The dynamic of the group seemed very healthy. All seemed to know each other from previous work. Then out of the blue, they woke to devastating news...
Last Laugh in Vegas reviewed by Brian Slade
What do you do when light entertainment artists reach an age where they are no longer a headline act, but still have the talents to knock the spots off many of the new generation of performers? Send them to Vegas. That was the option that ITV took in 2017 when they assembled a collection of British performers of a certain age to see if they could successfully appear together in a variety show on the infamous Vegas strip, in a heart-warming programme entitled Last Laugh in Vegas.
The Las Vegas strip is known for its plethora of themed hotels and as much of an integral part of them as their vast casino floors are their stage shows, the more outrageous and gaudier the better. What one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find is a collection of comedians, singers, musicians and actors as British as fish and chips. But such a show was the target for Vegas producer and performer Frank Marino, the self-titled Queen of Vegas, whose challenge it was to not only assemble and train these artists, but to try and adapt them to appeal to a Vegas audience at The Orleans Hotel and Casino.
The entertainment capital of the world isn’t where the gang start – their first gathering takes place in a bleak rehearsal room in Wigan. With no real knowledge of their talents or notoriety, and of course their pulling power, Marino’s first exercise is to ask the nine performers to assemble themselves in a line based on who will be the one most likely to get recognised in the street, to the one least likely and therefore in need of elevation. First to offer her reputation was Su Pollard, the force of nature behind Peggy Ollerenshaw, forever yearning to become a yellowcoat in Hi-de-hi!
After the uncomfortable silence before Pollard stepped forward, there followed quite the debate before eventually deciding that Cannon and Ball would be the most recognisable, with Jess Conrad’s self-confessed ego next before Pollard fell into third…until they eventually changed their minds and put her back at the top! Bernie Clifton was next, then comedian Mick Miller followed, ahead of pianist Bobby Crush, singer Anita Harris and finally one of Miller’s The Comedians pals, Kenny Lynch who seemed the least comfortable with the Vegas razzamatazz.
Some of the stars’ acts were more easily transferrable than others. Crush’s piano skills and Harris’s singing voice weren’t going to need altering for a Vegas audience, but comedy is always a challenge. But perhaps the biggest challenge in terms of making an act that a Vegas audience could understand was Bernie Clifton.
The veteran entertainer was best known to British viewers for his ostrich act, but it was perhaps as British as it gets and was going to be a hard sell on the strip. Marino had no choice but to look deeper to find Clifton’s hidden talents, and he struck gold with his singing voice, allowing him to offer more than simply a mute puppet ostrich.
The dynamic of the group seemed very healthy. All seemed to know each other from previous work, almost inevitable given the collective age of the gang, and there appeared to be no real conflict, albeit a few of the stars did lose their enthusiasm at certain times as Marino put them through their paces. We followed the group through the rehearsals in Wigan, which at times indicated that Marino may have bitten off more than he could chew, before the classic British acts were flown out to a Vegas villa, where the programme took on an almost Big Brother feel as they tried to live together cohesively and received emotional messages from home.
Then out of the blue, they woke to devastating news. Their time in town coincided with the horrific shooting from a window of a suite at the Mandalay Bay that claimed the lives of 60 people at a music festival. A ghastly crime that left the performers horrified, they now had to decide whether to continue with the performance. In traditional fashion, they wrestled with their conscience and decided that the show must go on…people would need some escapism from the horrors of that horrendous evening.
The final episode shows clips of the variety show itself, intertwined with footage backstage before and after the spots. Each seemed to go well, Bobby Crush impressing with his Liberace routine and Cannon and Ball ending the evening in the kind of form that harked back to days when they were still at the peak of their powers. The ensemble along with supporting company finished with a resounding crowd-pleasing number, That’s What Friends Are For, but in reality, the evening belonged to Clifton, whose powerful rendition of One Moment in Time justifiably earned a standing ovation and left both him and the waiting Marino in tears.
Once the docuseries was finished, ITV had the sense to show the Vegas Show in full, proving how talented the participants were, including a very fine Nat King Cole routine from Lynch. Looking back now, with both Kenny Lynch and Bobby Ball gone, the show takes over a whole new level of emotion, especially given how important it seemed to be to quite a number of the artists. It’s a shame that the programme didn’t garner any subsequent additional efforts, but as a one-off it is a heart-warming trip down Nostalgia Lane and it would take a harsh critic not to enjoy a good deal of Last Laugh in Vegas.
Published on March 25th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.