Obituary: Lionel Blair, veteran artist who has become a television institution in “Give Us a Clue”
Lionel Blair, who died at the age of 92, was the choreographer of the Lionel Blair Dancers and, as one of television’s best-known hoofers and dance singers, he became a team captain in the ITV Give Us a Clue charades game.
With his straight, puffy hairstyle and dazzling smile, Blair established himself as a complete performer who could sing, dance, act comedy, tell jokes and organize the most fragile of game shows on a budget. Often known as “Ol ‘Twinkle Toes”, he described himself as the prototype of the old joke: “Open the fridge and I’ll take a 20 minute ride in the light”.
Blair’s career in show business began in earnest in 1960 when he met Sammy Davis Jr while working as a choreographer on the American artist’s British TV show. “He was everything I wanted to be,” Blair recalls. “We just loved each other from the moment we met. He understood me as a brother.
As a tribute to his childhood hero, Hollywood dance star Fred Astaire, Blair formed the Lionel Blair Dancers in the early 1960s and performed in nightclubs across the UK.
In 1964 he was a compeer and danced in Great evening on ITV, with his two school friends from North London, comedians Mike and Bernie Winters.
In the 1970s Blair’s unusually thin legs were insured for £ 60,000, but in 1975 he gave up dancing to pursue a serious acting career. He was the king of players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (Piccadilly, 1987) and in 2009 starred in Sheridan’s School of scandal at the Edinburgh Festival.
But his stage adventures were eclipsed when he became a panel member for the ITV talent scout show. New faces, which in turn led to Give us a hint in 1979. The show was hugely popular, and the irrepressible Blair appeared in every issue throughout his 13 years, overtaking both original host Michael Aspel and the opposing team’s captain, Una Stubbs.
He was born Henry Lionel Ogus in Montreal on December 12, 1928, the eldest child of Myer Ogus, an elegant Russian-Jewish barber whom Blair remembered as “a bit of a Jack-the-lad”. In 1930, the family left Canada for London, changing their name to Blair. His mother was an avid movie buff, and when they returned from a musical, his father “often patted a few steps on the kitchen floor.”
Although widely assumed to be gay, Blair remained married for over 50 years to a former model, Susan Davis, with whom he had three children who all survive him.
In 1957, Blair discovered that a dancer he had had an affair with was pregnant, but, having ended the relationship, refused to see her or her son after he was born. “I behaved like an absolute bastard,” Blair said. “I was too busy, too cruel.”
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He has enjoyed the abundant fruits of his labor – an uninterrupted 30-year career as a pantomime star recently grossed him £ 15,000 a week, and for years he has lived in style in a house with a Rolls – Royce in the garage and a pool.