Although his star status was rooted in talent and solid achievement, on the musical stage, in revue and in television light entertainment, Lionel Blair, who has died aged 92, was one of the first media celebrities famous for being sort of famous. He played up roguishly to his image of a bouffant-haired, perma-tanned dancer, impossible to send up in any meaningful way because he was sending himself up, on gameshows in the 1980s (Give Us a Clue, Blankety Blank) and reality shows in the new century (Celebrity Big Brother).
Blair was a genuine hoofer and a superb choreographer, who performed a scintillating dance routine with his friend and idol Sammy Davis Jr at the 1961 Royal Variety show and directed one of Danny La Rue’s most lavish spectaculars at the Palace theatre in 1970. He was quick on his feet and witty in speech, and audiences loved his unique brand of extravagant ingratiation, even if the critics sometimes squirmed.
Endearingly, he owned up to having lied about his age in his autobiography (he shaved off four years), on the daytime chatshow Loose Women in 2016. But in 2010, as one of six oldie celebs on the BBC reality show The Young Ones – along with Sylvia Syms (with whom he had appeared as a dancing sailor in the 1960 movie The World of Suzie Wong), the newsreader Kenneth Kendall, cricket umpire Dickie Bird, actor Liz Smith and Fleet Street editor Derek Jameson – he was easily the most agile and youthful.
He was born Henry Lionel Blair Ogus, in Montreal, Canada, where his parents – of Russian and Polish extraction – had emigrated from the East End of London in 1926. In 1930, the family returned to Hackney before settling in Stamford Hill, north London. Lionel’s father, Myer Ogus, was a barber; his mother, Deborah (“Della”, nee Greenbaum), was a tailor. Lionel very much cared about his hair and his clothes all his life (and his legs were once insured for half a million pounds, a sum then comparable to the $1m quoted – admittedly two decades earlier – to cover Betty Grable’s pins).
He was educated at Craven Park school – where he first met his lifelong friends Mike and Bernie Winters, the comedians – and Egerton Road school, connected to a synagogue. During the war years, he and his younger sister, Joyce – a budding Fred and Adele Astaire sibling song-and-dance act who were soon billed as “England’s youngest swingsters” – entertained Londoners in the air raid shelters at Manor House station on the Piccadilly line.
Lionel made a professional debut as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz at the Grand, Croydon, in 1942, shortly after that theatre reopened following the heavy bombing of Croydon earlier in the war. In 1943, he was one of the children in the post-West End tour of Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, a powerful anti-Nazi play, and made a West End debut in 1944 in Flying Colours, a revue starring Binnie Hale and Douglas Byng.
In the same year, he joined the Memorial theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon to play five roles in the summer season directed by Robert Atkins, including Macduff’s son in Macbeth; Gregory in The Taming of the Shrew; and third player in Hamlet. After a season in rep in Belfast there was a short run in RF Delderfield’s cosy comedy Peace Comes to Peckham. When his father died in 1947, Lionel became the family breadwinner – Joyce was just starting at a dance school – and decided to change his surname and concentrate on dancing as a more likely way of maintaining a regular income of sorts.
This he did, as a waiter, in Bob’s Your Uncle (1948) at the Saville, a musical comedy vehicle for Leslie Henson with a score by Noel Gay, then on the touring production of Annie Get Your Gun and in Kiss Me, Kate at the Coliseum in 1951. By the mid-1950s he was choreographing the celebrated Five Past Eight shows, swishly staged by Dick Hurran at the Alhambra, Glasgow, with headline stars such as Jimmy Logan, Eve Boswell and Stanley Baxter, and this led to his pre-eminence on BBC television in the 1960s, choreographing and dancing with his own group of show girls.
In that same period, he choreographed several movies and appeared in Michael Winner’s The Cool Mikado (1963) with Frankie Howerd and Stubby Kaye, and in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) with the Beatles. He was a regular in the biggest London pantomimes, commanding a fee of £15,000 a week as Buttons, Dick Whittington, Jack on his beanstalk and Aladdin.
But he was really now subsumed in his television work, and his last “legit” West End stage appearance was in a cheerful 1968 revival of the Gershwins’ Lady Be Good at the Saville, partnering the self-parodying squeaky “blond bombshell” Aimi MacDonald (who had then won television prominence in At Last the 1948 Show with John Cleese and Marty Feldman), though he did tour with Jimmy Edwards, 10 years later, in Doctor in the House.
On Give Us a Clue (1979-92), he and Una Stubbs captained teams competing in charades. On Name That Tune, which had been running in some shape or form since being imported from the US in 1956, he took over as presenter from Tom O’Connor from 1983 until 1988. And he filled in missing words on Blankety Blank during the best years of that show, with Les Dawson chaotically and uninterestedly in charge. This extensive warmup as a self-mocking celeb made Blair a prime candidate for reality shows, and he started mucking out down on The Farm on Channel 5 in 2005.
On a Christmas special of Extras by and with Ricky Gervais in 2007, Blair paid the ultimate humiliating price for self-preservation with a needy plea to extend his career on Celebrity Big Brother; and this eventually came to pass in 2014 (he was the third house guest to be evicted). In the same year, on the BBC drama Doctors, he played an old actor stricken with Alzheimer’s disease; this, he said, was a move to escape being Lionel Blair. He made another bid for freedom on Emmerdale in 2014.
Blair was involved in a variety of charity work, including for the organisations Stage for Age and Age UK. Latterly, he occasionally dusted down a one-man show, Tap and Chat, for the delectation of his loyal fans.
For many years he lived in Surrey with his wife, Susan Davis, whom he married in 1967. He is survived by Susan, their daughter, Lucy, two sons, David and Matthew, and three grandchildren. His sister, Joyce, a well-known performer in her own right, died in 2006.
• Lionel Blair (Henry Lionel Blair Ogus), actor, dancer and choreographer, born 12 December 1928; died 4 November 2021