Les Dennis has been in the public eye for more than half a century. His Opportunity Knocks debut in 1971 at the tender age of 17 set him off on a vibrant and varied career. This month as Les turns 70, life is busier than ever. He is currently on a nationwide tour of the musical extravaganza 42nd Street and on primetime television competing for this year's coveted Strictly Come Dancing mirrorball trophy.

Les (real name Leslie Dennis Heseltine) and his wife Claire Heseltine live in Cheshire with their children Eleanor 15 and Thomas, 12.

It’s fantastic news you’ve joined the Strictly Come Dancing Class of 2023. What made you decide to do the show in the same year you turn 70 and in the middle of a busy tour?

When the Strictly producers called, it happened to coincide with the 42nd Street tour and so everyone has worked hard to fit it all in – I’m always happy to be busy and push myself. I have worked on musicals before where I was rehearsing all day for one show and performing another in the evenings. I’ve had lots of great tips from Faye Tozer who plays Maggie Jones in 42nd Street – she was wonderful in Strictly and got to the final in 2018. She just keeps telling me to manifest my success – so getting to Blackpool is my first goal. Doing it as I approach 70 is, I hope, an example to anyone sitting on the sofa feeling they’re past it. If they see me they might be inspired to get out there to the gym or join a dance lesson. I want people of my age to know it’s not too late.

Which Strictly dance are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to finding out which I’m best at. I won’t know that until I get going. That’s the exciting thing, I quite fancy a bit of ballroom and a bit of Latin but I’m excited for it all – even the jive.

Did you know from a young age you wanted to be a performer?

I was quite a shy kid at school but seeing Jimmy Tarbuck on telly in Sunday Night At The Palladium, I thought that’s what I want to do. My mum encouraged me at a young age. When I was eight or nine I entered a talent contest at Butlin's and I loved it. I didn’t think then I could have a career doing but it’s the only job I’ve ever had, besides the Saturday job I had working for Burtons and even then my boss would let me finish early so I could do the workingmen's clubs.

How old were you when you first started the club circuit?

I was 16. I just pinched the late great Mike Yarwood's routine. I was an impressionist so I did people of the time such as Norman Wisdom and Harold Wilson Can you imagine a 16-year-old doing Harold Wilson? I also did Freddie ‘Parrot Face' Davies, who in fact is still touring today at the age of 86 and is the loveliest man.

So you began your career as an impressionist?

Yes and that really carried on right the way through to when I did the Laughter Show with Dustin Gee. I found out that if you can copy and mimic people like Tommy Cooper, you can basically do their act so you have ready-made material.

Great British Life: Les with his wife Claire Heseltine at this year's fundraising ball for the King's School Macclesfield. Claire is a member of the Friends of King's committee. (c) Michael CarterLes with his wife Claire Heseltine at this year's fundraising ball for the King's School Macclesfield. Claire is a member of the Friends of King's committee. (c) Michael Carter

Who were your comedy heroes growing up?

Jimmy Tarbuck definitely. He was a Liverpool lad like me and was around the same time as the Beatles and looked like one of them too. Ken Dodd was a huge hero when I was a kid and was the first comedian I saw live. Pantos also had a big impact on me. I saw Tommy Steele who was great and Norman Wisdom who was just superb.

How did the TV talent shows come about?

For Opportunity Knocks in 1971, I had a sponsor from one of the clubs where I worked. But it was my manager, Mike Hughes, who put me forward for New Faces in 1974. I ended up in the final along with Victoria Wood. Neither of us won. An impressionist named Tony Maiden won it.

Was it instant success for you after New Faces?

Not really as I had to go off and learn my craft. So I was doing the summer season circuit and all the clubs, including working with my hero Jimmy Tarbuck in 1978. Then in Blackpool 1979 I worked with Russ Abbot when he was in the Black Abbots. When Russ went solo in the summer of 1981, I kind of became his sidekick straight man, which then led to the commissioning of Russ Abbot's Mad House.

It was during the Mad House you met Dustin Gee. The chemistry that you two had was fantastic. How did you establish your double act?

It came about accidentally. They put us together in sketches and they were really well received, like the one with Vera and Mavis, based on the Coronation Street characters. We also did Billy Connolly with Bobby Ball and Larry Grayson with Boy George. It led to a great friendship with Dustin and we rented a flat together as I couldn’t afford to live in London on my own. Our friendship grew and we got The Laughter Show on the BBC.

What did Thelma Barlow and Liz Dawn think of the famous Mavis and Vera sketch? I believe you invented Mavis's catchphrase ‘Ooh,I don’t really know’, without the character ever actually saying it. Now it's iconic.

They both loved it. In fact, one night Dustin and I were doing a club gig in Liverpool and Liz and Thelma both came on stage with us and we did double Vera and Mavis. Funnily Thelma always used to say when she got a Corrie script and there were funny lines for her, she would say, 'I can’t say this – this isn’t me this is Les Dennis.' There are clips on YouTube of her actually saying 'ooh, I don't really know' after we’d done the sketch.

Dustin passed away in 1986. You must have been devastated to lose not only your best friend but your comedy partner?

The loss was huge. We were together for most of the time for three or four years. Suddenly, this man who was just adorable and such a great talent had gone. It was as if the rug had been pulled from under my feet.

