Showbiz veteran Lionel Blair enjoyed glittering career on stage and screen

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Lionel Blair was a showbiz veteran and fixture of British entertainment for decades (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)
Lionel Blair was a showbiz veteran and fixture of British entertainment for decades (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)

Showbiz veteran Lionel Blair was a reassuringly cheerful presence in British entertainment during a career spanning eight decades.

The seasoned performer was from the old school of variety shows and was capable of turning his hand to almost anything – including choreography, dancing, acting and presenting.

Blair, who moved to the UK from Canada as a child, fed his early passion for performing while sheltering from air raids during the Second World War.

Lionel Blair entered the Big Brother house in 2014 (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)
Lionel Blair entered the Big Brother house in 2014 (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)

He enjoyed a long and successful career on stage and screen and was best known as a team captain on charades-style TV show Give Us A Clue.

Blair, who has died at 92, always remained coy over his true age and famously once said: “I am 59 plus VAT.”

Perhaps that reticence explains why there are conflicting results for his date of birth online – with Wikipedia listing 1928 but Blair himself saying in a 2013 interview 1932.

Whatever the date, Blair was born in Canada before moving to Britain at the age of two.

He grew up in the Stamford Hill area of north London and was evacuated to Oxford when war broke out, with his sister Joyce and mother Deborah.

However, the family’s stint in the countryside did not last long and they returned to London after witnessing a German plane crash leading to his father, Myer, calling them back to the capital.

“If that can happen there, what’s the point of being in the country away from each other?” Blair said his father told him.

A young Lionel Blair (left) and David Jacobs (PA) (PA Archive)
A young Lionel Blair (left) and David Jacobs (PA) (PA Archive)

His father’s parents were Russian, though Blair described him as “the archetypal north London barber”.

The young Blair got his first taste of showbiz by watching the likes of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple at the cinema, before going home to copy them.

The family was Jewish, though not orthodox and their habit of eating bacon was frowned upon by the neighbours.

Blair was 13 when his father died after going in for surgery on a hernia and duodenal ulcer. “It changed everything,” Blair said.

“It was the first time I’d ever thought, I’m never going to see him again. It was so awful and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a loss like it.”

Blair said he had to grow up “artificially fast” following the death of his father, and he was already making a name for himself as an actor. However, then came the death of his mother, leaving him an orphan.

Joyce then married her first husband, meaning Blair was on his own. Throughout his showbiz career, he has been a dancer, choreographer, TV presenter, director and actor – covering the entire sphere of the business.

In the West End he played the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium, and had roles in Lady Be Good, Mr Cinders and Pageant.

He choreographed and appeared in TV shows featuring stars such as Anthony Newley, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Liza Minnelli, as well as a Royal Variety performance with Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr.

The pair later became good friends and Blair selected the singer for an episode of Great Lives on BBC Radio Four in 2010.

Even in his later years Lionel Blair maintained a healthy tan (Ian West/PA) (PA Archive)
Even in his later years Lionel Blair maintained a healthy tan (Ian West/PA) (PA Archive)

Blair also appeared in the Beatles’s film A Hard Day’s Night as a choreographer. However, he is best known for being captain of the men’s team on Give Us A Clue, the ITV game show.

He reprised the role in a 2011 Comic Relief special and was back on screens for Celebrity Big Brother in 2014. He spent 15 days in the house, exiting third after boxer Evander Holyfield and model Jasmine Waltz.

In 2017, he was one of the celebrities appearing in the BBC reality series The Real Marigold Hotel. Blair’s ubiquity in British entertainment helped save a man’s life.

In 2006, he and comedian Alan Carr were forced to abandon filming for a comedy to talk a man out of killing himself.

The pair were shooting a pilot for Carr’s End Of The Pier show on the North Pier in Blackpool, when a man was seen on the edge of the pier, threatening to throw himself off.

Carr and Blair talked him down until police arrived to help him home. “It really scared me – I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” Blair said.

“We spent about 10 minutes talking to him. He just kept saying he wanted to end it all. Then someone said it was Lionel Blair from TV and he did a double take.

“I reached out, then he grabbed both our arms and we heaved him up.”

Even in his later years, Blair maintained a healthy tan and his famous bouffant hairstyle.

His cheerful demeanour and enthusiastic manner led to jokes he was gay, and his sexuality was a running gag on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.

Blair said he largely ignored the jibes, but once sent a man to hospital after punching him when he called him a “fairy”.

And on claims he could be called camp, Blair said: “Camp? Really? I prefer ‘flamboyant’, or ‘enthusiastic’. I’ve always been a bit over-the-top.”

He married wife Susan in March 1967 and once said the secret to a successful marriage is memories.

The couple had three children and three grandchildren.

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