“I know what it feels like, that violation when somebody has been in your house.”
Les Dennis makes his Coronation Street debut next Monday (March 24) as opportunistic thief Michael Rodwell.
Having experienced burglary in real life, when he, his heavily pregnant wife Claire and their young daughter were asleep in their beds.
“Afterwards you think, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.'”
Last month Les took part in round table interviews at ITV’s London South Bank HQ – embargoed until today (Tuesday March 18).
When he explained just how thrilled he was to be joining the Weatherfield cast.
And spoke, among other things, about how current stage co-star Gray O’Brien – former Corrie killer Tony Gordon – helped him prepare for the role.
By taking on the role of Gail as Les rehearsed the audition script.
Plus the prospect of becoming a Rovers Return regular.
My transcript of the chat I was involved with is below, along with some spoilers.
For my money it’s a great piece of casting involving a man who may surprise those not familiar with his acting talents.
So that Q&A is well worth a read.
First, let’s set the scene.
And note the surname of the character – “a burglar with a conscience” – has changed since the casting was first announced.
Michael is disturbed by a shaken Gail (Helen Worth) in the Platt home and then chased down the cobbles by Kylie (Paula Lane).
Before later being arrested and sent to prison.
Huge Coronation Street fan Les has so far filmed just two episodes but is due to return to the new Trafford Wharf HQ next month to reprise his role as Michael.
For scenes to be screened later in the year with Gail meeting up with him again as part of a “restorative justice” programme.
In a storyline aiming to explore the human cost of a burglary and then, perhaps, a potential friendship and more between Gail and Michael.
At the end of our round table Q&A, Les, 60, spoke about having worked in the business for 43 years as a comic, TV host and actor.
And about being back at the ITV South Bank building.
“The last time I was here, excited about being here with a new job, was 1982.
“So to still be here is just so exciting. Because I’m still here…and on the biggest soap in the country, in my opinion.”
Q: (Mine, as it happens) You said in an interview last October that you’d “give my eye teeth to do Corrie”. So how did this role come about?
“Maybe that’s what did it! It was really just out of the blue. I was on my way to the first day of The Perfect Murder, the play I’m doing, in Bath. And I was driving, trying to find a Premier Inn. And my agent called on hands free and said, ‘How would you feel about Corrie?’ And I just went, ‘Hang on, I’m just going to have to pull over. Yes, yes, yes!’ And she said, ‘Well, we’re talking and we’re looking at your schedule. Because my schedule was always a worry because I’m doing this play until April 26th. Then she said, ‘Well, they’ve looked at the possibility and they’d like to see you for a screen test.’ So the next Monday I went for a screen test with Helen Worth. I didn’t even know until the day I got there – I thought I was just going on camera like you do just for the casting director. And we were full set and we did scenes. And then I started the next week. It literally was a whirlwind. But a fantastically exciting whirlwind. I didn’t even have time to get my eye teeth taken out!” (laughs)
Q: You’ve always been a fan of the show?
“I’ve loved it. Absolutely. I’m of the generation that was brought up with Ena Sharples and Albert Tatlock and all the brilliant characters from the very beginning. Dennis Tanner, who was one of the first characters – he’s still there. So I loved it. And then, of course, became associated with it by doing Mavis to Dustin Gee’s Vera – not Rita. Everybody thinks it’s Rita and Mavis but it was Vera and Mavis. And have been around the set, of course. Because when we did that, Liz Dawn would say, ‘Ay, come down, ‘ave a look at the set.’ So we’d go down. I did a talent show there called Give Your Mate A Break and I used to catch up with all the people there. So it’s a dream come true for me. To actually be playing a serious role in the soap. Not going in to do a spoof.”
Q: He’s a bit of a wrong ‘un?
“He starts off as a wrong ‘un. We don’t know what happens beyond that, other than that he’s an opportunist burglar rather than a career burglar. So he doesn’t intend to scare anybody. He’s burgling an empty house. He worries about the people, making sure that they’re insured. He sees a laptop..burglar with a conscience. But doesn’t realise that by just going and violating people’s spaces, how that affects them. So that’s where the restorative justice storyline will come in later. But beyond that…”
Q: How do you feel about being potentially Gail’s love interest?
