“DO YOU know,” confides Lionel Blair. “I’ve always wanted to play a baddie. I’m so sick of ‘nice Lionel Blair’. I played a baddie once in a play in Hammersmith, and I even got a notice ‘that nice Lionel Blair said so and so’.
“I thought oh my God, I’ve got to get rid of this!”
In what could be a late career move, his last stage role was playing the evil Childcatcher in musical extravaganza Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
And now he’s channelling his wicked side again, this time playing ruthless theatrical agent Oliver Squires in the new Stand Up the Musical, getting its premiere at the Floral Pavilion.
“It’s so funny,” the 81-year-old smiles. “my agent is kind of calm. I’ve never really met a ruthless agent like they are in America or whatever.”
Later in our conversation, however, having pondered, he announces: “My agent is ruthless actually, but I don’t know it! Producers say ‘oh I hate dealing with your agent, he’s so difficult’.”
Stand Up the Musical – written by Daryl Denham and Maurice Cheetham – features Darren Day, Billy Pearce and newcomer Matt Wilman as three very different comedians who have their audiences in fits of laughter, while off stage their lives are very different.
Dean Sullivan, meanwhile, stars as a comedy club manager.
Lionel is quite happy, however, to be playing the canny agent, complete with his big number Mr Ten Per Cent.
“I do a one man show, it’s called Tap and Chat with Lionel Blair, in which I am, I hope, quite funny,” he says. “I’ve got funny stories about my career. But to do stand-up, that must be the hardest job in the world.”
With a career stretching back seven decades, he must have plenty of funny stories to choose from.
The Canadian-born, London-raised showman never wanted to do anything other than perform. As a youngster, he and sister Joyce would entertain people sheltering in the London Underground air raid shelters during the war.
When he was left an orphan at the age of 15, he had no choice but to keep working – an ethic he has followed throughout his life.
He appeared at the RSC and in the West End, and from the late 1940s onwards dancing became his forte.
It was as a choreographer that he popped up in The Beatles’ first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year.
Lionel recalls: “When it was premiered in Liverpool, I went up with the Beatles and Wilfrid Brambell, and there were all those crowds by the town hall, and I was on the balcony.
“It was incredible. I knew the film’s American producer privately, but he didn’t know my work or anything. And when the crowd shouted ‘Lionel, Lionel’, because I’d been on telly a lot, he turned to me and said ‘my God, they know you!’
“It was wonderful.
“I’d done lots of telly with the Beatles, with Mike and Bernie Winters mostly, in Blackpool Night Out.
“In fact, there was one we asked them to do, and John, or Paul, said ‘we’ll only do it if Lionel does a routine to our new record’. I said what’s that? And they said ‘Help!’ So I invented a dance called ‘the Kick’.
“Individually, they were funny, they were wonderful. But if you went to a party and they were all there together, they stuck together, you couldn’t get into their little enclave.”
The Beatles went their separate ways four decades ago, although its two surviving members are still out there performing.
And like Macca and Ringo, Lionel has no plans to retire just yet.
“What? What’s that dirty word?!” he laughs. “No, no no, not at all.”
Stand Up the Musical is at the Floral Pavilion from September 3-7.