On November 8th, Ken Dodd turned 90 years old. This master of stand-up comedy has transcended generations of comedians, including cultural changes in entertainment from variety theatre (where he started), to the social & cabaret club’s scene and the now comedy club circuit. Yet he still applies his art today in often packed out theatres around the country. He may sometimes need a chair, the delivery slower, occasionally repeats a joke he told earlier but no one cares as there is still so much to enjoy and delight in with this constant comic who simply can’t give up his stage and audience.
It is unlikely we will see his comic like again, an overused phrase to describe a master, but Ken Dodd fits nicely alongside other comic greats such as Max Miller, Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper. Never to be forgotten. Indeed, he already has a statue in Liverpool Lime St station, greeting everyone as they arrive in his home city.
Dodd is not just the gag smith or comic routine merchant he has successfully combined props (among them his famous tickling stick), flamboyant costumes and music in his show, displaying a quality of voice some opera singers may be jealous of, having had many recording hits, charting on 19 occasions in the UK Top 40, including his first single “Love Is Like a Violin” (1960), which charted at number 8 (UK), and his song “Tears”, which topped the UK charts for five weeks in 1965, selling over a million copies.
Receiving a phone call from Garry Richardson (BBC Radio 4) asking me to act as a consultant on a Radio 4 documentary programme on Ken Dodd was an exciting opportunity to explore once again this complex and fascinating of comedy performers. His stage work respected by all who have seen him is crafted, concise and funny, his off-stage personality is an enigma, guarded, an eccentric.
His attitude to money is fascinating, obsessed with the stuff, like a child cuddling a teddy bear but not at all materialistic or greedy for possessions. He lives in his parents three-bedroom house in Knotty Ash just outside Liverpool. Not the large Mercedes or Jag on the drive but an old van used to carry the props and stage costumes up and down the country to gigs, often driven by his long-time partner Anne. The roots of this obsession lay in his tough working-class childhood, which was full of parental love but not always pound notes. He worked very hard as he did on his act, often running three jobs alongside each other. It is a subject he talks freely on in the forthright documentary ‘What a beautiful day’ which went out on Sunday 5th November 2017 at 8:00pm (BBC Radio 4 extra).
Dodd is essentially a private man who hides behind the jester’s mask. He refuses to do an autobiography and those who have attempted biographies on him, he doesn’t acknowledge, not signing any of them. In 1989 he was accused of tax evasion and subsequently charged, the trial was heavily reported daily by press and media. Eventually Dodd was cleared. In some ways this relaunched him but it hurt him deeply, a topic he never talks about. He would walk out of any interview if the matter was formally raised, but in true Doddy style he sends himself up in his act with one liners around this awkward episode in his life.
Ken went on to record ‘An Audience with Ken Dodd’ (LWT TV 1994) seen by many as an absolute triumph, having the accolade of being asked to do another a few years later. This along with many other countless TV & Radio shows over a forty year history and his ambition to work every theatre in the country makes Dodd a true legend of stand-up. Contributing to this revealing radio documentary on his life were Roy Hudd, Jimmy Tarbuck and Sir David Jason among others.
Comedian John Martin has known him all his life from his father (another entertainer), he is someone Ken feels at ease with and possibly the only one to have sat in Doddy’s kitchen and listened to his master classes on comedy. Martin a very good act himself, was instrumental in the process of making this production work, with keenly thought out questions, but it was Garry Richardson better known by some as a sports reporter, who got to interview his childhood comic hero using his skill of questioning to bring out the best in Dodd.
The day of recording was scheduled in a family run Liverpool hotel near where Ken lives. It is one Dodd feels comfortable in, the staff know him, having managed many of his meetings and charity dinners. Sitting waiting in a back room it gives John Martin, Garry Richardson and myself time to prepare. Ken Dodd enters the room, stops just in the doorway and pears around. His mind ticking over, taking in the scene, nodding to all in the room, then begins to go into material as the small crew introduce themselves. Dodd has a gag for each one, displaying a nervousness relived by the humour. Clutching his tickling sticks and jesters hat, makes his way into the recording room. Photos are taken, more social chat before we are ready to go. Garry Richardson an experienced broadcaster who’s had the ‘hairdryer’ from Fergie now receives the tickling stick from Doddy. He puts Ken at ease as they look at each other before the interview starts. Once underway Dodd gets into his stride, showing a remarkable concentration of memory and recall. Often closing his eyes, hands to head in thought to provide a succinct answer, if he slips up he automatically goes back with no one ever having to say ‘can we do that again’.
Having now gone nearly two hours, a break is suggested. Taking this opportunity, I show Ken a photo of when we last met (1989) and discuss a mutual friend in his long-term comedy writer, Barry Reeves who has penned many of Ken’s jokes and material for nearly 30 years. He is astonished how well I know him, then remind him of the gags he bought from me, his mind now racing he grabs the photo and a pen and starts writing on it, being called away on a matter, I can see him out of the corner of my eye scribbling what looks like an essay on the black & white 10 x 8 print. He hands it to me saying ‘I want to talk to you again Matt-ington’ (a phrase he puts on everyone’s first name… ington).
We are ready to go again for round two and Dodd at 89 is up for the fight, looking even more relaxed and comfortable. His live shows are legendary for going on and on. Keeping some audiences in the theatres for five hours. Garry and myself anxious to get the 20:15 back to London. However, at the end Richardson asked him to read the words of ‘Happiness’ his signature tune. As he did so, in quiet thought provoking voice, I looked at what he had written on the photo, having now listened to his life story for three half hours. The words coming from both were very moving and pertinent for the occasion.
See other articles on Ken Dodd by clicking the links below:
Doddy finally leaves the stage (A tribute to Ken Dodd 1927 -2018)
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He’s lectured at University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences. He has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.