“I’m really thrilled. Absolutely thrilled. I think Helen is a great actress. It’s a family that is really at the hub of the Street. One of the big families in the Street. That gives me a lot of potential as an actor to show Michael as an interesting character. And he might stay around for a while. He won’t end up in the canal. It’s funny that I worked with Brian Capron last year on Celebrity MasterChef. We were both in the last four. And now I’m working with Gray O’Brien, another of the soap villains.”
Q: Were you nervous going in to film on Coronation Street?
“I was. I was actually OK the day that I was doing my screen test. I was probably more nervous that first day that I went into…actually my most nervous day was my second day of filming. The first day I just had to run down the Street and I was running down the cobbles. And it was just like, ‘This is surreal but really exciting.’ And then it was the day that the character first appears. It’s not like I had a lot of lines to learn, whereas for the screen test I did. Five pages it was. It’s to maybe see that you can cope with a longer script so quickly. So it’s only a short scene the very first scene I’m established in. But you do realise that you do have to establish your character quite quickly and hit the ground running. So that was my most nerve-wracking day.”
Q: And were you nervous seeing these big names?
“Oh gosh. Walking round the corridors and seeing all the names on the dressing rooms. There’s Eileen Derbyshire, Anne Kirkbride…it was like I was in a dream. And because Corrie has moved from Granada now and is in this new brilliant purpose-built building with the new set and everything…so weirdly everybody was going, ‘We don’t know where we are? We don’t know how to get anywhere?’ So it was like, ‘How do I get to make-up?’ And they said, ‘Oh I don’t know yet. This is my first day here as well.’ Helen Worth saying to me, ‘I don’t know. This is my first day. I think it’s down that corridor and then down some steps and we’ve got these passes.’ So it was kind of weirdly surreal that I was there with everybody disorientated. We were all in the same boat.”
Q: How does your schedule work?
“The weird thing is that we moved up (to Cheshire) last year. I’m 20 minutes from work. In fact we’re renting at the moment and we’re looking for a house. I’ve lived in London since 1987 and when my family come down, like my sister, it’s like, ‘Do you want to come for the weekend?’ And it’s such a big deal. So we just thought, ‘Well, let’s get nearer to family and let’s move out of London.’ So we made the decision – we’ve been talking about it for a long time – to move up to Cheshire. And then I got Spamalot. Sod’s Law, I got the West End. So then I was commuting back to London! And then this job came out of the blue and it was just like manna from heaven. It was fantastic. So instead of me going, ‘Right, well, I’ve got Corrie, we’ve got to make the decision to move up.’ We were already there. We were in place. Which, again, is just fantastic. And I don’t think Corrie knew I had moved.”
Q: Looking forward to serious acting on TV?
“When I do stage work, audiences come along and say, ‘Wow, Les Dennis playing in a really straight role’ – in the play I’m doing at the moment. I did a one man play last year that I won a best actor award for. But generally that gets seen by the people who come to see it. Whereas this is in your living room and so you have the chance to make that stamp of being taken seriously.”
Q: Ready for the extra attention and level of fame that goes with Coronation Street?
“I know. We were in Padstow last week and there were loads of people there in Rick Stein’s restaurant. People were coming up and this young girl was like, ‘What have I seen you on?’ And I said, ‘Maybe Family Fortunes?’ And the other woman was saying, ‘She doesn’t know.’ But she knew Gray O’Brien because of Corrie. So it’s that. Corrie does bring you to a wider audience. Absolutely. I’m ready for it. Because I’ve had it before and I’ve had it steadily. I’m used to it to some extent. And Gray said to me that he would sometimes go to a pub and guys, because he was fancied by wives, he’s have guys wanting to have a crack at him. People do get confused, don’t they?”
Q: (From me) What’s been the reaction of your family?
“My wife is a massive Corrie fan. All my family watch it. They love it. So everybody is thrilled for me. I nearly – about six months ago…I was approached by Hollyoaks. But I’m so pleased that I’m in Corrie. Hollyoaks is a great soap but Corrie is my favourite. It was another character that is on screen, so I won’t say because somebody else got it.”
Q: Will your children watch?
