Former Norfolk theatre boss' memories of TV and stage veteran Lionel Blair

Lionel Blair as Buttons. Theatre Royal panto Cinderella 1992

Lionel Blair as Buttons in the Theatre Royal's first pantomime, Cinderella, in 1992. - Credit: Archant library

After the death of veteran TV presenter and dancer Lionel Blair, the former boss of the Norwich Theatre Royal Peter Wilson MBE reflects on their time working together - and his starring role in the theatre's first pantomime.

Lionel’s agent phoned me one day in 1987 suggesting that his client – who had been a star of the light entertainment world since the 1950s - would like to try some serious acting.

Lionel Blair as Buttons. Theatre Royal panto Cinderella 1992

Lionel Blair as Buttons in the Theatre Royal Cinderella pantomime from 1992. - Credit: Archant library

I was then planning a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and, though I’d cast the two young leads, was still considering the part of the Player, whose trajectory in the play weaves confidently around that of the querulous courtiers.

The Player is usually cast as a bombastic actor-manager, deep voiced and imposing. Lionel was neither of those things, but as a ‘name’ he was certainly worth considering, and Stoppard had no objection. So I cast him, after a bit of fencing around over terms and billing.

Peter Wilson, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Peter Wilson, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Simon Finlay

From the start he was breathtakingly watchable. He brought out the Player’s brazen seediness, his love of performing, his enjoyment of being in the spotlight, his deep knowledge that he was a star. Lionel had – apart from the seediness – all of those attributes, and in rehearsal he was gracious, professional, line perfect every time, simultaneously inventive and humble about taking direction.

Lionel Blair as Buttons. Theatre Royal panto Cinderella 1992

Lionel Blair as Buttons in the Theatre Royal 1992 pantomime Cinderella. It was its first pantomime. - Credit: Archant library

The real surprise, though, was how well he seemed to get on with Tom Stoppard. I looked around one day to see these two bouffant-haired men sitting together. I could scarcely tell them apart. Tom has noted that I’m still the only director of his play to have cast a double act as the eponymous leads; but for me the real revelation was Lionel. He knew that he was good, and that he was occupying the world of straight acting by right.

Lionel Blair as Buttons. Theatre Royal panto Cinderella 1992

Lionel Blair as Buttons in the Theatre Royal's 1992 Cinderella pantomime, its first. - Credit: Archant library

One day I asked him not to smoke in the rehearsal room. It wasn’t allowed. "Well," he said, taking another deep puff, "you wouldn’t say that to John Gielgud".

Lionel Blair as Buttons. Theatre Royal panto Cinderella 1992

Lionel Blair as Buttons in the Theatre Royal's first pantomime in 1992. - Credit: Archant library

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I directed him again two years later, and we kept in touch. So it was logical that I asked him to star in and direct the first pantomime under my leadership at Norwich Theatre Royal in 1992. He accepted without hesitation, so it was my privilege to have brought my friend, this all-round entertainer and star, to the city and theatre that I love so much.

Lionel Blair as Buttons. Theatre Royal panto Cinderella 1992

Lionel Blair as Buttons in the Norwich Theatre Royal's 1992 pantomime - its first - Cinderella. - Credit: Archant library


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