Ken Dodd

Ken Dodd, the master of diversion

by Mark Davis

After reading previous interviews with Ken Dodd, it’s plain to see that this guy is the master of diversion techniques, always turning attention on the interviewer, diverting attention away from himself and padding the interview out with joke after question, after joke. He’s also renowned for his capacity to talk, with his performances often going on until after the midnight hour, so as I sit down to chat to him I have a strong cup of coffee in one hand and a sleeping bag on my lap. This may take some time…

What the Karen Shaw?” is Ken’s first question. “Yes,” I hesitantly reply. I’m just about to continue the interview when he fires another question: “Are you married?” “I am,” I reply. His third question is answered duly and when he starts with question number four, I politely remind him that I’m the one doing the interviewing and his diversion tactics won’t work on me.

So to gently ease him into the Q and A process I ask him about his latest venture, The Happiness Show. His long term partner Anne Jones and (former Bluebell Girl) accompanies Ken Dodd on the show, “She plays the piano and flute and sings in tune,” laughs Ken. His other famous sidekick, Diddyman Dickie Mint, will also be joining him along with banjo and ukelele player Andy Eastwood and magical duo Amethyst.

“The Happiness Show is every Sunday in October at Blackpool Grand. I love performing in Blackpool. The audience isn’t just from Lancashire, they come from all over the country. We even allow people from Yorkshire in!”

In 60 years of being an entertainer, Ken Dodd has never done the same show twice. “Every show has a different audience and within 30 seconds of going on stage I’m able to get a feel for what the audience will want.”

His last show in Skegness finished just before midnight and he was still signing autographs and greeting fans until two in the morning. “I don’t do long shows, just good value ones.”

Finishing off the tour at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on October 28th and 29th will see him celebrate his 25th anniversary tour. When I mention that entertainment agent Duggie Chapman is a Northern Life columnist he has nothing but praise for him, “Duggie is a nice man and he’s done a tremendous lifetime’s work for showbusiness in the north. The North is often viewed as anyone living north of Watford, and we’re all cannibals.”

His comment leads me to ask him if he believes there is a North/South divide. “Of course, I have created a giggle map,” says Ken. “You see, you can tell a joke in Bradford and they’ll laugh, where you can tell the same joke in Liverpool and they won’t. You can tell a joke in Newcastle and they won’t get it in London…because they can’t hear it from there.

“I’m very blessed with a Merseyside accent. We can be understood in Bournemouth, Torquay and even Glasgow – which is saying something! – and even understood in some of the civilised parts of Yorkshire!Ken Dodd

“In Yorkshire, they’re not tight, thrifty, yes…but this goes down a storm with Yorkshire folk… ‘A sheikh was very poorly and was diagnosed as having ujippypitty, and the doctor confirmed he was ‘on his way out’. The sheikh asked if they was any cure, the doctor replied ‘The problem is you have a rare blood type, it’s Z and there’s only one other person in the world with your blood type and he’s from Cleckheaton.’ So they asked the man from Cleckheaton if he would donate blood, which he did. The sheikh was well again and gave the man a gold Rolls Royce, jewellery and lots of wonderful gifts. A few years later the sheikh was ill again and asked the man to donate more blood, which he did. The sheikh recovered but the man didn’t receive any gifts of thanks, so he approached the sheikh and asked him why he hadn’t furnished him with any gifts after saving the sheik’s life for the second time. The sheikh replied ‘Well you must understand, I have a lot more Yorkshire blood in me now!’”

Despite being nearly 90, Ken’s mind is as sharp as his tongue. I can’t remember what I ate the previous day but Ken can reel off joke after joke. He views them as old friends. “You never lose them and they’re always there when you need them.”

When it comes to telling jokes, my repertoire is sparse and is limited to chickens crossing roads. I simply can’t tell ‘em.

“Timing is so important,” says Ken. “Listen to Frank Sinatra or Perry Como and listen to how they use every word. It’s almost like they’re having a romance with the words. A comedian’s act is 50 per cent jokes and 50 per cent on the comedian’s personality. All the great comedians come from the north.

“I have the best job in the world, and that’s to make people happy. I only see happy people. I’m not there to make them squirm with embarrassment. In every audience there’s always someone who reminds you of your granny, mum, sister and I wouldn’t insult them.

“Being a comedian is an art form. You have to interact with the audience. You know which ladies you can flirt with, where they need coaxing etc. You have to play an audience like a musician would play a saxophone. It’s a very skilful experience. The new comedians tend to fall back on the swearing and the ruderies. It’s the easy way.

“Laughter is like a rainbow. Right at the top of the arc is pure joy, pure laughter. It’s the sound of children’s laughter in the playground, the sheer joy of being alive. That’s white laughter. Next, is yellow laughter; the laughter of clowns. Right at the bottom of the rainbow is where you’ll find the laughter of sarcasm and cynicism. I would never go there. My audience is very precious and I want them to be happy.”

It has been said that many comedians suffer from depression. Ken dismisses this and tells me about the time a man went to the doctor suffering from depression and in true Doddy style follows it up with another joke: “The doctor told the man to go watch a comedian in Blackpool. To which the man replied ‘I am the comedian in Blackpool.’”

