Sir Ken Dodd obituary
Comedian with an endless desire to make people laugh known for his tickling sticks, Diddymen and marathon stage performances
Mon 12 Mar 2018
The last great “front-cloth” comic of our times, and the last standing true vaudevillian, Ken Dodd, who has died aged 90, was even more than that – a force of nature, a whirlwind, an ambulant torrent of surreal invention, physical and verbal, whose Liverpudlian cheek masked the melancholy of an authentic clown. “This isn’t television, missus,” he’d say to the front stalls, “you can’t turn me off.” And then he would embark on an odyssey of gag-spinning that, over five hours, would beat an audience into submission, often literally, banging a huge drum and declaring that if we did not like the jokes he would follow us home and shout them through the letter-box.
He entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1974 with a marathon mirth-quake at the Royal Court Liverpool lasting three hours, 30 minutes and six seconds. But his solo shows, in which he would perform three 90-minute-plus sets between magic acts, or a female trumpeter (the formidable Joan Hinde), or a pianist playing country music (his partner Anne Jones), frequently lasted much longer. One good thing, he would say, was that you always went home in the daylight. “And the sooner you laugh at the jokes,” he would say, “the sooner you can go home,” as if we were in school. He admitted that his was an educational show – when you did get home you would think: “That taught me a lesson!”
The jokes went on: the usherettes would shortly be taking orders for breakfast, and will forms were under the seats. I was sitting in his dressing room before show time in High Wycombe when the house manager knocked on the door to tell him that a party of 76 pensioners would have to leave the theatre at 11pm precisely. “What,” exclaimed a miffed Doddy, “before the interval?” On another occasion I greeted him at the stage door in Bromley with the news that a full and expectant audience was gathering. “You mean to say there are 2,000 pregnant women out there tonight?”
He had a gag for every occasion and would usually try out six new ones in each performance. He kept voluminous note books of jokes, and a record of how they had gone down, and where, and how long the laughter.
There was nothing improvised or “on the wing”, the whole routine planned with military precision: the placement of the songs (accompanied, in later years, by a moth-eaten duo in tuxedos on keyboard and drums – “The Liverpool Philharmonic after Arts Council cuts”), delivered in his Italianate tenor with a tear-inducing éclat; his throwback social world of seaside boarding houses, funny foreigners and fearsome mothers-in-law.
His cheeky little men, the Munchkin-like Diddymen, were inspired by his own plump little Uncle Jack, who wore a bowler, and were played by children before the chaperoning and logistics became impracticable, on the road at least. The whole experience, as the Dodd aficionado Michael Henderson once wrote, was like plunging down a waterfall in a barrel, swept away on the tide of his boundless energy.
This never came across on television, where he appeared merely to be a crackpot zany. On stage, there was something deeply atavistic about his mastery of the revels, his physical appearance of Bugs Bunny teeth (the result of a childhood cycling accident), sticking-up hair like an astonished ice-cream cone, the gentle sway of his shoulders to encompass the house, the transformations from a one-man band (drum, horn, union flag and pig whistle) in khaki fig doing the old variety song On the Road to Mandalay, to the floor-length red Diddyman coat made from “28 moggies – all toms” (sniff, pong, funny face) that is whipped off to reveal a dazzling yellow jacket and smart dark trews for the next segment.
This outrageous Lord of Misrule’s tickling stick, a red, white and blue feather duster, was the equivalent of the medieval jester’s pig’s bladder, laid as in a ritual at the front of the stage then thrust between his legs from behind: “How tickled I am, under the circumstances. Hello, missus [stick a-tremble], have you ever been tickled under the circumstances?” The art of innuendo was his stock-in-trade, and he would use it to bemoan his fall from TV popular grace: “Alternative comedy is where you’re supposed to laugh at every other joke. I’m not in the top 100 lists any more. In the last one, Dale Winton and Julian Clary were ahead of me. Mind you, I’m glad they weren’t behind me!”
Dodd was one of three children of a coal merchant, Arthur Dodd, and his wife, Sarah; he continued to live in the 18th-century former farmhouse he was born in, a run-down double-fronted manse with adjoining cottages and a large garden in the suburb of Knotty Ash in Liverpool. The coal – “sex is what posh people have their coal delivered in” – was stored on the premises, and accounted for his asthmatic cough, as distinctive a characteristic as the crack in his lyrical voice.
He was known for walking backwards to Holt high school and attending dance classes with his sister, June. He left school aged 14 and, with his elder brother, Billy, humped bags of coal for his father, a part-time saxophonist and clarinettist who gave Ken his first ventriloquist’s dummy.
At the age of 19, he branched out as a self-employed salesman, knocking on doors with his own Kay-Dee brand of disinfectant while developing his ventriloquist act. He joined a juvenile concert party run by Hilda Fallon, who also “discovered” Freddie Starr and Bill Kenwright, the actor turned theatre producer, and began performing in clubs and hotels around Liverpool and Birkenhead. He extended his stomping ground to Manchester, having acquired an agent, David Forrester (he never signed a contract in the 19 years they stayed together), which led to more open doors through contact with Bernard Delfont and the Stoll Moss group.
