Monday, March 12, 2018

"How Tickled We Were": The Ken Dodd Obituary

'My dad knew I was going to be a comedian. When I was a baby, he said, "Is this a joke?"'

His sticky-up hair, protruding buck-teeth and an expression of often lunatic bewilderment made Sir Ken Dodd - who died on Monday at the age of ninety - one of Britain's most recognisable and beloved entertainers. He was one of the most popular artists of his time, topping the record charts, filling theatres and starring in numerous TV and radio shows. An old-fashioned variety performer with his roots in music hall, he added a unique dash of outre left-field surrealism to his act. Even allegations of tax fraud in the 1980s failed to diminish his standing with an adoring public. In the words of one of his most popular songs, he provided the public with 'the greatest gift that we possess.'
The tattyfalarious Kenneth Arthur Dodd was born in December 1927 in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash, the son of a coal merchant. His fabulously-named birthplace would play a central part in his later act as he wove surreal tales around Knotty Ash and its inhabitants The Diddy People, with their Jam Butty Mines and Black Pudding Plantations. As a child he showed an early talent for clowning but without any thought of making it into a career. However one prank went wrong when he tried riding his bike with his eyes closed and crashed, sustaining injuries to his mouth which resulted in his distinctive toothy appearance. He was known for walking backwards to Holt high school and attending dance classes with his sister, June.
Despite getting a scholarship to grammar school, he left at fourteen and worked with his brother, Bill, heaving Arley cobbles and Houlton kitchen nuts for six years as part of his father's business. He also got himself a small cart with which he went round the outskirts of Liverpool, selling pots and pans. As he said in later years: 'If you can sell pots and pans to housewives on their washing day, you can sell anything, even jokes.' But the stage beckoned and, after sending off for a book on how to be a ventriloquist, he set out to entertain the public in local clubs and halls. The entertainer's interest in comedy began after his father bought a Punch and Judy for Ken's eighth birthday and he started charging school friends tuppence to sit on orange boxes and watch the puppets. 'It was a penny to stand at the back and a cigarette card for the hard-up!' In his spare time, the former choirboy was singing and developing a stand-up comic routine in Liverpool's working men's clubs. The scripts were written by his father, the costumes prepared by his mother. He joined a juvenile concert party run by Hilda Fallon, who later discovered Freddie Starr and Bill Kenwright and began performing in clubs and hotels around Liverpool and Birkenhead. He extended his stomping ground to Manchester, having acquired an agent, David Forrester, which led to more open doors through contact with Bernard Delfont and the Stoll Moss group.
He served a long apprenticeship as an amateur performer before making his first professional appearance as 'Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter,' in Nottingham in 1954. 'At least they didn't boo me off,' he later recalled. He made his TV debut in 1955 in an episode of the BBC's It's A Great Life following that with appearances on variety shows like Let's Have Fun, Northern Showground, The Six-Five Special and Blackpool Show Parade. By 1958 he had achieved top billing in Blackpool which was the making - and often breaking - of many variety acts. He guested on innumerable television and radio shows and, in particular, made many appearances on BBC TV's long-running The Good Old Days.
During the next decade he gained a steadily-increasing reputation in the Northern music halls and became well known to a wider public for his broadcasts and his recordings of sentimental ballads, like 'Happiness' and 'Love Is Like A Violin'. But his debut in the West End of London was deferred until 1965, when he topped the bill at The Palladium in an extraordinarily successful forty two-week run. He was reportedly visited backstage by Harold Wilson (he would joke in the show that Wilson had gone into hospital 'to have his mac off'), analytically reviewed in The New Statesman by Jonathan Miller and lionised by the 'legit' theatre when John Osborne took a crowd of Royal Court actors along to see him.
In the same year, he topped the charts with 'Tears' a saccharine ballad which, remarkably, became the third-biggest selling single of the 1960s in the UK. The only act to sell more records were The Be-Atles (a popular beat combo of the 1960s, you might've heard of them), whom Ken knew well and once shared a memorable fifteen minute joke session with on an episode of Granada's Scene At 6.30 in November 1963, reducing the host, Gay Byrne and the audience, to hysterics. (The best moment comes when it is suggested that Ken form his own rock 'n' roll group. Ken thinks this is a really good idea but that he would need to change his name to 'something more earthy,' like Cliff or Rock. 'What about "Sod"!' suggests George Harrison with comic timing worthy of Doddy himself.)