The Les Dennis and Dustin Gee Laughter Show was hugely successful and a new series had been scheduled. How did you manage to move forward?

It was hard. The producers changed the name of the series to the Les Dennis Laughter Show. I knew I had learned my job well enough to be able to perform on my own as I had done from 1971 to 1982 before I met Dustin but I had to convince audiences that I could do it. Then a year later, in 1987, I got Family Fortunes. At first, I didn’t want to do it as I had never worked with the public like that before but my manager persuaded me. I did it for 16 years and learned on the job. At first, I thought I would have to do it like Bob Monkhouse, who was the original presenter, cracking jokes all the time. I didn’t need to worry though as conversations with the contestants were so funny that they brought in the gags.

What were some of the funniest answers you had on the show?

There were so many:

Name a number you have to memorise. This contestant said, ‘number 7’, when we really wanted things like key phone numbers you would memorise.

Name somewhere that you would stand in a queue: 'At the front.'

Name something that’s pink. 'My cardigan.'

One of the funniest was:

Name a bird with a long neck. This bloke said, 'Naomi Campbell'.

When the contestants are coming up with great comedy like this, all you need to do is to give a look down the camera. It was brilliant.

How did the transition into acting happen?

I had always loved acting and had been in the school plays. When I had the financial security of Family Fortunes ,which we recorded over three weeks each year I could go for parts in plays that paid the Equity minimum. So I did productions like Misery at the Oldham Coliseum and the phenomenally difficult play Skylight by David Hare at the Watermill in Newbury. In 1991, I got the lead in Me and My Girl in the West End, which I loved.

Great British Life: Les as Bert Barry and Faye Tozer as Maggie Jones in 42nd Street, at Manchester Opera House from October 16 to 21. (c) Johan PerssonLes as Bert Barry and Faye Tozer as Maggie Jones in 42nd Street, at Manchester Opera House from October 16 to 21. (c) Johan Persson

Celebrity Big Brother then followed where you came second to Take That's Mark Owen, followed by a call from Ricky Gervais to be in BBC 2's Extras.

Yes. Extras came at an ideal time and was the perfect opportunity to reinvent myself.

The diversity of your work on stage and screen is impressive, from playing a darker version of yourself in Extras, to joining the world's longest-running continuing drama, Coronation Street as Michael Rodwell for two years. Your theatre roles have ranged from Uncle Fester in the Addams Family to the title role of Jigsy in the one-man play based loosely on the life of comedian Jackie Hamilton. But this month we are going to see you back in the North West, as the national tour of 42nd Street taps its way to the Opera House in Manchester from October 16 to 21. Tell us about the show and your character Bert Barry

He’s a great character to play in this musical within a musical set in the 1930s. Bert Barry and Maggie Jones (played by Faye Tozer) are the writers of a musical called Pretty Lady and we are desperate for a hit show. We hire a very demanding director, Julian Marsh, played by Michael Praed. The star of the show Dorothy Brock (played by Samantha Womack) , is a bit of a diva and has an accident so she is replaced by an ingenue named Peggy Sawyer (Nicole-Lily Baisden). The routines are fantastic and the musical numbers are iconic: We’re In The Money, Lullaby of Broadway, I Only Have Eyes For You...

Everybody that comes to see it leaves dancing on air, or at least trying to tap dance.

It’s a national tour and you’re doing eight shows a week and now also rehearsing for Strictly, how do you keep physically and mentally fit?

It’s tough to do. I was out this morning with my dogs and I make sure I get my 10,000 steps in. I’m more aware than ever about health as I’ve got two young kids so I have to keep fit. My character in 42nd Street is off and on throughout the show so thankfully not too athletic for me.

You have an incredibly diverse body of work do you actively pursue these roles or are they sent to you?

I’m really lucky. For example, a pal of mine, Cal McCrystal, who I had done a comedy pilot with suddenly said to me: How do fancy doing opera playing Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore with the ENO? I also worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a season in 2019 doing restoration comedy and tragedy, so I am incredibly lucky that people seem to think of me more now as an actor rather than a comedy act.

Have you thought about doing a one-man show about your life?

I did contemplate something like that after I had done Richard Herring's podcast a few years ago. I was going to work on it with the great producer Phil McIntyre who I had worked for on the Only Fools And Horses musical where I played Grandad. I was initially going to mark my 50 years in the business with a one-man show but then Covid hit. Perhaps now it could be more about turning 70. Who knows? We’ll see.

How are you celebrating your birthday when you turn 70 on October 12?

I’m going to be on stage in Newcastle with 42nd Street. But perhaps on Sunday, when I get back home, we will do something.

What’s left on your bucket list?

Since I first went to see Twelfth Night as a schoolboy I’ve always wanted to perform Shakespeare. I would love to perform with the RSC again. So maybe the Fool in King Lear or Feste in Twelfth Night. It would be great to stretch my acting skills.

What are your career highlights?

Working with Dustin. Our partnership was cut short far too soon. Who knows what we could have gone on to do together.

Doing Extras with Ricky Gervais.

Performing with the RSC.

Where do you like to go to when you are back home in Cheshire?

Bramhall Park is lovely. Coast in Prestbury is a great restaurant. Such an easy place to be.

The Edge at Alderley is wonderful for a good walk and a beautiful view.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be patient. We all have ups and downs but it’s knowing that even during the down times something will come along.