Worst to Best
Blankety Blank
Series Eight

Blankety Blank's eighth series was the most dramatic in the show's history, a hectic run of episodes that almost resulted in the death of its star.


The eighth series of Blankety Blank began less than three weeks after the end of the seventh, running from January-March 1985. Les Dawson completed just ten episodes before being hospitalised, leaving a truncated run. Please join me as we look back not only on the worst to best of the eighth series, but also some of the drama behind the scenes...

11 Episode Three

Guest Panellists (in panel order): Dave Lee Travis, June Whitfield, Pete Murray, Cherry Gillespie, Roy Kinnear and Liz Fraser.

One notable element of series eight is that it has a new producer who stays with the programme until the end of the original run. Not much has been said about the producers of Blankety Blank, largely because they don't get interviewed much, but more importantly, does it really matter? While some elements will change, the fundamentals of the show remain the same.
     Yet, for the record, Alan Boyd produced the show from the unaired pilots up to the end of series three, while Marcus Plantin produced some series two/three episodes, then took over full time from series four-seven. Here Stanley Appel takes over, a man who had directed some series three episodes, and would not only stay with Les for the remainder of his time on the show, but would take him on for his post-Blankety Blank quiz, 1991's misfiring Fast Friends.
     Les is arguably the best-remembered host of the show, perhaps not surprisingly as he hosted 124 episodes. Online memories abound about his gurning, the insulting of the panellists, the trashing of the prizes, and his perhaps over-laboured routines about the chequebook and pen. However, one element of Les's schtick which may not be as remembered is his use of deliberately corny puns, accompanied by a foot stomp and a hand out to the studio audience. While it can amuse, it's often overdone in the eighth series, with signs that Les is going through the motions a little; a comedian who's more remembered for his hangdog expressions than a genuine smile.
     This episode is ranked last, as it's an indication of Les's exhaustion with the format; while he's able to have some fun with Roy Kinnear and Dave Lee Travis, it does feel a little "in jokey", and his general asides throughout the game tend more towards phoning it in a little. Of course, even Les on autopilot is worth a smile or two, but he doesn't look especially well, and his energy levels are lower than usual. It was something he openly acknowledged, stating in his 1985 autobiography A Clown Too Many that "[...] the fatigue was becoming apparent in my work, and I refused to do a pantomime season; it was obvious even to me that I had to rest up."

10 Episode Ten

Guest Panellists: Michael Barrymore, Sandra Dickinson, Nicholas Parsons, Emily Bolton, Rolf Harris and Sue Cook.

The most striking thing about this episode is that the "seating arrangements" which we've observed throughout these articles are completely discarded... Sandra Dickinson is out of the "airhead" seat and into the top middle, while Michael Barrymore, the established comedian, takes top left in deference to Rolf Harris.
      Speaking of Rolf, then there's a horrible moment where he kisses Sue Cook's arm all the way up to her shoulder, but generally speaking the panel are quite muted, even Barrymore. He was still yet to peak, with Strike It Lucky not airing until the following year, and his own chat show five years later, but he seems to have less to prove here than he did way back in the first series, and he'd worked with Les on stage during 1983, so had a connection with a man he doesn't try to upstage.
      In terms of the viewing figures for this run of Blankety Blank, then 1985 marks a major turning point for our research, as BARB began to publish the entire national Top 100, rather than just the Top 20 overall, or the Top 10 per channel. Unfortunately, this transition to greater detail didn't take place until mid February, which means that the first five episodes of this run - none of which made the BBC Top 10 - can't be traced.
      It's known that Episode 8.3 had 10.35 million tuning in, and 8.5 took this up to 10.74 million, but how that translated to chart positions in an era where you needed over 12 million just to break the Top 20 is unknown. Series nine in September the same year would see the show rise in popularity again, but for series eight, episodes 6-11, it averaged 9.82 million viewers and 44th place on the charts.
     To end on a collection of trivia, then series eight (and series seven) saw the show moved to Friday nights instead of the Saturday evenings that the later Wogan run had occupied. Then there's Les's episode sign offs. Les never claimed to be particularly religious, though did detail some experiences of a benign haunting in A Clown Too Many. However, "God" features predominantly in his episode sign offs, with ten of the eleven episodes here featuring Les using the term, most notably "God bless". It could be showbiz affectation, but he seems sincere, with his running gag about a "viewer in Cheltenham" not debuting until series nine.
     Speaking of sign offs, then this edition sees Les reuse a gag about his door "always being open" to viewers - "We can't shut the damn thing" - that he'd used in 8.3.