“Tom is just about to be three. My eldest is 34, so he might watch. And Eleanor will definitely watch, I would think.”
Q: What have your Life Too Short co-stars said?
“Oh – Keith Chegwin was like, ‘Wa-hay!’ That’s always his first thing on a tweet. ‘Wa-hay! Can’t believe about Corrie. I’m so pleased.’ He’s thrilled. Ricky came to see the play I’m in in Bath and then found out about Corrie because I found out the next week. And he just tweeted and said, ‘Congratulations on Corrie.’ So yeah. That’s great to have. I attribute Ricky Gervais with a lot of my career change, really. Because if I hadn’t done Extras then I wouldn’t have been offered the kind of roles that I’ve been offered on stage and then I wouldn’t have eventually have got here. So I have a lot to thank him for – for helping my career re-invention. Everybody needs a boot now and again.”
Q: Why do you think you’ve been able to re-invent yourself so many times – a comic, game show presenter and now a straight actor?
“I think I’ve consciously done that. When I was doing Family Fortunes for 15 years, the luxury it gave me was that we’d film three weeks of the year and the rest of the year I could go and work for £250 at The Watermill in Newbury and do a David Hare play. Which was real baptism by fire because it was Michael Gambon who had played that role in the West End. Because when I very first started, when I was younger, I used to do plays at The Everyman in Liverpool, which is about to re-open, which I’m really thrilled about. And my niece (Jodie McNee) is playing the lead role (Viola) in Twelfth Night, and she’s a big mate of Jonathan Harvey. I was at school with Clive Barker, the horror writer, and Jude Kelly, who runs the South Bank now. So I’d started as an actor but then I went down the working men’s clubs and I made my career out of comedy. So it always was something that I wanted to get back to. So I consciously made that decision to keep re-inventing. Because if you don’t, it’s a fickle business and the variety era that I was part of, that’s all gone now. So there would be nothing for me to do now.”
Q: What’s your first love?
“I think it’s acting. Because it was my first love and then I went down other routes. And comedy is the hardest thing to do. It really is. And I think it’s a young man’s game, really. When I started you could go round doing summer seasons and have the same act. Whereas now these comics have to do an act then put it out on DVD and it’s massive arena tours and stuff. But then they have to come up with a brand new show every year, year after year. So the fact that I can do acting and sometimes play a comic – like I played a comic in Jigsy, the one man play, or it can be a comic character or have comic elements – I’m sure that Michael will not necessarilly…it won’t always be high drama. In Corrie it can’t be. It’s got both.”
Q: More on Michael’s Corrie storyline?
“It’s restorative justice. So Gail goes to see him in prison. I don’t know about love but she’s respectful of his apology. At least how we did it in the screen test. I don’t know anything until I start again in April and my character will have been on screen. You’ll have seen the first two episodes. But I don’t now start again until I finish the play, which is convenient. (smiles) I will start literally the Monday after I finish. And we’re actually going to Manchester with the play just two weeks before I start.”
Q: (From me) Bearing in mind Gail’s past history, was Helen Worth not a little worried about the title of your current play?
“The Perfect Murder! She might have been. I don’t know!”
Q: So what do we see in March?
“He is disturbed burgling the house and tries to make out that he’s come to fix the gas meter. He gets away but he gets chased by Kylie and ends up in court.”
Q: (From me) Have you ever been burgled in real life?
“Yeah, I have. So I know what it feels like, that violation when somebody has been in your house. And it happened to me in London. One of the reasons you kind of think, ‘I’m just getting out.’ Because when your kids are in the house. We had friends who were staying with us. They were jet-lagged because they’d come from South Africa and so we thought it was them getting up in the night – because we heard whatever was going on downstairs. And the night before they’d been getting up and making tea and we could hear people downstairs and thought, ‘I wish they’d be quiet making tea.’ And I went down about six and I looked around. And you’re really confused at first because you’re like, ‘Why is that window open?’ There was nothing necessarily missing. It was just like, ‘The window’s open. That’s a bit odd.’ And it had been jemmied and these people had been in. Nearly three years ago.
