Ken Dodd: a master class in comedy
For more than 60 years Ken Dodd has been spreading happiness – “the greatest gift that I possess”, as he sings in his theme song. Now, at the age of 88, the man named as a living legend who once sold out the London Palladium for nearly 11 months is preparing to return to Nottingham where he made his professional debut in 1954.
Speak to anyone who has met Doddy, with his characteristic unruly hair and protruding teeth, and they will tell you he is genuinely funny and a lovely man. After speaking to him for three-quarters of an hour I can confirm that.
My conversation with Ken Dodd was not just an interview – it was a history lesson, a reflection on how good life is and a master class in comedy.
You’re convinced when he says he loves every second of his work. You never doubt him when he says audiences come first and that British audiences are the best in the world.
The only complaint I have ever heard about Doddy is that his shows go on so long that people miss their last bus home. But in typical fashion Ken announces: “I don’t do long shows – I give good value.”
Our chat was punctuated with laughter as he peppered off anecdotes about his career in the same way that he fires off gag after gag during one of his stage performances.
Ken is quick to reminisce about playing in the East Midlands and recalls being on the bill of the Grand Theatre on Babington Lane, Derby. It closed in 1950 and is now the May Sum restaurant.
“My mother used to say to me ‘Kenny, I don’t care where you go as long as you wear a clean shirt’.”
On the bill were the Egyptian dancers Wilson, Keppel and Betty. “I think everybody’s dad and uncle does an impersonation of Wilson, Keppel and Betty when they’ve had a few glasses of beer. They were probably the most famous variety act of all time.
“I played the Assembly Rooms in Derby regularly – there was a wonderful stage door keeper who always looked after us. He was a lovely man.
“I reopened the Theatre Royal in Nottingham after it had been refurbished (in 1978). I started next door at the (now demolished) Empire in 1954. That was my first professional job. Up until then I learned my trade going round the clubs. My mother used to say to me ‘Kenny, I don’t care where you go as long as you wear a clean shirt.’
“Anywhere there was an audience I wanted to do a show for them. I started telling jokes when I was about 14 or 15 and I learned my trade as a comedian, playing all the little halls.
“I’ve got the best job in the world – I only see happy faces. I only see happy people.”
Ken praises the audiences who go to see his shows. He never resorts to telling blue jokes.
“Audiences want to be entertained. You learn how to love an audience, you learn how to respect an audience and you learn how to play an audience.
“You learn what an audience wants. Remember – they’re paying you a great compliment by being there and therefore you must respect them. You don’t insult them or make them squirm by telling blue jokes. My job is to make them happy. I like to see happy people so I sing happy songs and I tell happy jokes.”
Kenneth Arthur Dodd OBE was born on November 8, 1927 in Knotty Ash, Liverpool. His father Arthur was a coal merchant and a musician.
“We sang a lot in our house because there was no lock on the bathroom door!” says Ken.
Just across the road was St John’s Church: “I was in the church choir for years – until they found out where the noise was coming from!”
When he was seven, school friends dared him to ride his bike with his eyes shut. He crashed and received facial injuries which resulted in his distinctive buck teeth.
He left school at 14 to work for his father. “Every week my dad, a wonderful man, would take us to a little theatre – probably not quite as big as the Derby Hippodrome – called the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties. There I saw all the great comedians.
“I saw this advert. It said ‘fool your teachers, amaze your friends, send sixpence in stamps, become a ventriloquist’. So I did.”
“I was also a very intellectual child – I used to read the Wizard, the Hotspur and the Rover, boys’ magazines with stories about great heroes and adventurers.
“On the back page there was a huge, full-page advert from a firm in London called Ellisdon’s that sold itching powder, magic tricks, stink bombs and seebackroscopes. One day I saw this advert. It said ‘fool your teachers, amaze your friends, send sixpence in stamps, become a ventriloquist’. So I did.”
Today his ventriloquist’s dummy Dickie Mint, who became one of his famous Diddy Men after working in the jam butty mines of Knotty Ash, is a popular part of his shows.
After making his professional debut he secured a job at the Central Pier, Blackpool. He has taken his trademark tickling stick back to the Lancashire town every year since.
“The wonderful thing about Blackpool is that people used to come for their holidays. In the Midlands when they had the wakes weeks the entire town used to close down, all the factories, and they came to Blackpool for their holidays. So consequently you played to millions of people in that long season.”
