By Jeremy Miles
Ten minutes ago Les Dennis was looking every bit the professional entertainer - holding court for the cameras, big smile, bottle of champagne.
But now he appears uneasy and is glancing nervously around the Bournemouth Pavilion function room that has been set aside for our interview.
He nods slowly as he takes in the mirrored walls and patterned carpet of the Lucullus Room -scene of a thousand civic receptions and after-show parties.
Finally he shares the memory that must have dominated his thoughts ever since he walked through the door. "I met Amanda in this very room,"he says. The PR man accompanying us looks momentarily horrified. Staring at his feet, he must be thinking: ‘Of all the rooms in all the theatres why, oh why, did we have to choose this one.’
It’s not a problem though. Les has long since come to terms with the fact that his fairytale romance and failed marriage to Bournemouth actress Amanda Holden is a matter of national fascination.
After a decade in which this most harmless and personable comedian, actor and gameshow host has been mercilessly ridiculed and mauled by the Press, he has emerged, remarkably, with both his sense of humour and essential good nature intact.
"I have very happy memories of Bournemouth," he says decisively. And as for his marriage – which took place at the town’s Richmond Hill United Reformed Church almost exactly a decade ago? There is no bitterness, he says, adding: "That was then, this is now. I am reflective, I suppose, but I have good memories.”
He has particularly good memories of 1993 – the year he met Amanda Holden. "It was a summer when there were a lot of mates around, it seemed to be an endless string parties," he says.
It was also a summer that would change his life. Les was the seasoned professional, the well known TV comedian appearing in summer season at the end of Bournemouth Pier in Don’t Dress For Dinner.
Amanda was the young actress, fresh out of drama school who had landed her first major professional role in The Sound of Music. She met Les at the first night party at the Pavilion. There was an instant and genuine attraction.
Within weeks their discreet affair was public property. The media had a field day. The story of the stunning young actress who had fallen for the divorced, middle aged comedian was hot copy.
It was viscious stuff too. The red-tops cast Les as a sad has-been looking for security while Amanda was given the role of ruthless gold-digger.
There were endless stories too about their 17 year age difference. The couple did their best to ignore the negative attention they were attracting. They enjoyed a lavish showbiz wedding complete with the obligatory spread in Hello magazine and were the subject of countless lifestyle features.
For a while it looked idyllic but it wasn’t to last and the relationship spiralled very publicly out of control starting with Amanda’s papparazzi-photographed fling with Men Behaving Badly actor Neil Morrissey and ending with Les in the depths of despair seeking solace from a bunch of chickens and the viewers of Celebrity Big Brother.
Quite how intense the pressure was is clear from the fact that when I remind Les that during the run of Don’t Dress For Dinner the IRA tried to blow the Pier Theatre up he replied: "Oh yeah, that’s right, I’d completely forgotten about that. I remember it now though. It was absolutely the weirdest thing. They found enough Semtex under the pier to blow the entire theatre into the Channel."
The incident closed the show for several days. Anti-terrorism investigators found that the detonator had became dislodged,preventing an explosion that could have killed not just Les and his co-stars Su Pollard, Lionel Blair and Vickie Michelle, but also a theatre full of people. This is not the kind of thing that most people forget.
Les knew of course that returning to the Bournemouth Pavilion for the first time since he starred alongside his then new wife in Cinderella back in 1995 would bring him face to face with his highly publicised past.
He is back in town to present a new live stage version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. Les will play the Chris Tarrant role of quizmaster in the show which plays the Pavilion from Monday July 4 until saturday july 9. It will offer audience members the chance to compete in an interactive computer-linked Fastest Finger First competition for a place in the famouse ‘hot-seat.’
They will then come face to face with Les and the opportunity to play for a million points and a series of prizes including the big-one - a Jaguar X-Type. Also up for grabs are home cinemas, a holiday in New York, flat-screen TV’s, DVD players and other goodies.
Les, who has just finished appearing in a successful run of the comedy Neville’s Island at Birmingham Rep, is very aware that there are those who will claim that he is crawling back to game shows after failing to hack it as an actor. The reality is that he has enjoyed enormous success and rave reviews in a variety of stage roles.
