If John Cleese hadn’t gone into Monty Python, then he would “have stuck to his original plan to graduate and become a chartered accountant, perhaps a barrister lawyer, and gotten a nice house in the suburbs, with a nice wife and kids, and gotten a country club membership, and then I would have killed myself.”
Ah well, the best laid plans of mice and men. Sensibly, Cleese opted for plan B, and all the success that entailed. It was therefore a surprise when Cleese quit Python in 1973, after its third TV series, and joined up as a supporting player to stand-up comic called Les Dawson, in his comedy sketch show, Sez Les.
Dawson and Cleese could not have been more dissimilar - Dawson short and plump, Cleese tall and skinny. Dawson was working class and self-educated, who had worked a long apprenticeship of stand-up in the working men’s clubs in the north of England, while maintaining his day-job as a Hoover salesman. Cleese was middle class, university educated and was upper-middle management, white collar material.
Dawson had originally wanted to be a writer, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, he had hitched the highway to Paris, where he found work as a pianist in a brothel. Unable to find a publisher for his poetry, Dawson returned homewards, and inspired by his experiences as a pianist, tried his hand as a comic. Though he made his name with mother-in-law jokes, Dawson was a clever and verbally dextrous comedian, who dismantled jokes, only to recreate them in a funnier form. Cleese described Dawson as “An autodidact, a very smart guy who was fascinated by words.”
After a winning run on the talent show Opportunity Knocks, Dawson earned his first TV series, Sez Les (1969-1976), and fast became one of Britain’s best loved comics. In 1974, Cleese joined Dawson on the series, and the pairing (like a hybrid Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) proved highly successful. Both men had great respect for each other, and more importantly had a genuine affection which came over in their performances together.
Cleese eventually left to make Fawlty Towers, but for 2 series of Sez Les in 1974, Dawson and Cleese were top drawer comedy entertainment.