Jon Culshaw: UK’s finest impressionist talks lockdown, deep-fried pizza, and his enthralling new Les Dawson show
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The man of a thousand impressions has made a good one.
Pleasantries exchanged, talk turns to the topic at hand: Les Dawson. A lifelong fan of the late comic, Jon is famous for his impression of Les, but always held him in far greater esteem than that reserved for most of his impersonations. He has always been fascinated by the man, by his deadpan delivery and his language, by his timing, his aura, his essence.
“For many years, I wanted to do a play about Les,” says the Ormskirk-born Jon. “In lockdown, I heard a piece of piano music my brother Jim had recorded. A piano tuner had come round and my brother asked if he could record him playing something to inspire his son to keep practising.
“This chap, Mr. Brothwell…” says Jon, rolling his R's lushly. “...played this gorgeous piece of swirling chords and it was just so emotive. I immediately thought ‘I bet that’s how Les played the piano’ - I knew from his wife Tracy that he played for his own enjoyment at home every day. So that was it, that’s how the idea for a Les Dawson play came to me.” Naturally.
Inspired, Jon set about making his ambition a reality. Having recently observed how brilliantly Bob Golding had directed Simon Cartwright as Bob Monkhouse, he proposed a pint and asked Bob to direct the prospective play, while Bafta- and Olivier Award-winning writer Tim Whitnall, with whom Jon worked earlier this year, was tasked with writing it.
The rest, as they say, is history. Les Dawson: Flying High is currently capturing imaginations and delighting audiences across the country.
‘Playing Les Dawson on stage has been glorious’
“Les is such a rich character with so much warmth, lovability, and passion for words,” explains Jon. “He was such a wonderful wordsmith; comedy was something of a second career choice for him, such was his love of language and so passionate was he about writing. But what really appealed to me about him was how he oozed character.
“A real natural comedian, he wasn’t just a great technician, but a born storyteller,” he adds. “Les didn’t just do interchangeable one-liners, each joke was a beautiful mosaic piece that formed the wider story. It was his use of language that made him more than just a traditional comedian - he crossed into thinking person’s territory and people loved him for it.
“When Tim finished writing the play, he said ‘it might be a bit of a challenge to learn’, which was certainly true because of Les’ beautiful use of language. It wouldn’t just be ‘I bumped into Billy Connolly’, it’d be ‘all of a sudden, a stentorian voice halts me mid-peregrination’. You always get the luxury of the lugubrious language with Les!
“You’ve just got to hammer it into your brain, but performing it on stage has been glorious,” Jon continues. “It’s a joy to occupy his mind and comic timing and it only makes you realise even more the level of lovable genius that he was.”
The making of an impressionist: from West Lancashire to national stardom
Born in West Lancashire, Jon Culshaw earned his initial impressionist stripes in radio in the late ‘80s. Whilst working for Red Rose Radio, now Rock FM, in Preston, he was known for occasionally reading weather reports in the voice of Frank Bruno and, before long, he was spotted by Spitting Image, his deftness and skill catapulting him to national prominence.
Before long, he had a regular guest spot on Chris Moyles’ afternoon show on BBC Radio 1 involving hijinks such as cold-calling businesses such as Kwik-Fit whilst impersonating Obi-Wan Kenobi and requesting a service for his X-Wing, but Jon’s big break was Dead Ringers. Initially a BBC Radio 4 show, it became a successful TV series on BBC 2 to boot.
In more recent years, Jon - who received an honorary fellowship from the University of Central Lancashire in 2006 - has built on his reputation as the country’s greatest impressionist with evermore impressive work.
In 2018, he delivered a truly unique performance as David Bowie in the play The Final Take: Bowie in the Studio for BBC Radio and, in 2021, played the legendary documentary maker Alan Whicker in audio drama The Other Side of the World, earning himself two best actor nominations in the New York Festivals and OneVoice awards.
But all roads lead back to Les.
‘I’m always disappointed when the end of the show comes’
A touching homage to the beloved comedy legend, the witty and warm-hearted Les Dawson: Flying High sees Jon channel the wide spectrum of emotions such a rich life naturally cultivates, carrying the audience with him through anecdote and insight. Premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival it explores mortality, identity, love, spirituality, and ambition.
A self-declared ‘slum-kid’, Les yearned to be recognized for his writing prowess, eventually translating his passion for literature into a full-time profession as one of the greatest comedic talents the UK has ever birthed. This is his story.
“He’s such a delight to play and I’m always disappointed when the end of the show comes because I’m reluctant to stop occupying his manner,” says Jon of Les. “There’s such a deep philosophy to Les; he had such a fascination with what makes us tick, inspires us, and binds us all together which drove and influenced him as a person and a comedian.
“Plus, to be back performing in general is wonderful,” adds Jon, suddenly effusive after slipping into a Les-tinged reverie. “Lockdown made us realise what we really missed: “Live performances are special - it’s a collective experience and the audience brings an extra dimension which you can never truly predict. It’s immensely rewarding.
“Couple that with coming back to Lytham, what with it being where Les lived for so many years and what with me having lived and worked in Blackpool…” he adds. “Our shared love of the area is where we intersect!”
Deep-fried pizzas in Bowness-on-Windermere
Our conversation drawing to a close, Jon begins to thank me again, before a thought appears to occur to him suddenly, as if floating down unexpectedly from the night sky. “It’ll be lovely doing the show in Barrow as well!” he says, beaming. “I spent the summer of 1986 when I was 18 living in Bowness-on-Windermere and working in a chip shop. They used to do deep-fried pizzas - they’d chuck the entire frozen pizza into the cooking fat.”
And they say Britain doesn’t have a national cuisine of note, I say. He laughs politely at my lame joke. “Once, the air pockets in one particular pizza blew up!” He continues, undeterred. “The whole thing spread out like a beachball with these two hemispheres: dough on one side and tomato on the other. It was more hot air balloon than pizza, explosive cholesterol!
“We all had a tremendous laugh about that. But I digress…”
This impressionist certainly left a lasting one.
Jon Culshaw will be performing Les Dawson: Flying High at the Lowther Pavilion in Lytham St Annes on the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th of December. For tickets, head to https://lowtherpavilion.co.uk/shows/les-dawson-flying-high/