Lionel Blair: Star of Britain’s golden age of television
Lionel Blair was seldom off the small screen during the golden era of British television. With his glowing smile and love of audiences, he brought a sparkle to television favourites such as Give Us a Clue and Name That Tune.
Blair, who has died aged 92, was a perenially popular figure, who had made an easy transition from music hall and theatre to television. In a career spanning seven decades, he had been a dancer, singer and presenter. Asked about his style, seen by some as camp, he countered: “I prefer ‘flamboyant’, or ‘enthusiastic’. I’ve always been a bit over the top.”
Born Henry Lionel Ogus in 1928 in Montreal, Quebec, to Jewish Lithuanian parents, his family moved to Britain when Blair was two, settling in Stamford Hill, London. During the Second World War, he and his sister Joyce would entertain audiences in the air-raid shelter at Manor House Tube station and on Underground trains. Family parties provided another outlet for their talents, as Blair recalled: “When our parents’ friends came round, little Joycie and Li would be dragged out of bed to entertain.”
“I really wanted to be an actor,” he told an interviewer in 2014. “I was the breadwinner after my father died when we were quite young, and I got into a musical, became well-known and stayed in musicals.” His debut came in 1942 as a Munchkin in a stage adaptation of the Wizard of Oz at the Grand Theatre, Croydon.
Further roles soon followed, in productions of the Bard’s Macbeth, Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew at the Theatre Royal, Bristol and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. He joined the Savoy Players, a touring company, in 1946.
The Five-Past Eight show, subtitled the “Fast-moving Song, Dance and Laughter show”, arrived at the Alhambra in Glasgow in 1955. Presented by Stewart Cruikshank, the variety show featured Blair in a key role as its choreographer. A critic for The Glasgow Herald said that it “opened Glasgow eyes ... on to a new world of light, colour, music, and irrepressible laughter on a plane not seen or expected in a ‘local’ show and rarely in a London visitation”.
Blair would also play straight man to the many Scottish comedians who appeared at the Alhambra. He recalled: “They were very funny, but they were also brilliant actors, and I learnt everything I needed to from them.”
In 1961 Blair took part in a memorable performance with Sammy Davis Jr during a Royal Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales theatre, matching the tap star tap-for-tap. That show was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. “It was the highlight of my career, meeting Sammy and working with him,” Blair later recalled. “That was one of the most thrilling things, ever. He was just so kind to me. He gave me a silver dollar. I carry it with me all the time.”
In film he had appeared with The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), playing the onscreen role of a choreographer, and later as Harry Charms in the musical Absolute Beginners (1986).
His break into television came with Give Us a Clue (1979-1992), a game-show version of charades, in which he and Una Stubbs captained teams competing to answer puzzles posed by Michael Aspel. And from 1984 he presented Name That Tune, the show that pitched two contestants against each other to test them on their musical knowledge.
Blair published Stage Struck, an autobiography, in 1985. Much like his face-to-face interviews, the memoir is packed with anecdotes about the panoply of show-business stars with whom he worked. And although he had sung for most of his life in entertainment, he did not release an album until 2003. Titled Blair Sings Astaire, he covers songs by the great entertainer, accompanied by the Jive Aces.
The comedy writer Danny Baker described Blair in tribute as “A true chum, an entertainer beyond compare, an archive of a golden era, an immeasurable talent”, adding that it would be “impossible to think he won't be in some green room somewhere, dropping names and living out fantastic tales. A Giant. Really.”
He is survived by his wife, Susan Blair, whom he married in 1967. They had three children.
Lionel Blair, entertainer, born 12 December 1928, died 4 November 2021
Bruce Forsyth: The face of Saturday night television who has died at the age of 89
Peter Sissons: TV news presenter with unflappable onscreen authority