The popular beat combo - who had appeared in several variety shows with Ken back in Liverpool - had already starred on his BBC radio show earlier in 1963.
In this period of increasing popularity, Ken also made notable appearance on Juke Box Jury, The Royal Variety Performance and even the BBC's coverage of the 1964 General Erection, being interviewed at Lime Street train station (his anarchy in reducing political issues to abject - surreal - mockery can be seen about one hour into this clip). Asked by a very straight-faced BBC interviewer , Harold Webb, if incoming Prime Minister Harold Wilson would be nationalising The Jam Butty Mines, Ken replied: 'He wouldn't dare. The Diddy People would be revolting. They're revolting as it is, look at them!' He then claimed Wilson had rung him to ask if he would be the new Minister for Education. 'Harold Wilson wanted you in the cabinet?' asked the incredulous Webb. 'No, Billy Wilson, he's our coalman, he's crackers!')
The various TV formats that Ken fronted included: The Ken Dodd Show (1959 to 1978), Doddy's Music Box (1967), Ken Dodd & The Diddymen (1969 to 1973), Funny You Should Say That (1972), Ken Dodd's World Of Laughter (1974), The Ken Dodd New Year's Eve Special (1975), The Ken Dodd Laughter Show (1979), Dodd On His Todd (1981), Doddy! (1982), Ken Dodd's Showbiz (1982), Ken Dodd At The London Palladium (1990), Ken Dodd's Happiness (2007) and Ken Dodd: In His Own Words (2016). Many of the earlier shows were written by Eddie Braben before the writer left to work for Morecambe & Wise. Ken's stand-up comedy style was lightning fast and relied on the rapid delivery of puns and one-liners. He said that his comic influences included other Liverpool comedians like Arthur Askey, Robb Wilton,Ted Ray and Tommy Handley and also 'the Cheeky Chappie' Max Miller. He interspersed the comedy with occasional songs, both serious and humorous, in an incongruously fine light baritone voice and with his original speciality, ventriloquism.
Dodd was an infamous workaholic and was devoted to his work seldom, if ever, taking a holiday. He recorded all his jokes - and the public reaction to them - in a series of little black notebooks and rehearsed and re-rehearsed his every word and gesture noting which routines went down well in which regions of the country. Set down in print, much of his material may seem commonplace. It was the way he put it across that counted. Uttered by him, a phrase such as 'good morning' or 'where's my shirt?' became charged with outrageous innuendo, and - backed by appropriate pantomime - would throw an audience into paroxysms of laughter.
Dodd's catchphrases, most famously 'How tickled I am!' and 'What a beautiful day!' were quoted everywhere. At a Liverpool theatre in 1974 he told jokes at a rate of ten-a-minute for more than three-and-a-half hours - a feat which gained him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Throughout the 1970s and 80s he was a firm favourite on television and radio - his The Ken Dodd Show being a BBC1 Saturday night staple for more than a decade - and kept up a punishing schedule of stage appearances with shows often last up to four hours.
In 1989, Ken faced the possibility of disgrace, when he stood trial at Liverpool Crown Court on eight charges of tax fraud spanning a period of fifteen years and involving more than eight hundred thousand quid. Dodd told the court: 'Since I am stripped naked in this court, I might as well tell you the lot. I am not mean, but I am nervous of money, nervous of having it, nervous of not having it.' He described money as a yardstick of success, saying it was 'important only because I have nothing else.' He had claimed to live on no more than three-and-a-half grand a year, while his personal wealth ran into millions. It also emerged that he had twenty bank accounts in Jersey and the Isle of Man and made regular 'cash and carry' flights to deposit money in them which was not declared to the Inland Revenue. The jury was swayed by Dodd's defence counsel George Carman QC, who remarked: 'Some accountants are comedians but comedians are never accountants.'
