Back in the 1970s and 1980s we had regular variety shows as television entertainment, attracting large audiences and affection. This was the era of sitcoms like Hi de Hi, comedy duos like Cannon and Ball (a couple of lads from my own home town of Oldham), stand-up shows like The Comedians, and a gentler, easier style of music.
Last Laugh in Vegas carries on where The First Marigold Hotel left off, with nine entertainers between the ages of 64 and 82 taking a chance on appearing live on stage in Las Vegas. Over four shows on ITV, and a final episode on ITV3 which gives us the full 90 minute show, we meet the seven men and two women whose names may have been familiar back then, but which have become less well-known in recent years.
Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball have performed together as a double act for more than half a century (even if a couple of decades of that time was spent ignoring each other off the stage), and their natural chemistry and ability still shines through, although Bobby can be a bit of a stirrer and Tommy a bit of a grumpy old man. I even found myself remembering the words to their theme song, and it’s a long time since their series was on the box.
Bobby Crush won Opportunity Knocks as a teenager, and has spent most of his career impersonating the larger-than-life Liberace. He’s an emotional old boy, easily pleased or upset, but his story is perhaps the most touching, as we see in the episode where he watches his younger self tinkling the ivories, reflecting on his need to stay closeted while dealing with the pressures of sudden fame – those large TV audiences I mentioned earlier were huge for talent shows in the 1970s.
Anita Harris was a pop star for a while, but she appears delicate now (although looking fantastic for 75); I last saw her in the Royal Albert Hall one-off concert performance of Follies where she performed a duet with Roy Hudd. During Last Laugh in Vegas we see her vulnerability and learn about her husband’s memory problems, and if she can no longer sing she can still put across a song, which shows professionalism.
Kenny Lynch may have been Jimmy Tarbuck’s stooge in ITV’s Live at Her Majesty’s for years, but he’s a reasonable crooner on stage, and an hilarious foul-mouthed grouch in private. Now in his 80s, he has the feel of an old, well-worn overcoat which has a classy past. His close friend (so close he calls him “Kipper”) is another former pop singer (self-obsessed, and described by himself as an ‘icon’), the heavily Botoxed Jess Conrad, the elder of the group. I saw Conrad in the 1980s in a 60s show alongside such luminaries as Tommy Bruce, Terry Dene, Mike Berry, Cissy Stone, and Screaming Lord Sutch, and he came across then as he does now, a deluded lounge lizard. Is it an act? The jury is still out.
Su Pollard may always be Peggy from Hi de Hi, but she has a past in musicals, and I was impressed by her in the musical Shout at the Arts Theatre some time ago. She’s larger than life and the only one of the group who looks as if she would just slot in perfectly in Vegas, and it is no surprise in the final episode to see her get a video message from a drag queen friend.
Bernie Clifton was a fixture on variety shows way back when with his ostrich act – which, if you’re not familiar with it, is hard to describe – and he reprises that here, while showing a softer side with a decent singing voice, and a sense of fun when rescuing Anita’s errant knickers. His obvious joy on receiving a standing Vegas ovation for his singing was touching indeed, and on the evidence seen in this series he seems a genuinely nice chap.
Finally, Mick Miller, the comic with the bald head and straggly hair. You may remember his drunken entertainer act from the past, or his laconically delivered funny lines. Disappointment as a boy when he wanted to be a professional footballer led him to the stage, and it was good to see his act go down a storm.
The reason this show worked – and sadly, it didn’t get the ratings it should have, hardly reaching 3 million – was the blend of ‘reality’ and careful scripting which set up conflicts, introduced the sentimentality of the past and connection with families, and made us laugh at the sight of goat yoga or Jess Conrad attempting to make a cup of tea.
And if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Frank Marino, one of the richest drag queens in the world, who acts as the Vegas show’s producer, and who looks like a bizarre hybrid of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.
Last Laugh in Vegas episode one expires from catch-up TV next week.