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

Fortean Times - - Contents -

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.

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