“We were all asleep in our beds. Afterwards you think, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ Actually Tom, my son, wasn’t born. It was just before he was born. Nearly three years ago. Because we had packed the car to go – Claire was due any minute. So we put all our stuff in the boot of the car. These people had come in, found the keys, taken the car. So we had given them the camera and all the stuff. All baby clothes and everything in a bag. So all that stuff had gone – and the car. But that was the least of our troubles. It was the idea that they had been in the house.
“Michael begins to realise just what the effect is. Because he thinks at first, ‘Look, it was an opportunity, I saw an open window, a laptop on the table and you’re insured, so nobody gets hurt.’ But it’s the mental thing, he doesn’t realise. So he then has a reason to take stock and apologise for that.
“When I got the (script) pages to come in, we were in Bath and Gray O’Brien, who played Tony Gordon, he was Gail for the week with me. He read my pages with me and he did Gail. And he kept saying, ‘Learn it, learn it, learn it.’ Don’t have your pages in your hand. So it’s down to him a lot that he got me absolutely word perfect. And he did Gail’s voice!
“He’s lovely Gray and we bonded straight away – him, me and Claire Goose, we’re just having a great time on this play. But Gray was staying with my Claire and our kids over the weekend. And I had to do the screen test on the Monday morning and then we had to bomb off to Norwich, which was quite a way from Cheshire to Norwich to be there for the get in for the play. So Gray came with me to the screen test and sat in the car. He sat outside. He wouldn’t come in.”
Q: Have any of the cast asked you to do your Mavis impression yet?
“No. But people on Twitter have gone mad about it – the first time you go into The Kabin make sure you say, ‘I don’t really know.’ And so many people have gone, ‘Maybe you’re going to be Mavis’s long lost cousin or something.’ I don’t think that.”
Q: (From me) Having been burgled yourself, how do you feel about restorative justice?
“I would have liked to have met them. The police did find the guys and nothing happened. It was one of those things where things were too busy. And you’d find yourself feeling angry and I would like to have seen them face to face. I don’t know how sympathetic I would have been, personally.”
Q: So were they prosecuted?
“It was one of those things that became so frustrating. We had the police…we lived right on the Parkland Walk and it meant that people could get over our fence quite easy. And I said, ‘I’m going to put barbed wire up.’ And they said, ‘That’s an offence, it’s against their human rights.’ To hurt their hands when they’re burgling you. So there are lots of things…and I just went, ‘You know what, I’m just going to draw a line under it and move on.’
“Somebody went into my daughter’s bedroom while she was asleep. That’s the thing. That’s really bad. I came down and went, ‘That door wasn’t that wide open?’ You know how you leave the door.”
Q: Gail becomes quite frightened and upset? Was that how you reacted or was it more anger and frustration for you?
“I think you go through all those emotions when you’ve been burgled. You go through the whole thing of feeling, at first, surprise. And then later in the day you go, ‘Ah, that’s gone, and that’s gone.’ It’s a kind of build up and you’re in shock. And then there’s the relief when something that could have happened that was worse.”
Q: Did it have a bearing on your decision to move house?
“I think it does subconsciously. We wanted to move up anyway. We wanted to give the kids more space and get out of London for other reasons than just that.”
Q: How has it changed your attitude to security?
“I think I’m very trusting. I don’t want to become like somebody who bars the doors and sits with a baseball bat under my bed. No. But I do have a big alarm. We all have to be security alert and my house is very secure.”
Q: (From me) You were delighted to have been included in the Top 100 Merseysiders of all time. Do you think this role will finally enable you to overtake Red Rum?
(Laughs) “Red Rum beat me! That’s not bad. I was above David Morrissey, which was amazing and Harold Wilson. Because I didn’t make the list 10 years ago. So I think it’s the work I’ve done. I did the big panto in Liverpool with Cilla Black, the Capital of Culture year. I’ve done a lot of plays at the Everyman. Also I did a show called Les Dennis’s Liverpool for Granada, which was a local show where I went round and talked to lots of different people with culture and sport and stuff. So it’s nice to be in that list.
