Ken Dodd: His Writer of 30 Years Speaks Out (Part 1)
Barry Reeves was Ken Dodd’s comedy writer for over 30 years, keeping himself in the back ground, while serving up some of Doddy’s most favorite routines. Barry was never one for the personal limelight. Modest in attitude but talented with pen. Their working relationship turned to a close family friendship. Here in this two-part series, Barry (himself) speaks for the first time about working with the Liverpudlian comedy master – Ken Dodd.
When Barry Met Ken
Every story needs a good beginning and mine began on a Tuesday evening in March 1986. It was just after 6pm, Kay (my wife) and I were doing the washing up, when the phone rang. Our daughter, Sally, who was 12 at the time answered the call, and said to me, “There’s someone on the phone who sounds very posh!! …He’s asked to speak to a Mr Barry Reeves”. I picked up the phone and the caller said “This is Ken Dodd here. I’ve been given your number by Ron McDonnell and he’s said you may be able to help me” At the time I hadn’t the faintest idea who Ron McDonnell was and how he’d got my telephone number but that’s the subject of another story.
The nub of Ken’s call was that they were recording a radio show the following Sunday and they’d fallen out with the writers who’d left leaving them without a completed script. They needed material for the programme, urgently. Could I help ? Ken said the theme of the show was ‘Knotty Ash Easter Fayre’ and could I send him jokes relating to spring, Easter, fashions, anything that might be appropriate for the show.
Adrenaline kicked in and I came up with a few pages of gags which I posted off to him. (This was pre-fax …pre-email days). He phoned me again on the Friday evening and said ”I think you and me are on the same wavelength. Can you do mini-sketches or quickies. I want to appear to be speaking to local Knotty Ash characters attending the Fayre.” I said “No problem” (I do have the stupid habit of saying things like that). Ken said that the next day (Saturday – remember the show was being recorded on Sunday) he was going to a wedding and would ring me as soon as he was home to see what I’d managed to come up with. He rang about 6.30pm on the Saturday, and when I told him I’d got a dozen character sketches he said, “Are you doing anything tomorrow, could you bring them to the (legendary) Playhouse Theatre, Manchester”? Which I did.
He read through the scripts, chose which ones he wanted and they were recorded that same day. That was the first time I’d met Ken and that was the start of a 32-year working relationship that subsequently developed into a close friendship.
I soon learned that Ken had no concept of time. He was always late. Not long after we first met he was to open a new RAC centre in Birmingham and he invited me and my wife along. A fair number were waiting for him to arrive, which he did about 40 minutes late. He stood on a little platform, faced the crowd and said ‘Sorry I’m late… I broke down on the M6 and do you know I had to wait 2 hours for a RAC van’. Only Doddy could get away with that cheek.
Their Writing Process
Over the years, I provided material for his stage show, numerous radio and TV shows (including both the ‘An Audience With…’) and Royal Command Variety shows. I think one of my proudest moments was when in 1999 The Royal Command Show took place at the Birmingham Hippodrome, (the first time it had left London). I managed to come up with some local references for his routine.
Just down the road is Coventry… Where Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets in a protest against taxes… why didn’t I think of that.
Just imagine if America hadn’t been discovered, there’d be no Hollywood and Birmingham was the centre of the film industry. We’d see Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind saying those immortal lines (IN BRUMMIE ACCENT) ‘Frankly my dear Scarlett… I don’t give a toss’
Ken would phone me sometimes 4-5 times a week. Always at about 11.20pm. His opening words were “You haven’t gone to bed yet have you?” Tough, if I had.
Primarily we would talk about ideas he’d got for the show and how I could develop them. He was never satisfied. He was always looking for the next bigger and better laugh. On one occasion when we were recording ‘The Palace of Laughter’ series for BBC radio we were actually writing extra items for the show as the audience was queuing up, outside his dressing room door, to get inside the theatre.
One ‘Christmas Special’ featured the Scottish singer, Moira Anderson, who was delightful. She took part in sketches and generally joined in all the fun but the recording went on and on. Suddenly at 9.50 Ron McDonnell, the producer, stopped the proceedings and said “ Ken! …Moira hasn’t sang her song yet and the band have got to pack up and go home at 10.
The Palace of Laughter radio shows were usually 30 minutes long but ken would invariably record about 2 hours of material which the poor producer had to edit. Even more material was recorded when it was an hour seasonal special. Ken was never satisfied he was always looking for the next great gag to top the previous one.
You always knew that Ken, no matter how good the script, was always looking for a little something more. I soon learned to keep anything that I thought was a bit better than OK, to the very last. I think, not being satisfied, was one of the reasons he was so successful over the years. He was always looking to better himself and the show. He was never one to stand still.
Other articles on Ken can be found by following these links:
- Ken Dodd: His writer of 30 years speaks out (part 2)
- Doddy finally leaves the stage
- Ken Dodd: A comedy masterclass
After enjoying moderate local success as a singer with pop groups (as they were then termed), Barry Reeves decided to call time on the ‘popping’ and as a hobby take up the scribbling lark, penning children’s stories and humorous fillers for magazines. He had his first success on radio in 1980 when, two of his children’s stories were broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s children’s programme ‘The Listening Corner’. After completing Brad Ashton’s comedy course, and discovering a natural comedy bent, all thoughts of becoming a children’s writer were cast aside. Barry was soon providing material for comedians such as Adrian Walsh, Jimmy Cricket and Roy Walker; as well as quickies and sketches for the numerous TV comedy shows that were prevalent at that time. He proved himself, ahead of his time, when for three years he provided ‘FAKE NEWS’ items (what the papers didn’t say) for BBC Radio One’s Adrian Juste’s weekly show.
After attending the Golden Rose Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, where he made several friends and contacts on the continent, he then began to sell material to TV companies in Sweden, Germany and Belgium.
Children’s stories never went fully away and in the late 1980s provided story boards for the Danish company who produced the Scandinavian Mickey Mouse comics, ‘Anders And’
Ken Dodd contacted him in 1986, asking for help on a radio show that was being produced. From that day onwards, finding a mutual love of the history of comedy and entertainment, that developed from a working relationship into a genuine friendship.