Rewind...April 28-May 3, 2003: When Swindon snubbed Les Dennis in his hour of need

The Wyvern Theatre did not provide Les Dennis with a memorable experience in 2003

The Wyvern Theatre did not provide Les Dennis with a memorable experience in 2003

First published in Rewind: A look back on life in Swindon by

SWINDON was a big Polo Mint, it was all change at the council and poor old Family Fortunes veteran Les Dennis scored a resounding ‘ne-nerrrr’ at the Wyvern Theatre.

In the week when April of 2003 gave way to May, Les’s management said the former gameshow host was going back to his comedy roots.

It was also in 2003 that he and Amanda Holden divorced for reasons including her affair with Neil Morrissey, so if ever a man deserved a break it was Les.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to happen here.

We said: “TV funnyman Les Dennis has been snubbed by Swindon in his bid to make a stage comeback.

“The former presenter of Family Fortunes is set to appear at the Wyvern Theatre on May 4.

“But only 37 of the 617 tickets on offer have been sold for his stand-up gig, making it one of the Wyvern’s least popular shows in living memory.

“Although he is a national TV star who hit the headlines on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother, where he starred alongside Swindon favourite Melinda Messenger, Mr Dennis’s 15-date tour looks set to be a flop, with just 21 tickets sold for his performance at the Epsom Playhouse and 27 for his night at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon.”

Les soldiered on regardless, and ended up playing to about 60 people at the Wyvern, but career revival was only a couple of years away.

A self-deprecating appearance on Extras, Ricky Gervais’ follow-up to The Office, brought public admiration and led to countless acting roles on stage, TV and film as well as various presenting jobs.

If there was an empty space where Les’s Wyvern audience should have been, there was an even bigger one in the town centre – or so said various movers and shakers of the time.

‘Plugging the Hole’ was our headline next to a photo of a certain iconic mint, and our story lamented the relative lack of town centre attractions – or affordable housing for people working in such places.

“There’s a big hole in the middle where we haven’t got a quality town centre, ” said the then council chief executive, Simon Birch.

We spoke to Michael Kent, boss of Bromford Housing Group, whose Isambard Place development of affordable housing was intended to help address the problem.

“Swindon is hampered by low unemployment and a high demand for houses,” he said. “Two or three people are going for each property, so the price goes up.”

Perhaps the most pertinent comments came from Swindon Chamber of Commerce boss Dennis Grant, who said: “We’ve spent far too long deciding whether to build on land known as the Front Garden, but it’ll be another five years before we see a brick laid and that’s not going to improve the situation now.”

Grant, of course, went on to head the Cotswold Water Park Society, and defraud it of about £700,000. The crook was jailed for four years and four months in 2011 and later had an extra 1,237 days added for failing to repay more than £300,000.

Election fever gripped the town this week in 2003. Actually, that’s not true at all. The percentage turning out to vote in the 20 wards with seats up for grabs was mostly in the 20s and low 30s.

In Penhill, where the turnout was 26.54 percent, voters had to report to a big tent because the council of the day had shut down the usual polling station, the community centre, a month earlier.

Mike Bawden’s Tories gained six seats, taking control from Kevin Small’s Labour group.

Unsurprisingly, Coun Small wasn’t pleased, and said: “I’m very disappointed because the people of Swindon have rejected us and the Conservatives will now benefit from our extra work and resources.

“We were brave enough to put council tax up by 15.5 per cent and we will see improvements, but that’s simply because of the work we have done.”

For one of the losing candidates, though, another chapter of life was beginning.

A couple of days later we revealed: “Community campaigner Phil Rashid is leaving Swindon for Malaysia after finding his wife-to-be in an internet chatroom.

“The 49-year-old chairman of Swindon’s Race Coalition clicked with Maria Ithnin, 44, when they got talking on muslimmatch.com – a matrimonial website – back in July.

“Since then the father-of-one, who stood as the Labour candidate for Toothill and Westlea ward in Thursday’s council elections, says the couple have been emailing daily and are ‘truly, madly and deeply in love.’ “Phil is now planning to up sticks and leave his home of 16 years in Thornford Drive, Westlea, for the Far East in November – the Muslim month of Ramadan.”

Our most unusual story that week was about a two-year-old Rodbourne Cheney toddler called Caiden Williams, whose growing vocabulary included phrases such as ‘Ello ello’ and ‘Timmy’s a good boy.’ He picked them up from a family member called Timmy – his grandmother’s African Grey parrot.

IN OTHER NEWS...

MONDAY, APRIL 28: “Swindon pop star Billie Piper is to use her acting skills in a television adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The 20-year-old former Bradon Forest School pupil will play the part of Alison, the teenage bride of an older man, in The Miller’s Tale. Her on-screen husband is played by Dennis Waterman, formerly of Minder and The Sweeney. Also starring will be actor James Nesbitt of Cold Feet.”
TUESDAY, APRIL 29: “ADVANCE ticket sales suggest that this year’s Swindon Festival of Literature is going to be the most successful yet. Several of the events at this, the 10th and most ambitious festival, which runs from Thursday until May 17, are already sold out. Magnus Magnusson, Edwina Currie, Claire Rayner and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion are among the celebrities who will be coming to Swindon during the 16 days of readings, personal appearances, talks, entertainment and workshops. Director Matt Holland said: “My feeling is that the diversity of the programme is making this festival the best yet.’”
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30: “TRADERS in Wroughton are helping police crack down on village vandals – by banning the sale of eggs to youngsters. The Co-op in High Street and Somerfield in the Ellendune Centre are united in encouraging staff not to sell to children in a bid to stamp out spates of egg-throwing in the area.”
THURSDAY, MAY 1: “A TOTAL of 96 guns and 1,129 rounds of ammunition have been handed over to Swindon police stations during a month-long gun amnesty. The collection was part of a national firearms amnesty, which ended yesterday, aimed at encouraging members of the public to hand over guns and ammunition without being prosecuted for illegal possession. Police were also asking people to hand over replica guns and air weapons which can also be used in crime.”
FRIDAY, MAY 2: “A NIGHTCLUB flyer showing two girls kissing has angered parents who say it gives children the wrong impression. The leaflet advertises Old Town night club Soda’s Worldwide DJ night on Saturday, May 31, which urges revellers to come together and shows a colour photograph of two blonde clubbers caught in a passionate clinch. Soda promoter and DJ Nick Ferro, 26, has received a series of phone calls and emails complaining about the risque nature of the flyer. He said: ‘To be quite honest I don’t know what all the fuss is about, because children can easily walk into a newsagent and pick up a copy of The Sun and have a look at page three or stare at covers of magazines which often show nudity.’”

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