People of Yorkshire Volume 25 – Leigh Francis

Comedian, Leigh Francis is one of the most recognisable faces on television, most famous for his alter- egos and comedy characters.

He was born in  Leeds on 30th April 1973. At school he became friends with another local lad, whose name was Keith Lemon. They, along with other classmates would make little films at their houses while their parents were out, which started Leigh’s experimentation with being on camera and making up comedy characters to amuse his friends. His first love was graphic design and he eventually studied at Leeds College of Art, following his dreams of a career in this field. After graduating he briefly worked for The Yorkshire Post.

His first notable TV appearance came on the Paramount Channel, where he featured in aeries of comedy films called “Stars in their Houses,” He would, in a now familiar style, take the mickey out of celebrities in their homes, such as this one based on Celine Dion.

These shorts caught the attention of Channel 4, who saw the potential in this young character comedian from Leeds. He briefly appeared on the teen pop magazine show “Popworld” in 2001, but Francis had bigger plans. He was creating a new comedy show called, “Bo Selecta.” This was partly named after a recent garage hit by The Artful Dodger and Craig David, which included the words, “When the crowd says “Bo Selecta.”

Francis would play celebrity “superfan,” Avid Merrion, named after the Leeds Shopping Centre. He would chase and interview famous celebrities, often lampooning them. Famous “celebrity interviews” included slapping Justin Timberlake with raw meat and having an operetta conversation with the singer, Meatloaf.

In other sketches he would dress up as celebrities with the infamous “Bo Selecta” rubber masks and take the mickey out of them. Mel B, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Trisha Goddard and Marilyn Manson all got the Bo Selecta treatment. The show would cause controversy, however, when their constant lampooning of singer, Craig David had an impact on his career. David,

a chart-topping singer songwriter from Southampton and part of the inspiration of the show’s title, Bo Selecta, would several times criticise Leigh Francis’ portrayal of him and the effect it had on his career. More recently he has since denied that it was solely responsible for the decline in record sales, as he had started to turn away from chasing commercial success.

Bo Selecta ran for four series from 2002-06, and achieved a massive cult following. It also put Leigh Francis into the mainstream of British television and showed off his talent for impersonating (in his own distinctive way) celebrities and comedy characters.

In October 2002 he married his partner, Jill Carter at Allerton Castle in North Yorkshire. His best man was old friend, Keith Lemon, who would provide inspiration for Francis’ next comedy project.

The “Lemon” character had indeed already debuted as part of the “Bo Selecta” series, posing as “Businessman of the year ’93,” but Francis could see the potential of him to take it further.

The real Keith Lemon and friend is a machine operative from Halifax, who these days has many an interesting conversation when asked his name! Although he bears no physical resemblance to the comedy character as portrayed by Francis he does have the same mispronunciations and malapropisms, which has been picked up by his friend and made into one of the most distinctive personalities on television.

This character’s post Bo Selecta debut came in 2008 when Lemon, as played by Leigh Francis travelled the world in “Keith Lemon’s Very Brilliant world tour.” In this series he would go to different destinations around the world, meeting celebrity guests all the way. These included Holly Vallance and Stefan Dennis (Australia), Spice Girls Mel B and Mel C (USA) and Holly Willoughby (Mexico). Only one series was screened on ITV 2 and released on DVD.  Francis, meanwhile, was busy with another ITV project called Celebrity Juice.

This panel-show, in which he would host in the Keith Lemon character, was first piloted in September 2008. It features two teams, captained by Holly Willoughby and Fearne Cotton with “celebrity guests” panellists. These have ranged from Phillip Schofield to Joey Essex and many other people in between. The “contestants” take part in a range of crazy themed games, with the flamboyant Lemon at the centre of proceedings keeping “order.”

The characteristics of this character, loud, funny, flamboyant and suggestive are different from the real Keith Lemon, but it has been the making of Leigh Francis. His catchphrases, such as “Ooosh!” and “Bang tidy” have also become part of modern popular culture.

Once again he had found both a cult character and hit show, which is still running to the present day.  The character of Keith Lemon has taken on a life of its own and featured in other TV programmes too. He also showed his charitable side with his “Lemon Aid” programme which helped make people’s dreams come true.

A self-titled feature film followed in 2012 and took several million pounds in the box office.

Keith Lemon has appeared on other television shows, most notably a remake of “Through The Keyhole.” In his Keith Lemon character he combined the role of host and house detective to put his own stamp on the TV classic. One of former presenter Sir David Frost’s final acts was to wish the new host success in his former role. The first episode of the revived Through the Keyhole was screened unintentionally on the day of the legendary broadcaster’s death in August 2013.

Nowadays it is very difficult to separate Leigh Francis from Keith Lemon. The man behind the character is a family man, with two daughters, but his alter-ego is loud, rude and suggestive to women. However, from entertaining his friends at his parent’s house to an entire nation, the kid from Leeds has done OK and is set to remain on our screens for many years to come.

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