“Michael Rodwell actually isn’t a Scouser. I did have a lot of people going, ‘Oh, stereotypical, Scouse burglar.’ But he isn’t. I would say he’s a Lancashireman. When I was a kid I was a Lancashireman. Until they shifted the borders and now I’m a Merseysider. So he’s got a quite soft Lancashire accent. Not a scouser. He’ll just have a slight Lancashire burr. Again, Gray was like, ‘I like that accent.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know whether I should do my own voice.’ And I contacted the casting director and they said, ‘Do it as it’s written.’ And in the thing it says, ‘I were that sorry.’ And so the fact that it was ‘I were,’ gave me the clue. And Gray was like, ‘I like that.’ So I decided to keep that. But, again, that’s a challenge as an actor to keep that all the time. David Neilson isn’t at all like Roy, is he? He’s so different.”
Q: How do you juggle being a dad with two young children and being so busy with work?
“Last week we were doing the play in Truro and Cornwall is a lovely place to have half term. So my kids were having a great time. It’s one of those things if you’re in this business and my wife is really understanding about the fact that this is what I do and it does sometimes entail travelling. The play that I’m doing has been really well received. It’s doing great business and is the first of Peter James’ novels to be made into a play. So it was an exciting project. We discuss those things all the time. But it meant that I didn’t do panto, so then I was home right through Christmas with the kids. So you have to do those shifts. And sometimes Eleanor will be like, ‘Daddy, when you coming home, how long are you home for?’ That’s hard. But I get home as much as I can and now I have a job that means I’m going to be at home all the time. It’s fantastic. And the fact that we’d moved up before I got the job doesn’t mean that I’ve got to say to my family, ‘Right, we’re uprooting and we’re going north now.’ She’s already established in her school up there.”
Q: Is it tiring being a dad a second time around?
“It’s a tiring as it ever is. But they say it keeps you younger and I think it does. You start to see things, again, things that you were excited about, again, with a child’s eyes. A pussycat or a, ‘Ooh cow!’ (laughs) It’s interesting. “Wow, look – bunny rabbits!’ So it’s great. It’s fantastic.”
Q: How long do you think you’ll be on the Street?
“I think that he’s going to be at the heart of the show. I’d be very happy to stay.” (As is normal, new cast members begin on a six month rolling contract which can be extended)
Q: Aside from working with Helen as Gail, what other characters are you looking forward to working with?
“Obviously I should imagine if I’m working with Helen, I’m likely to work with Sue Nicholls. Who, again, I’ve known over the years and I bumped into her in make-up on my first day and she just went, ‘I hope we get some scenes together.’ So that’s great to have a chance to work with her. And David Neilson, as Roy, I’d love to do some stuff with. All of them really. I think the standard of acting is so good. Rather than think to myself, ‘Who would I like to work with?’ – I’d like to see who Michael’s character gravitates towards. And, again, that’s down to writers.”
Q: Are you excited about your first Rovers’ scene?
“My first day was running up the cobbles and jumping into my van which was outside the Rovers. So that was scary enough. But to actually be in a Rovers’ scene will be really exciting, yeah. I actually overshot and jumped into the grip’s van! They said, ‘You run up and you jump into your van and you get away.’ So I ran up and I got into the van and I thought, ‘Where are the keys?’ And they went, ‘Best not to get into the grip’s van.’ So I got into this lovely big, grey shiny van. And they went, ‘No, your van is just tucked behind that. This white tatty thing.’”
Q: (From me) Do you still have an ambition to do Shakespeare? And do you view all the ‘dominoes’ that have fallen in your life as a progression towards that?
“I do. I do absolutely have an ambition to do Shakespeare. Somebody asked me if I had a bucket list and this was one of them – Corrie – and Shakespeare is another one. It’s smallers doors, bigger doors…I really believe in the idea of asking the universe. Because I did ask the universe and these things have happened. And by moving to Cheshire and then this coming along…careful what you wish for because things can come true. You’re not necessarily master of your destiny but you have a lot of effect to get what you want.”
Q: So do you believe in fate?
“To some extent, yes. I don’t think co-incidences happen. I think they happen for a reason.”
Q: Do you get a lot of Family Fortunes catchphrases still thrown at you?