The trial transformed Liverpool crown court into a sell-out theatre, with fellow comics Eric Sykes and Roy Hudd called as character witnesses. Carman described Ken as something of a fantasist stamped with lifelong eccentricities - such as keeping love letters in a safety deposit box whilst hoarding over three hundred grand in cardboard boxes in his attic - due to a close-knit family upbringing. Ken was ultimately acquitted, although he still faced a reported two million smackers bill for legal fees and tax that he had previously promised to pay back. He took up his career again and later made light of his court ordeal, quipping: 'Income tax was invented two hundred years ago, at two pence in the pound. My trouble was I thought it still was! I've had problems, but nothing compared to those of the trapeze artist with loose bowels.' In that year's appearance in panto - a version of Dick Whittington - during a kitchen scene, Dodd's Idle Jack was asked by the Dame if he was kneading the dough. 'About a million quid,' he replied.
He made a rare acting appearance in the 1987 Doctor Who story Delta & The Bannermen and had another season at the London Palladium in 1990, was given a British Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award and voted Top Variety Performer in 1993. And the TV special, An Audience With Ken Dodd (1994), proved to be a huge hit, showcasing Dodd's comic brilliance for a younger audience.
Like his contemporaries, Morecambe & wise, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson and Frankie Howerd, Ken was always adored by younger generations of comedians anyway, even during the hostile years of 'alternative comedy'. He was, after all, one of comedy's first true anarchists. In 1971 he had been an admired Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Royal Court in Liverpool - one of several theatres he has actively campaigned to save from disintegration or demolition - and he returned to Shakespeare as Yorick the jester in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film of Hamlet; Yorick is a only a skull in the play, but we see this peerless clown in full (though silent) stream with his 'flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar.'
He was still touring into his ninth decade with his shows sometimes lasting into the early hours of the morning. 'Some of you are optimists,' he'd tell his audience at the start of a show, 'you've booked your taxis for half-past twelve. But they say the breakfast here is good!' And: 'You think you can get away, but you can't. I'll follow you home and I'll shout jokes through your letterbox!' Behind the banter Ken Dodd was an intensely private man and a serious student of comic theory. As he once put it: 'Freud said that laughter is the outward expression of the psyche. But Freud never had to play the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night after Rangers and Celtic had both lost!' Last year, as he turned ninety, he told the Gruniad that a comedian needed to 'build a bridge' to the audience. 'You can't do a show at an audience - you have to do a show with an audience and structure the act so that you start with the "hello" gags, then the topicals, then the surreal stuff. Eventually, you can go wherever you want and say whatever comes into your head: "How many men does it take to change a toilet roll? I don't know. It's never been done!"'
He rejected suggestions that many of his gags, particularly those revolving around busty blondes, were sexist. 'I think in every comedian there is a streak of anarchy. We don't take kindly to people telling us what we should say. But I don't like vulgarity and obscenity - the great comedians never did anything like that, they didn't need to.' Dodd married his partner of forty years, Anne Jones, two days before he died. Although the pair had a lengthy engagement, Jones - a singer, pianist and flautist - was the support act on his tour. His first fiancee, Anita Boutin, had died of a brain tumour in 1977 aged forty five after twenty four years together. He also suffered from the most Twenty First Century of showbusiness drawbacks, being stalked by an obsessive fan. Ruth Tagg reportedly harassed Dodd and Anne Jones, in October 2001, by sending them threatening letters, a dead rat and also attempted to burn down their house by pushing burning rags through the letterbox. Tagg later pleaded guilty to harassment and arson at Preston Crown Court. In December 2016, to the delight of his legions of fans, it was announced that Doddy was to be awarded a knighthood in the New Year Honours (he had already been given on OBE in 1982).
Ken Dodd was probably the UK's last great music hall entertainer, from an age when comedians trudged from venue to venue plying their trade of laughter. 'My job,' he once told the Daily Torygraph, 'isn't to educate people or even do politics, I've got to make people feel good, I want to make them happy.' He managed to provide us with that, all right. Dare one suggest, more than our share.
'Fifty-five years in showbusiness, ladies and gentlemen. That's a Hell of a long time to wait for a laugh!'