and humorous books, including a fictionalised autobiography, but his only other attempt at relatively straight fiction was an unfinished sub-Barbara Cartland bodice-ripper penned under the pseudonym of ‘Maria Brett Cooper’, which featured a subplot about cursed gold from the Civil War. Apparently, writing was Dawson’s first love, and one wonders what other books might have been forthcoming had he not died in 1993 at the age of just 62.
However, this was not his first brush with the fortean world. According to various friends and family members, Dawson was interested from an early age in metaphysics, philosophy and the paranormal. According to some sources, he even claimed to be psychic. Louis Barfe’s biography of Dawson recounts the story of how, in 1972, the Bury bungalow Les lived in with his family was haunted by a spectre in 18th century dress called the Grey Lady; her presence was discovered when his daughter, Julie, then four years old, was found speaking to the wall.
But the most famous story about Dawson and the supernatural comes from 1989, when he was playing in the pantomime Jack and the
Beanstalk at the Sunderland Empire. Dawson had experienced some sinister premonitions, but being a professional, accepted the gig; it was while in his dressing room that he heard a familiar laugh and saw in his mirror the ghost of fellow comic legend Sid James, who had died in the same dressing room in 1976. According to Tom Slemen, author of the Haunted Liverpool series and collector of a number of uncanny tales concerning Dawson, James’s spectre “looked ‘ghastly’. He wore some type of white shroud, and there was an aroma of whisky hanging in the air. The apparition’s face was pale and clammy-looking, and the eyes were almost black and lifeless. The ghost shouted something (which I will never put into print) then vanished. Dawson almost died from shock and vowed he’d never work again at the Sunderland Empire – and he never did.” 1
This wasn’t Dawson’s first experience of a haunted theatre. In 1980, while appearing in Babes in the Wood at the Liverpool Empire, he was alone in his dressing room when he saw a tiny, disembodied child’s index finger trace the number 13 on a mirror, followed by the sound of a little girl singing ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ as she skipped past him. Slemen writes that: “Dawson was naturally unnerved by the ghostly girl (who has haunted the Empire for around a century) and he had a bad feeling about the number 13; he wondered if it meant 13 years of life left”. Spookily enough, Les Dawson did die 13 years later – not that this ended his public appearances. His ghost has been spotted at the Liverpool Empire and various other clubs and venues where he worked, such as Yorkshire TV Studios in Kirkstall Road, Leeds, and the Albert Dock, where Granada TV’s Liverpool offices were located. Tom Slemen recounts a story of several tourists near the dockside Pumphouse pub seeing Dawson in 2003, a decade after the comic had died of a heart attack, with one female tourist even asking the spectral comedian for an autograph, until her husband reminded her that Dawson was dead. They walked away, believing the portly figure to be an imposter or tribute act, and the portly figure apparently vanished into thin air. Slemen adds that he “was besieged with emails and telephone calls at BBC Radio Merseyside regarding this incident, but I was unable to explain the haunting because of the tenuous links Dawson had with the city, and I am still unable to explain the paranormal occurrence to this day.”
Ironically, Dawson’s ‘ghost’ would later appear on television, 20 years after his death, when a holographic figure of the comedian was created for the 2013 ITV special An Audience that Never Was.
ABOvE: Les Dawson at home in 1977. OPPOsITE: The Empire Theatre, Liverpool, said to be haunted by Dawson’s ghost.