9 Episode Five

Guest Panellists: Tony Blackburn, Sheila Ferguson, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Sabina Franklyn, William Rushton and Rula Lenska.

An episode that marks the final appearances of Willie Rushton, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Sheila Ferguson on the panel. Nicholas Lyndhurst's involvement hasn't really been mentioned up to this point, largely because there's been so many other points to discuss, but also because he seems sweet but shy. While David Jason would often try to take over an entire show during the Wogan years, Nicholas is happy to sit there politely and play along.
     As we've seen in the past, including last time with Claire Rayner, some panellists would only take part almost as a begrudging obligation. This is Rula Lenska's fifth of six appearances throughout the history of Blankety Blank, and she always seems suitably engaged. However, it appears her acting background came in more useful than expected, as she wasn't really a fan of the show, or of quizzes in general. In her 2013 autobiography, Rula: My Colourful Life she noted: "A lot of those bits of work were just sort of celebrity appearances, which I wasn't very keen on, and the money wasn't brilliant either but there was a lot of pleasure. [...] And when you are asked to do Blankety Blank with Les Dawson, how can you say no? In those days it was considered quite a good thing to do, just to keep your face out there."
     So it is that Rula Lenska finds herself back on Blankety Blank in a week where Les Dawson's joke about the panel that "They're only here because they couldn't get pantomime" has perhaps more than a ring of truth to it. Sandwiched between a guest spot in Doctor Who and a one-off ITV play which only seems to have aired in the Wales and Border regions, Rula puts in her agent-pleasing TV appearance, but such concerns doesn't mean she wasn't enjoying herself. In fact, Rula laughs throughout, and even puts on the Polish accent of her ancestry for a bit of fun. Rula is either a great actress, or did, in fact, enjoy the experience while she was there.
     Lastly, the changing social mores of television are thrown into stark contrast when Les has a question about Chinese television. While Top Gear would face charges of regulation breaches in 2014 for using racial terms, back in 1985, almost two decades before the creation of Ofcom, Les would appear in front of 10.74 million viewers making a pun on the word "slant". This is not unique to this episode, as episode 8.10 sees Les making jokes around the word "nip". As discussed in prior articles, as amazing as it may sound to those who were born in the 1990s or later, then Les wasn't actually being racist as such, as bizarre as such a claim may seem. By the standards and social mores of the time, this was acceptable (or unchallenged) humour, which seems quite incredulous today, but then this is applying today's social conventions to events that took place over 35 years ago.

8 Episode Nine

Guest Panellists: Duncan Norvelle, Barbara Windsor, Chris Tarrant, Sarah Greene, Frank Carson and Lesley Ash.

