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Past Times

Dundee actor found Jack Nicholson’s Joker dead funny in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman blockbuster

Bulldozer driver John Dair was "the big man with the big voice" who became a star of stage and screen.
Graeme Strachan
Dundee actor John Dair and Jack Nicholson, both in costume for Batman
John Dair and Jack Nicholson starred in Batman in 1989. Image: Shutterstock.

Dundonian actor John Dair was probably laughing on the inside when he was killed by The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.

After all, if you’re going to bite the bullet, being offed by one of cinema’s finest actors in a Hollywood blockbuster is surely the best way to go.

The 1989 tentpole flick brought the Bat back to life and there would be numerous sequels and reboots.

Dair would not be in them, of course, Jack Nicholson ensuring his character’s life of crime – and life – came to an end.

The Scot would surely find more work, though, bearing in mind he was also an opera singer who could drive a bulldozer.

His life changed after move to London

Dair was born one of four children to Hugh and Margaret in 1933.

He went to St John’s High School and did his National Service in the Royal Marines.

Dair got married to Georgina at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Dundee in 1957 and the couple had four children together.

John Dair and his wife Georgina cut the cake on the couple's wedding day.
John Dair and his wife Georgina on the couple’s wedding day. Image: Supplied.

He used to live at 146 Nethergate before moving to London and finding work driving bulldozers and mobile cranes on building sites.

He always loved singing and would sing for the family at gatherings.

In a London club he heard a professional singer and thought he could do better himself.

He got the OK to go up on stage and sang Goodbye by Josef Locke from the White Horse Inn operetta.

The bulldozer driver brought the house down.

So much so that he started to get bookings at other clubs and concerts.

At the age of 36 he decided to become a singer on a full-time basis.

He became known down south as “the big man with the big voice”.

Dair, pictured in a newspaper clipping, made headlines in 1971. He is pictured in a suit with the caption reading: from bulldozer to baritone
John Dair made headlines in 1971 after becoming a singer. Image: DC Thomson.

He almost cashed in his chips during his first engagement of 1971, after being booked for a week’s cabaret at the Caledonian Hotel in Inverness.

Dair was driving north through Perthshire when his car went over a roadside bank, turned over, and came to rest four feet from a telegraph pole.

He walked away unscathed but had to return to relatives in Dundee.

His week’s cabaret in Inverness started a day late.

Dair weighed 22 stone and performed in a specially tailored £30 lavender dinner jacket.

He was offered a role in Porridge in 1975

He started to get more contracts and BBC producer Cliff Castle came backstage to see him when he was topping the bill at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

Dair was offered a part in Ronnie Barker’s much-loved BBC sitcom Porridge and played Crusher, who was bodyguard to fearsome inmate Harry Grout.

His first episode was The Harder They Fall in 1975.

Dair also appeared in the final episode in 1977 and reprised his role in the Porridge feature film in 1979, though his name was changed to Samson.

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Ronnie Barker and John Dair playing it for laughs. Image: Supplied.

Dair became one of those familiar TV faces and there were bit-part roles in Sykes, The Onedin Line and Last of the Summer Wine.

He played Big John in Yellowbeard alongside Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman and Spike Milligan in 1983.

The movie sank straight to Davy Jones’ locker at the box-office.

He appeared in the music video for the Frankie Goes to Hollywood debut single, Relax, as a man dressed as a Roman emperor.

Dair was also in the famous 1985 Levi’s advert with Nick Kamen.

Think hard and you’ll remember him sitting next to a debagged Kamen when he stripped to his boxer shorts in a launderette to wash his jeans.

The advert caused jeans sales to rocket by 800%.

There was no ego or posturing from Dair when he became famous and he would drive his Reliant Robin up to Dundee to visit his family.

He appeared in critically-acclaimed TV mini-series Jack the Ripper in 1988 beside Michael Caine and Jayne Seymour.

From Beadle’s About to Batman

Dair switched from the sublime to the ridiculous when he became Mr Golightly in Beadle’s About.

The Golightly family became famous for going into shops and doing things like flattening beds and stretching bridal dresses to breaking point.

The secretly filmed stunts would be played on unsuspecting members of the public before the moment of revelation when Jeremy Beadle removed his disguise.

Jeremy Beadle, dressed as a police officer, was the king of pranksters in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jeremy Beadle was the king of pranksters in the 1980s and 1990s. Image: Shutterstock.

The show was watched by a quarter of the population on Sundays.

The Golightly family were eventually dropped after becoming too well-known.

Did the role take Dair to Gotham City for the 1989 movie?

“They are too famous now,” said Beadle.

“The actors have done well.

“John Dair got a part in the Batman movie because of the programme.”

John Dair in a scene from the Batman movie in 1989 alongside Jack Nicholson.
John Dair in a scene from the Batman movie in 1989 alongside Jack Nicholson. Image: Shutterstock.

Gotham City, home of The Dark Knight, was built at Pinewood Studios where filming took three months.

Dair played crime lord Vinnie Ricorso who challenged The Joker and met his end on the steps of City Hall.

“I was the chief Mafioso and died an untimely death,” said Dair.

“Jack Nicholson, who plays the Joker, stabbed me with a quill pen in the throat.”

Dundee actor’s death scene immortalised in Lego

But he reckoned it was a thrilling experience to be stabbed in the neck by the megastar, who proclaimed “the pen is truly mightier than the sword”.

Critics hailed it one of the movie’s best moments.

Dair’s memorable death scene was immortalised in Lego in the 1989 Batman set.

A Lego figure of The Joker in his black and white checked suit was complete with the poisoned quill pen.

Dair performed a one-man show in 1990 with tickets priced £3.50 and £2.50.

“Dare a Night Out with John Dair” was the chance to “meet Mr Golightly of television’s Beadle’s About, Porridge and Batman in a programme of comedy and song”.

He appeared in London’s Burning, Doctor Finlay, The Bill and ’90s TV drama Our Friends in the North.

Dair played Charlie Dawson in the epic portrait of four Newcastle friends and worked with Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig.

John Dair with Ted Danson on the set of Loch Ness.
John Dair with Ted Danson on the set of Loch Ness. Image: Supplied.

His final movie credits were Loch Ness with Ted Danson in 1996 and Captain Jack in 1999 alongside Bob Hoskins.

Dair died in 2005 at the age of 72 after a two-year battle with lung cancer.

But the talented Dundonian lives on through his work in film and television.

The “big man with the big voice” was a big success.