British dancer, choreographer and TV personality Lionel Blair was born Henry Lionel Ogus in Montreal, Canada on 12 December 1928. His Jewish parents had migrated from Russia to Canada to start a new life and moved to Britain in 1931, settling in Stamford Hill in north London and changing the family name to Blair.
Lionel’s first public performances were with his sister Joyce in the Manor House Underground station air raid shelters and on the trains of the Piccadilly line during the air raids of the Second World War. His father died when Lionel was 13, and the young lad – now the breadwinner for the family – took to the stage, swapping acting for dancing in 1947.
By the mid-1950s, he was choreographing hugely popular shows at the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow.
Forming his own dance troupe, Blair began to appear on television variety programmes, as well as in the films The Limping Man (1953), The World of Suzie Wong (1960), The Cool Mikado (1963), The Beauty Jungle (1964), A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Maroc 7 (1967). He also choreographed films such as Jazz Boat (1960) and The Magic Christian (1969).
He was a regular in the biggest London pantomimes, commanding a fee of £15,000 a week, and he was rarely off the telly in the 60s and 70s. His television career eventually spanned eight decades, and he became one of Britain’s most-loved “personalities”. He was even immortalised in cockney rhyming slang during the 60s and 70s when a pair of flares were known as “Lionels” (Lionel Blairs).
He took part in a comedic dance-off against Sammy Davis Jr at the Royal Variety Performance in 1961 – which he later called the highlight of his entire career – and ensured his presence as a regular on the bill at future royal shows.
On television, he was the choreographer for and appeared on programmes such as The Bruce Forsyth Show and the Tommy Cooper Hour, before becoming a judge on the talent show New Faces in the late 1970s.
From 1979, he was team captain opposite Una Stubbs on the long-running ITV game show Give Us a Clue and presented the British version of Name That Tune from 1983 until 1988. He was also a regular guest on Les Dawson’s version of Blankety Blank.
In 2014 he spent 15 days in the Big Brother house, and in 2017 he joined the reality TV show, The Real Marigold Hotel and travelled around India with other older celebrities.
Lionel Blair died on 4 November 2021, at the age of 92.