The Unstoppable Doddy
Ken Dodd is a great British comedian and proud of it. Unquestionably the most extraordinary live performer I have ever seen, he represents a dying world of vaudeville, a music hall tradition that was for a time preserved in The Good Old Days on television and which can still be glimpsed in the annual pantomime.
I am pleased to say I have known Doddy over 35 years and worked with him many times, and a nicer man you can never meet. Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson and Tommy Cooper have all gone. Doddy is, or seems to be, quite literally unstoppable.
Dodd comes from the misty hinterland of English comedy, a mythical territory recorded in Donald McGill naughty postcards, a world of seaside boarding houses, funny foreigners, fearsome mothers-in-law, little men, large bosoms and sexual innuendos, with the distinct possibility of not coming up to scratch. Sex, after all, says Doddy, is what posh people have their coal delivered in.
Coal deliveries. Who remembers them now? Doddy for one. His father was a coal merchant in Knotty Ash, Liverpool, and he still lives in the family house, the house he was born in. You can hear the coal dust in his voice, often wheezy, and the occasional cough. He drives, or is driven, back to this house after most performances around the country.
What is his essential quality? He has been labelled a madcap jester, a celebratory comic, a surrealist clown and a dancing tailor’s dummy escaped from Bedlam. But as anyone knows who has seen him ‘live’, he is quite different from how he comes across on television. The electricity of his stage presence is almost overwhelming, and he hits an audience with the force of a whirlwind.
The really amazing thing about Dodd is that he never seems to lose his appetite for the job. In fact, it isn’t really a job. It’s a destiny. He wants to play every live theatre in the country, and he added one more to the list in the summer of 2002 when he appeared at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Here he was, he said, after more than 40 years in the business, at the peak of his profession, admired of all his peers, performing in the middle of a field in a theatre that can’t even afford a roof.
Over the years I have seen him on countless occasions – at the London Palladium, in Scarborough, Birmingham and Manchester, in Bromley, Windsor and Croydon, and always he refers to the theatre as ‘this magnificent shed’ and congratulates the audience on their new traffic system ‘They’ll never find you now!’ But while the material changes very slowly – he tries about six new gags
every night – the show develops an orgiastic fervour that is entirely new and specific to each crowd of customers.
As a child, he went with his family to all the big variety houses in Liverpool and bought a booklet on how to become a ventriloquist. Leaving school at 16, he joined his father’s business, but had already started entertaining at charity groups and Boy Scout gang shows. He made his debut at Nottingham Empire in 1954, billing himself early on as either The Unpredictable Ken Dodd, or Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter. The big national breakthrough for Dodd was his London Palladium season of 1965, when he packed the famous theatre for a record 42-week run and had a number one hit in the charts, displacing his fellow Merseysiders, The Beatles.
In 1989, after two decades of television and radio fame, he appeared in a less welcome venue, Liverpool Crown Court, where he faced tax fraud charges. He was acquitted on all of them, but a melancholic picture had emerged. Here was a wealthy man with no time for accountancy and even less to enjoy his fortune. Like all great stage stars, he only comes alive in the spotlight. This is a mystery to people who have only ever seen him on television. For the fact is, Dodd is too big for the box, where he comes across as little more than a strange buffoon with slightly mouldy material.
There is a complicity between Dodd and a theatre audience which suggests we are all in for a long haul. He often says the usherettes will be taking orders for breakfast. Or that if you look under your seat you can find a will form.
He will fix a woman in the front stalls with a threatening glare: “This isn’t television. Missus, you can’t turn me off.” His rollercoaster show is as much about our endurance as about his ‘A feast of fun and a challenge to your kidneys.’
Some of those Japanese shows go on for seven hours, he exclaims: “We can do better than that!”