He made his professional debut in September 1954 at the Empire theatre, Nottingham, on a bill with the singer Tony Brent and the jazz trumpeter Kenny Baker, adopting the persona of Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, operatic tenor and sausage knotter, and driving around in a van on which was painted: “Ken Dodd – the Different [printed upside down] Comedian.” In summer 1955 he was on the Central Pier at Blackpool and then, for eight years, in variety and pantomime in venues from Blackpool and Great Yarmouth to Torquay and Bournemouth.
In those days, there was a distinct cultural divide between north and south – Max Miller, on being invited to play the Glasgow Empire, said he was a comic, not a missionary – and although two of Dodd’s heroes, Arthur Askey and Ted Ray, both Scousers, were huge radio stars already, it was Dodd more than anyone who broke down the barriers: his 42-week season at the London Palladium in April 1965, Doddy’s Here, took him to the top of the pop charts (Tears dislodged the Beatles and stayed there for six weeks) and the Royal Variety Performance, and won him the Variety Club’s showbusiness personality of the year.
Suddenly, in addition to playing the Palladium twice nightly and three times on Saturdays, he was on the radio, on television and cutting more records – he had four top 10 hits in the next few years. He was visited backstage by the prime minister, Harold Wilson (he would report 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. For once, the critics had got there first; as early as 1957, John Barber had saluted “this restless loon with the wild hair and kempt voice” in the Daily Express, and there has been an unofficial critics’ fan club ever since.
In a way, the rest of Dodd’s career was a series of adjustments to this sensational Palladium season. Increasingly, going solo in a breakaway from the variety show format, he mined the elements of endurance in his performance and our attendance. He suspended the conventional parameters of time as daringly as Robert Wilson in the avant-garde world: “Some of those Japanese shows go on for seven hours,” he exclaimed. “We can do better than that!”
And he always undercut the gravity of theatrical architecture (“This magnificent shed” was his phrase at the Palladium) while reinforcing the immediacy of theatrical experience. When he played the Open Air theatre in Regent’s Park he marvelled at his predicament: “Forty years in the business, and I’m standing in the middle of a field in a theatre that can’t afford a roof.” In Croydon, he congratulated the audience on their new one-way system: “They’ll never find you now.”
In the 1980s, his television profile fading, there were fewer summer shows and pantos, many more one-night stands (“One night is all they can stand”). A cloud crossed over at the end of the decade when he faced charges of cheating the Inland Revenue and of false accounting. He was acquitted after a five-week trial, but the humiliation in his home city, where his grandmother had been Liverpool’s first female magistrate, was hard to bear.
The image of a man who had never made a psychological separation from his parents in order to become an adult, and one who was innately stingy and kept his money in shoe-boxes under the bed (“I like to collect pictures of the Queen”) as well as in offshore accounts, was initially tragic; but after paying his defence counsel, George Carman, £1m, and approximately the same amount to the Revenue, he bounced back with a stash of new material: “Income tax was invented 200 years ago, at two pence in the pound. My trouble was I thought it still was … so I’ve had problems, but nothing compared to those of the trapeze artist with loose bowels.”
In a panto kitchen scene, Dodd’s Idle Jack was asked by the Dame if he was kneading the dough. “About a million quid,” he shot back.
In 2001, he was given the Freedom of the City of Liverpool. He was then voted the greatest Merseysider in a poll on local radio and in the Liverpool Echo (Lennon and McCartney were runners-up) and in 2009 his statue, complete with tickling stick – and that of the battling Labour MP Bessie Braddock – were cast in bronze on Lime Street station.
Dodd was restored on television, to some extent, by two Audience with … programmes in 1994 and 2001, in which he refracted some of his act through a Q & A with a crowd of celebrities; they are wonderfully poignant, revealing programmes, and are often repeated. 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”.
The most touching part of his act was always the expert and hilarious duet with his vent doll Dicky Mint, the Diddyman who was perhaps the little “sonny boy” he never had in real life. And if his signature tune was Happiness, he would always leave you with a lament in Absent Friends for loved ones and the departed music hall stars in whose wake he so gloriously trailed. He really was the last in the line, and acknowledged by his peers as one of the greatest ever. He was made OBE in 1982, an honorary fellow of John Moore University, Liverpool, in 1997, an honorary DLitt at Chester in 2009, and was knighted, after a sustained public campaign, last year.
He was a deeply private man, which is why the two court cases hurt him so much. There was no luxury lifestyle, and he usually drove home in the small hours after each show, wherever he was in the country, to save on hotel bills. He had two successive fiancees: Anita Boutin, a nurse, from 1955 until her death from a brain tumour in 1977; and Anne Jones, who survives him, a former Bluebell dancer who often appeared in his shows as “Sybie Jones”, playing the piano and singing, in between running his affairs and stage management.
He married Anne last Friday, once he had returned to the Knotty Ash home where he had been born, after spending 10 weeks in hospital with a chest infection.
• Kenneth Arthur Dodd, comedian, born 8 November 1927; died 11 March 2018