The genius of the genesis of Les Dawson’s mother-in-law joke – The Lost Tapes, review

In the timeline of 20th-century British comedy, it counts as a historical artefact: written evidence of Les Dawson’s first mother-in-law joke. It appeared in a script for a BBC radio show, produced by the Dawson when he was an unknown. The joke was about his wife but there on the page, in Dawson’s neat script, “wife” had been scratched out and replaced. “My mother-in-law threatened to throw herself in the canal. Hope she doesn’t do anything silly… like changing her mind.”

The gags improved after that, it has to be said. Les Dawson: The Lost Tapes (ITV) traced the comic’s career, which began relatively late – he was pushing 40 when he found success in the panel show Jokers Wild. His comedy persona was rock solid: the hangdog expression, the deadpan routines.

All that grumbling about the wife and the mother-in-law struck a chord with men; as Brendan O’Carroll (Mrs Brown’s Boys) explained, there was a sort of solidarity in it, a message that “my life’s a misery and so is yours”.

Of course, women loved Dawson too. His Cissie and Ada sketches with Roy Barraclough were very popular, and have been much copied over the years. Mrs Brown owes a debt to Dawson, despite O’Carroll’s protestations that any similarity was coincidental.

As with last week’s Lost Tapes episode on Ronnie Corbett, the programme featured home-video footage and family reminiscences. Dawson’s widow, Tracy, was joined by the couple’s daughter, Charlotte, who was only eight months old when he died. Watching the films was clearly an emotional experience for them, and their love for him shone through.

But while the programme gave time to Dawson’s earlier marriage – his adored first wife, Meg, died of cancer – it only made fleeting reference to his three children from that marriage, which left the episode feeling incomplete.

And, in its choice of comedy footage, it fell short of the bar set by the Corbett programme. Taking the odd joke or

TV appearance in isolation failed to capture Dawson’s appeal or do justice to his talents. Instead of giving us a Britain’s Got Talent winner playing Dawson’s grand piano, wouldn’t it have been better to fill that time with more footage of the man himself playing it for real? Ditto John Thomson and Jason Manford performing a Cissie and Ada script (although Thomson can do a pretty good Dawson impression).

Still, these shows allow us to wallow in nostalgia, and also to wonder: which of our current comedians would merit a tribute like this, 40 years from now?