Many people from the East Midlands still travel to Blackpool to see Ken and this year he will be at the Grand Theatre every Sunday in October.
Over the years people have enjoyed Ken’s singing as well as his comedy. He became a major recording star in the 1960s and his song “Tears” was at the top of the charts for six weeks. It occupies the number ten spot in the Top 20 best-selling records of all time.
His list of accolades and successes is unmatched: his first season at the London Palladium in 1965 lasted for an unprecedented 42 weeks; in 1993 he picked up the British Comedy Award for a lifetime achievement in comedy; in 2003 the people of Merseyside voted him the greatest Merseysider of all time, ahead of John Lennon and Paul McCartney; in the same year he was the first to receive the living legend award from the British Comedy Society; two years later his portrait by David Cobley, capturing him in a theatre dressing room, was hung as a permanent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London; and in January of this year he picked up the prestigious Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend award.
So how does Ken remember all the jokes he tells in his value-for-money shows?
He says: “An old joke is like an old friend – you never forget them and they’ll always help you out of trouble.”
So what makes a joke funny? “Humour is 50% the words and 50% how you deliver it. As Frank Carson used to say, it’s the way I tell ‘em. If you look at any comedian, it’s 50% his personality and 50% the joke itself.”
Ken firmly dismissed my suggestion that humour has changed considerably since he first started playing pubs and clubs.
“People laugh at things that you would have been put in the stocks for a few hundred years ago.”
“We still laugh at the same things. Thousands of years ago Aristotle and Aristophanes wrote plays about men, women, love, sweethearts, money and power. Right down the centuries, all through the Middle Ages, through Shakespeare, we still laugh at men, women, love, sweethearts, money and power.
“Audiences have changed. Their expectations and wishes have changed. We have a very relaxed psychology these days and people laugh at things that you would have been put in the stocks for a few hundred years ago.”
Although Ken feels humour has hardly changed, he is always refreshing his act and tries to include six new jokes in every show.
“I try to do seven TPM – that’s titters per minute. In the 60 years that I’ve been a comedian I’ve never done the same show twice because every audience is a different permutation of people. You get a different mixture of people in an audience so therefore your act, your timing, your jokes and the way you do it is different every show.”
There are no secrets where Ken is concerned – he has no qualms about describing how he puts his act together.
“A comedian’s act is like a kaleidoscope of comedy. The first 30 seconds are vitally important because you have to make friends with the audience, let them make friends with you and let them know that you’re going to try to make them happy.
“So your first few jokes are always ‘hello’ jokes. Such as ‘By Jove, what a beautiful day for jumping off the top of Blackpool Tower, holding your granny’s corsets over your head and saying how’s this for hang gliding!’
“You do a lot of jokes about the audience themselves. I remember playing the Opera House at Buxton a couple of years ago and when I went on the stage I was amazed: the entire audience were blondes. In the interval the lights went up – they were all sheep!”
Ken takes great care when he tells jokes about two subjects: religion and politics. “If you start saying anything controversial you’re going to lose half your audience. You have to tread very carefully.
“With religion you can tell any joke you like about vicars and priests but you must not criticise the dogma, the actual belief.
“But you can make them see the funny side of politics. I get a big laugh when I say I looked up in the dictionary ‘politician’ and it says ‘a politician is like a baby’s nappy – it should be changed regularly and for the same reason’!”
In 1989 Ken, who has had two long-term fiancées but has never married, was charged with tax evasion. He was acquitted. He has turned it to his advantage and refers to it in his shows.
“You have to dust yourself off and say ‘this is it, by Jove, how tickled I am’ and get on there and do it.”
“Over the years I’ve had to share my earnings with the Inland Revenue. I’ve paid more tax in one year than most people pay in their lifetime. If you succeed in show business it’s very lucrative. I’m a modern Robin Hood: I rob the rich and I keep it!”
Ken has never even thought of retiring although he admits that travelling four or five hours to a show can be exhausting.
“When you get there you don’t feel very frisky but you have to dust yourself off and say ‘this is it, by Jove, how tickled I am’ and get on there and do it.
“I’m what they call in show business stage struck – you love slaving over a hot audience! It’s a wonderful experience.”
* This article appeared in the August 2016 edition of Country Images magazine