“Do I get the ‘uh-uh’ noise down the street? I probably get it more than Vernon Kay. I keep meaning to ask Vernon, does he get it now? It’s something that follows me around and people always think they’re the first ones to do it. I’ve never heard that one before. But if it stopped happening then people would stop remembering that I did that show. And having had that I hopefully will be ready for the injection (of fame) that takes it to another level. Maybe ‘uh-uh’ will be replaced with something else. That’s fine. It comes with the job.”
Q: Where’s the strangest place you’ve had the ‘uh uh’ noise?
“Actually in my episode of Extras at the end, I’m in bed with the girl and she says something and I go, ‘I don’t really know…’ And she goes, ‘What? Get off!’ And then I said, ‘If it’s up there I’ll give you the money myself.’ And that line wasn’t written. I was supposed to say, ‘I don’t really know,’ again. And I said to Ricky, what if I said…and he went, ‘Ah-haaa!’ And he just laughed and said, ‘We’re doing that.’ And when we were filming it he had to be taken out of the room because he just laughs. He ruins a take. He stands behind the camera…so that was the catchphrase on Family Fortunes, if it was a stupid answer, I’d say, ‘If it’s up there I’ll give you the money myself.’”
Q: Are you a big fan of Twitter?
“I do enjoy it, yeah. I kind of treat it warily. I don’t post about football at all on Twitter anymore because I don’t think it’s worth it. So even though I’m a football fan, I’m a Liverpool fan, I don’t get involved. With trolls it’s easier to just block somebody, rather than get involved. Sometimes I kind of because Ricky will sometimes out them and post what they’ve written. I’ve been tempted to do that occasionally myself. But I think Twitter is fantastic. Because you do get a response – how people are feeling.”
Q: Will you be looking at it after your first episode?
“Oh definitely. When I did Celebrity MasterChef last year it went absolutely mad. And it does give you…sometimes you look at your phone and go, ‘Nobody has texted me about it…’ But on Twitter you can see reactions straight away. It’s good.”
Q: How to do you feel about Ricky’s reaction and Shaun Williamson when they first see you? Because they are your peers, aren’t they?
“Yeah, they are. I hope that they’ll love it. Shaun, of course, can give me some advice about being in a long term soap.”
Q: Do you think you could get Ricky on it?
“Get Ricky in the Rovers? The back of his head…”
Q: Do you still watch Family Fortunes?
“I do watch Family Fortunes and I enjoy it. It’s a different show now because it’s obviously celebrity based. At first it was a bit weird because it was like he’d burgled my house. (laughs) It was like watching Michael Rodwell. ‘That’s weird.’ No, actually, I was involved in the takeover to some extent because it was a show called Ant and Dec’s Gameshow Marathon and I used to go round the country and surprise people and give them their prizes from the show. And on the last week they were doing Family Fortunes and it was Vernon’s family against Carol Vorderman’s family and I had to present the shield. So that was the week when I thought, ‘This is my set.’ But I love watching it and I think he does a great job, Vernon. In fact, what I did was…I called him up when he got it. Because I remember Bob Monkhouse did exactly the same thing for me.”
Q: Have you done the show as a family?
“No. Well, at my 60th, Claire did this fantastic party in Liverpool Town Hall and when we went in there was a whole Family Fortunes set. And it was my family versus the Brookside family. So Sue Johnston and Dean Sullivan and Jennifer Ellison, they were all up there against my family and I was the head of the family. Michael Ball hosted.”
Q: (From me) So having turned 60 last October and been working for 43 years, so how would you sum up where you are, sitting here today?
“Yes, my first telly was Opportunity Knocks. I can’t believe that…I looked out and saw the sunny day and the last time I was here, excited about being here with a new job, was 1982. So to still be here is just so exciting. Because I’m still here. To me that’s my biggest…still being here and on the biggest soap in the country, in my opinion.”
Q: Do you have any regrets about Celebrity Big Brother?
“I don’t have any regrets about it because when I came out I thought, ‘Well maybe that wasn’t my greatest decision.’ And the phone didn’t ring for a while. But then Ricky Gervais rang. And if I hadn’t done Celebrity Big Brother and he hadn’t been watching, he wouldn’t have written the twisted, demented version of Les Dennis. So every cloud…you’ve got to think of it that way. Small doors, bigger doors.”