“I’m doing Millionaire because my agent called me up and asked me if I was interested. It’s a great quiz and the idea of doing it on stage appealed. It’s quite a challenge because I have to be light and hopefully quite funny but there are also some serious prizes at stake. There’s a lot of tension involved.
‘I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and also it suits me to get out on the road and do something like this during the summer when I’ve just come out of a play.”
Les is dismissive of those who paint him as a victim, writing stories, about his perceived faliures. “It’s like water off a duck’s back,” he laughs. “To be honest it doesn’t worry me because I never read it. I know I’m doing all right.”
Les told me he had just finished filming with Ricky Gervaise for a new series called Extras which is due out in the summer.
“There’s a lot of expectation with it being the follow up to The Office but I think it’s really going to work. It was very funny and great to do.”
Les admits it didn’t take long for him to decide it was a project worth pursuing.
Ricky called me and said: “Look we’ve got Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslett and Ben Stiller on board already. Do you wanna to do it? I didn’t have to think very hard about it.”
He says Gervais explained that each week there would be a different guest. He said that basically we’d be playing demented, twisted versions of ourselves.”
“In fact he just called me up the other day and said he’s seen a rough cut of the episode and he’s thrilled with it. So who knows what will come from that.”
Sensing something special could be just around the corner,
Les revelaed: “I’ve Just been asked to do another play but I’m wondering whether to just wait and see what the reaction is to Extras.”
He puts his acting success down to the dues he paid as a sketch comedian.
“All the years I did with Russ Abbott was like working in rep’. Always playing straight to Russ different characters that was my training.”
By the time he was invited to appear in the national tour of Art, Les says he felt he’d cracked it. “That was playing with the big boys and it really did the trick. I’ve done some great plays since. I keep getting offered some seriously challenging roles.”
It’s all a long way from that 1993 summer season when he was playing don’t Don’t Dress for Dinner at the nd of Bournemouth Pier. “That was great as well but it was a light comedy. So to graduate to the kind of stuff I’m doing now is tremendous. I get to act in interesting plays as well as getting the opportunity to do something like Millionaire for the summer. One of my few ambitions now is to do some Shakespeare.”
LES Dennis returns to the Bournemouth and Poole area tonight for the first time since the break-up of his marriage to Amanda Holden.
The comedian, TV host and actor is starring in a new production of Yasmina Reza's award-winning comedy Art which opens for a six night run at Lighthouse in Poole this evening.
Yet even though the area is bound to hold many bittersweet memories - Les and Amanda met and married in Bournemouth - he told me: "I'm really looking forward to coming back. I absolutely adore the Bournemouth area and I have a lot of good memories."
Les certainly seemed on good form, happy to discuss the play and his career but when the subject of his high-profile ex-wife came up he simply replied: "I'm not going to go there. I really am not. It's just my way of dealing with things."
It's seems a strange and sad end to a marriage. But however hard he tries not to think about Amanda, this current tour of Art will provide Les with a constant reminder of their early days together.
For in an extraordinary twist of fate one of his co-stars is Christopher Cazenove, the actor who back in 1993 was playing Amanda's father in The Sound of Music, the show she was in when they first met.
However Les says he's loving working with Cazenove and the third member of the cast John Duttine:
"I've worked with a lot of really good actors but with this show I feel as though I've graduated to the premiership."
He admits that joining such illustrious theatrical company was quite daunting but says that playing alongside them in this tale of three men whose friendship is thrown into crisis when one buys a minimalist white painting has been a joy.
While he's clearly loving his role as Ivan in Art, particularly the point where he has the luxury of an astonishing show-stopping three page rant. Les says his own tastes in art stop a little short of minimalist all-white paintings.
"I collect movie posters and I love the works of Vemeer, Rembrandt but I'm certainly not averse to modern art. I have fairly catholic tastes and even though I tend to be a bit cynical when I go along to Tate Modern. I always find something there to enjoy."
Art opens at Lighthouse in Poole on Monday (Nov 10) and runs until Saturday November 15. Call 01202 685222 for tickets.