The oft-touted story with Series 8 is that Les missed a March recording date due to illness, which is how the press picked up on him being in hospital. However, as is often the case, things aren't quite that straightforward. For one thing, in his autobiography, Les quite naturally gets some dates and sequences a little muddled, which is only to be expected. An example that directly relates to this is that he remembers finding he couldn't urinate as happening in "March", but newspapers were already reporting he'd been admitted to hospital on February 18th.
     So, the month is out, but it seems as if there was a scheduled gap in the recording run anyway. The ten episodes recorded for Series 8 were taped in five weeks between 5th January-2nd February, so where does the "missed recording" come in? If the schedule was to continue for Saturday recording dates, then it's possible that a week off was planned for the 9th, and Les missed a recording date on the 16th. How many more episodes were planned is unknown (only one repeat was used to bolster the run) and which panellists were booked to appear is a mystery for another time.
     As it stands, this episode and 8.10 - both recorded on the 2nd February - were the last two shot before Les was hospitalised just over two weeks later. Eerily enough there's a joke involving hospitals, with Les telling a contestant "I love hospitals. That's the place where they wake you up to give you a sleeping pill." The reality was quite the opposite, with Les confessing in A Clown Too Many that "I had a morbid fear of such places."
     With Les in hospital, what should have been a fairly straightforward prostate operation became complicated due to his overall ill health, with Les recalling: "Ten minutes later I was in the intensive care ward, my kidneys had ceased to function, my blood pressure was almost nil and I was fighting for my life." Les had just turned 54, was overweight, a heavy drinker, a heavy smoker, and a workaholic, with bills to pay and a sick wife. In hindsight, it was perhaps natural that his body would collapse under the strain, though thankfully he was able to recover.
     Frank Carson is finally let back on the show, and it's apparent that a lot of his input is edited out, as Les makes multiple remarks about Frank's talking, without much evidence of it on screen. There's possibly an oblique reference to Frank being banned from the show, with Les noting at one stage: "This is your first chance of a comeback."
     However, Les also has far better control over Frank than Terry did, having the advantage of being a professional comedian himself. When Frank starts the show by asking if there's going to be an award for the most dynamic personality on the show, Les keeps him in place by quipping: "Yes there is, and you're gonna present it."
     An oddity through the historical lens is that Les makes a special introduction of Leslie Ash, telling audiences that they "might not know" her, and that she was the girl in the Fairy Liquid advert (while making pains not to name the product). It's strange, because while she had appeared in television before, mainly children's television, and had a role in Quadrophenia, Ash, then less than three weeks shy of her 25th birthday, was generally an unknown. Exactly one month later she'd achieve greater fame as part of kitsch detective show C.A.T.S. Eyes, before going stratospheric in the '90s as part of Men Behaving Badly.
     Ranked eighth, this is a generally decent episode, with no real indication as to Les's upcoming fate, though he does appear to be breathing harder as the show ends. There's Duncan Norvelle in quite quick-witted form, Chris Tarrant giving Les a kiss, and Les perhaps being unusually harsh in mocking a contestant's teeth: "It's like talking to Shergar."

7 Episode Four

Guest Panellists: Roy Walker, Janet Brown, Fred Housego, Tessa Sanderson, Bobby Davro and Patricia Hayes.

The debut of Roy Walker and Tessa Sanderson on the show, as well as the final appearance of Fred Housego. Fred's appearance on the show actually highlights several things about Les Dawson that are to his credit. One is that Les will often throw barbs at the panellists, particularly fellow comedians, which, while in good fun, are no holds barred - Roy Walker and Bobby Davro are called out for failed jokes on numerous occasions.
     Yet while Fred's appearance on the panel has always been that of someone perhaps unfairly thrown in at the deep end, Les doesn't take advantage of the fact. Les at full throttle could, of course, eviscerate Fred, but instead of picking up cheap laughs against an easy target, Les instead opts to try and bring Fred into the humour and fun of the experience.
     The other noticeable side is that this is the most at ease Fred has ever been on Blankety Blank, and he tries to trade barbs with Les. Les holds back, and does at one point look offscreen, presumably at the director, when Fred has delivered a taunt that doesn't really get a laugh. But while Fred would never perhaps be a panellist that didn't seem a little awkward and out of place, he at least makes an effort here.
     Such minor successes on Les's part must also not be attributed as a failing on Terry Wogan's. After all, while Terry could be amusing, he wasn't a comedian, but a television presenter who could crack the odd smart remark, and so wouldn't really give a non-comic much to play off, being essentially the straight man to the whole of the panel. This was one instance where Les's more dominant hosting style definitely worked in his favour.

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