He goes on to say: “Life is like a gearbox. You have to work hard for first gear, but you also have a ‘play’ gear where you can be light-hearted and forget your troubles. The Happiness Show is the place to come to forget your worries and have a laughter session. Laughter is inside everybody and my job as an entertainer is to bring it out. Humour hasn’t changed in the last 60 years. We still laugh at men, women, love and children. I often say to the audience: ‘You’ve come here to enjoy yourselves, and you will, even if I have to break every bone in your body’.”

Ken Dodd has been quoted as saying that the audience is like his family. “At my age, my work defines me,” he says. “I’ve developed a persona over the years and I’m very happy to say that I’m in love with the public. I’m in love with the audience. And I’ve known you, Karen, for several hours now, so you’re like family. “Can I come and live in your house?” he asks.

“Of course,” I reply, “if you pull your weight and do the washing up.”

We’ve been getting on well me and Ken Dodd; according to him I’m now family, so I see no issue with asking him about his current marital status. He’s been engaged to Anne for 27 years, so I wondered if I would need to buy a new hat at any point soon, and ask him when he would be saying “I do.”

It all goes quiet and then he groans like an old creaky door, and in a disappointed tone says: “No. I don’t talk about it for personal reasons. There are lots of reasons; none of them are that interesting. It’s only important between me and Anne.”

I drop the subject as quick as a Diddyman falling down a jam butty mine. Ken continues: “In life you must have someone to love and someone to love you. The most important word in the world is love. And I LOVE to talk to Karen Shaw!”

Yeah, he’s definitely a comedian, a smooth operator is our Ken.

Although he believes sixty years down the line, people still laugh at the same things, in stark contrast his view on his second home, Blackpool has definitely changed.

“At one time, especially during Wakes week, there were millions visiting the town and now it’s down to thousands. People used to go to Blackpool to mostly see the shows.”

Ken remembers when he first played at the Blackpool Opera House. “There was an audience of 3,500. There’d be 20-23 shows on a week, now it’s down to five. The world has changed and you’d better accept it, whether you like it or not. Blackpool is still the best show town in the world. The audiences come from all over so you get a good mix. That’s what makes it great.”

When I ask if I’ll ever watch him on Saturday teatime TV again, he answers: “If ever they need me, I’ll be there. A man once said that the TV and radio companies are run by schoolkids. In my opinion, they don’t understand showbiz. They may be good organisers but they don’t know showbusiness, it’s inside you. It’s your soul, it comes from somewhere within you. Showbusiness is the most wonderful profession. You go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. You’ve got to be stage-struck. All your life has got to go towards creating shows. I couldn’t envisage living any other kind of life. I try to keep up with the times and am lucky to have so many wonderful memories.”

Obviously not workshy, Ken Dodd had never seen two people work as hard as his parents. Before hitting the big time Ken worked as a door-to-door salesman selling household wares (that explains the feather duster) and as a cub reporter for the Liverpool Express. The first test he passed was for his tea-making skills. “I make the best cup of tea,” he brags. “Always remember to warm the pot first. It’s a bit like courting!”

An ex-choirboy, he’s well known for finishing his routine off with a cheery tune. Throughout his career Ken has racked up over 19 hits and in 1965 he kept The Beatles off the number one spot with his song Tears for Souvenirs. “I was able to choose the songs I wanted, although, I did turn down some great songs like I Love You Because. This idiot from Knotty Ash also turned down Y Viva Espana!”

A regular church-goer, Ken Dodd strongly believes that we are all guided, supported and from time to time nudged in a certain direction. So, as a youngster, helping his dad lug coal about, I wondered if he’d ever envisaged how his life would be. “Life is wonderful. Life is so exciting. You see, I had heroes to look up to. My first inspiration was Arthur Askey, as a teenager it was Frankie Howerd and in later life, Victor Borge.” As the interview eventually comes to a close I move onto the quick fire round which requires a one-word answer.

“Yorkshire pudding or Lancashire hot pot?” I ask.

“The first time I played Leeds Empire…” he begins. This isn’t a one word answer, this is Ken. He continues: “The world is full of great characters…Dickens was able to see them. There are so many marvellous people.”

All the time I’m thinking “Ken, Yorkshire pudding or Lancashire hot pot?” Ken could out-natter any fishwife. A one word answer…who was I kidding?

“We’re all a bit odd,” continues Ken. “I stayed in guesthouse called Vaudeville and the lady who ran it, Mrs Hartley, was a great cook. She cooked huge meals and by the end of the week you’d have a belly like a poisoned pup!

“On the first day I stayed there she made a meal before my afternoon matinee; a wonderful meat pie and gravy. I cut into it and the pie was empty. So, I thought: silly old woman, she’s obviously forgotten to put the meat in it. I finished eating it and as I got up to leave thanked her for lunch telling her it was lovely. ‘What lunch?’ she asked. ‘The meat pie and gravy,’ I replied. ‘You bloody idiot’, she said, ‘that wasn’t a meat pie; it was a Yorkshire pudding. It was your starter!’”

So, I guess his answer is Yorkshire pudding.