Give Us A Clue to Extras: The life of Lionel Blair

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Lionel BlairImage source, Alamy

Lionel Blair will be remembered as a variety entertainer of the old school, whose mischievous wit, flamboyance and ever-twinkling eye kept him popular whatever the decade.

His self-taught talent as a dancer and choreographer made him famous, taking him from child performer to Sammy Davis Jr's dance-off competitor in front of the Queen Mother.

But in a career spanning more than 70 years, Blair also did a lot of acting, especially in the early years. And he worked with, or counted as friends, myriad showbusiness legends including Bob Hope, The Beatles and Liza Minnelli.

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Lionel Blair and his sister Joyce performed with each other in the early days

As the decades advanced, Blair popped up as a (non-dancing) guest on multiple popular TV programmes - quiz show Blankety Blank to name but one. And most people knew him as an ever-present celebrity who danced a bit, as opposed to a celebrity dancer.

It was his role as a team captain on the 1980s Give Us A Clue game show which became his calling card, even though he later ventured into reality TV, including an infamous PVC-clad turn in Celebrity Big Brother.

And though he also became a would-be retiree of The Real Marigold Hotel, there was never any thought of disappearing into anonymity for Blair. The chat show invites kept coming, as did the tours, played up and down the UK.

"People still say, almost in a derogatory way, 'Oh, you're a dancer'. Or, 'You're so showbiz'," he said in 2018. "Well what's wrong with that? I am. I love it. I'm thrilled to have been part of showbiz for so many years."

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Lionel Blair with his sister Joyce and Sammy Davis Jr who became a close friend

Henry Lionel Blair Ogus, to give him his original full name, got an early start to life in the spotlight.

He was born in Montreal in 1928, the son of a Jewish barber who had emigrated from Russia to Canada. Blair's father moved the family to London and, when World War Two broke out, Henry Lionel and his older sister Joyce began entertaining people in air raid shelters with their improvised dance routines.

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Lionel Blair and his wife Susan and one of their sons

"From an early age Joyce and I were taken to the pictures - it was always Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Shirley Temple," Blair once recounted, explaining where his inspiration had come from. "We used to go home and try to copy them. That's how we learned to tap dance."

At 13, Blair was devastated by the death of his father. "It changed everything... I don't think I've ever experienced loss like it," he said.

With no family breadwinner, he began working as an actor. He then teamed up again with Joyce in musical productions before flying solo and making his acting debut aged 14 in Watch on the Rhine.

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Lionel Blair and Susan enjoyed a long and happy marriage

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford followed. And as Blair's acting career progressed, he performed Stoppard and Ayckbourn. But it was as a dancer that he was to excel.

In the 1960s, he came to public attention after forming the troupe Lionel Blair and His Dancers, who became regulars on TV variety shows.

A career defining moment came in 1961 when Blair stepped onto the stage of London's Prince of Wales Theatre for the Royal Variety Command Performance - accompanied by none other than Sammy Davis Jr.

They went on to perform a bizarre comedy sketch which saw "Savile Row shop assistant" Blair teach "gauche American" Davis how to be posh. As the act progressed, the dancing became competitive, as the duo bid to out-dance each other.

Neither did and Davis Jr and Blair became lifelong friends.

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The Give Us a Clue team: Host Michael Aspel with Una Stubbs and Lionel Blair

"It was the highlight of my career... that was one of the most thrilling things, ever. He was just so kind to me. He gave me a silver dollar. I carry it with me all the time," Blair later recalled.

An appearance as a choreographer in the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night in 1964 enhanced his reputation and he choreographed other films such as The Magic Christian in 1969.

In 1967, Blair married his wife Susan. The couple went on to have three children and three grandchildren. Blair later revealed on ITV's Loose Women how he had stolen his future wife from his friend after a "Cupid's arrow" moment at a dinner party.

"I walked in the room and honestly, I took one look at her and it hit me. I thought, 'That's the girl I am going to marry'... six weeks later we were married," Blair told the audience.

"The secret of a successful marriage is memories... that's why my dad insisted that we went everywhere together, so we could talk about things. I'm so lucky to have a wife who is a nest builder. Her nest is the most important thing in the world to her," he also told the Guardian.

"We've got a very, very normal family, and for me everything comes back to family. If they're sad, I'm sad. I want them to be happy all the time."

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Lionel Blair sent himself up in Ricky Gervais' Extras Christmas special

On TV shows in the 1970s, Blair was often roped in to choreograph and/or perform. "Everybody said: 'Give us a twirl, Lionel'. If that's what they want, that's what they're going to get," he later joked about his hoofer's reputation.

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Lionel Blair was full of energy and enthusiasm for life

He built on his growing status as a household name with frequent spots on primetime family programmes such as The Tommy Cooper Hour and the Jimmy Tarbuck Show.

Towards the end of the decade, Blair had established his celebrity to such an extent that he became a judge on ITV's X-Factor forerunner New Faces in 1976.

But it was in the 1980s that Blair earned a cosier affection as a star of TV games shows Name That Tune and the charades hit, Give Us A Clue. The women's team captain was Una Stubbs and the series featured a galaxy of famous team players.

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A moment to forget? Lionel Blair in a dubious choice of attire for Celebrity Big Brother

"We did well over 1,000 shows between 1979 and 1982," Blair later proudly recalled.

In the mid-90s, Blair became the butt of lewd gay Give Us A Clue jokes on Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. They went on for nearly 15 years, made originally by host Humphrey Lyttelton and continued by his successor Jack Dee. The audience loved it. Blair himself was less amused.

"It was merciless and just plain mean. I didn't mind for myself but my wife and family really hated it and became very upset," he told the Mirror.

"I don't understand why they had to be gay gags either. Yes, I'm very over-the-top and flamboyant but I always have been. I'm theatrical, darling!

"I could have sued, I suppose, but that would have been breaking the comedians' code - and you simply don't do that."

Established as a "good get" for a many a TV show, Blair continued to turn up regularly on a range of programmes - frequently as himself. They included Channel Five's The Farm, sending himself up in the final episode of Ricky Gervais' Extras in 2007, a one-off spot in Emmerdale and an outrageous spell in the Celebrity Big Brother house.

In 2007, Blair was diagnosed with and recovered from prostate cancer. There were also some bizarre non-career related episodes in his colourful life, including the kidnap of his pet dog Florence in 2006, the same year he and the comedian Alan Carr saved a man who was about to fall from Blackpool pier.

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Lionel Blair took on the The Real Marigold Hotel challenge to compete with fellow dancer Wayne Sleep

Late into his life, Blair continued to appear in pantomimes and gigs on game and chat shows. He toured the UK in both group and solo productions, including Tap & Chat With Lionel Blair, a convivial trawl through the variety performer's life and times.

His decision to check into The Real Marigold Hotel in India was driven by his dancer's competitiveness.

"I signed up... because of the show that I saw before - I thought if Wayne Sleep can do it, I can do it!," he said.

If anything, the show proved that, for Blair, life in all its infinite variety is for living - no matter your age. There is, he said, "something exciting around every corner".

"I've been in this business since I was 13 and it's given me a wonderful life."