Ken Dodd: Tears of a clown who ran out of laughs

The city where Ken Dodd's career began this week told him he was no longer welcome. Jonathan Brown meets a man betrayed

Two hours into his show and Ken Dodd is taking a short break backstage. With a joke rate, or what he calls his titters-per-minute, running at seven every 60 seconds, he has already told about 800 gags this evening – every one of which has raised a laugh or at least an indulgent groan from delighted fans.

By the time the capacity audience leaves the Palace Theatre in Mansfield shortly after midnight, five hours and 15 minutes after 80-year-old Dodd burst on to the stage banging a drum and singing "Happiness", they might have chuckled, sniggered or roared with laughter up to 2,000 times.

But in his dressing room, the King of the Diddy Men is feeling sad. Earlier this week he learnt that he was not being re-booked at one of the theatres which has been a bulwark of his 55-year showbusiness career.

Management at the Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall wrote to Dodd's agent to say that they were concerned over the "quality of some of the performances" in his Christmas show last year and that some people had left before the end.

The first half of the show tonight has been littered with jokes at the expense of the people of Nottingham, 13 miles away, but backstage Dodd sips a plastic cup of lager and explains why he is feeling so seriously upset.

"I have been in entertainment for 55 years and I can honestly say I have not encountered such a bizarre situation as I have found myself in this week. It has distressed me a great deal and has never happened to me before," he said.

What has particularly irked Dodd is that the former coal merchant began his career at Nottingham's Empire Theatre, which was later demolished to make way for the Royal Concert Hall. He also played the opening night of the city's refurbished Theatre Royal in 1978. It feels like a betrayal not least because his memories of last Christmas are all positive.

The performance had gone well, playing to a record 2,200 fans before receiving his usual standing ovation at the end of another marathon show. The date had been "more or less fixed" for this year when a new managing director took the "painful decision" to axe him from this year's line up.

"I believe there is another agenda and time will tell," says Dodd. "You can't keep a secret forever. I have had hundreds of letters this week and I feel upset that I am letting these people down by not being able to play."

Despite his advancing years, Dodd continues to perform about 150 shows a year – half what he did at the peak of his popularity. "It keeps me going. It is what I live for. I live for showbusiness," he explains.

Sitting surrounded by plastic bags full of jokes, a library which ensures that he never tells the same gag twice in one evening, it is impossible not to feel aggrieved on behalf of the entertainer, with his clown's make-up and flyaway hair like one of his famous tickling sticks.

Dodd knows that his particular brand of variety has long been out of favour with prime-time television schedulers but he commands deeply devoted live audiences in places that the frappuccino-sipping Metropolitan media elite never venture.

In Mansfield, they queued from 4am for a chance to pay £18 to see him. The box office sold out within two hours of opening. It is a similar story around the rest of the country.

"I feel honour-bound to give them the best I can," Dodd says. "That is the holy temple out there and people have paid you the greatest compliment in the world by coming to see you." Particularly the older fans, who brave rowdy night-time city centres to come and see him play, he says. "At times maybe I have been too enthusiastic," he admits. "I try to give value for money."

One of the great features of Dodd's show – apart from its sheer length – is that despite his perpetual innuendo and jibes directed at a cast of hate figures that ranges from the inevitable tax collectors to local councillors and traffic wardens, he never swears – perhaps risking the occasional "bloody" or "sod".

"The effing and the blinding – that is shock comedy that is not here to stay," he says.

"After you have shocked the audience where do you go? There is no joy in the alternative. It is all swearing and ya-boo. I think being alive is a joy and there are so many wonderful things to celebrate. What is the point of destroying laughter by sneering?"

Betty Williams, 87, is at the show with her daughter Judith, 64, who queued from 6am to buy tickets. They have seen Dodd eight times between them. "I first saw him in Blackpool 30 years ago, explains Betty. "He was just as marvellous then as he is tonight. You wouldn't want to leave in case you missed anything."

June Hill, 75, another punter enjoying Dodd's Mansfield night, began following the comic after seeing him at the London Palladium in 1949. "I don't know what they want in Nottingham," she says. "Perhaps they don't like him because he doesn't swear. Everything he says you can connect with. I'd rather see him than a modern comedian – I just don't get them."

Dodd's routine: Seven jokes in one minute

"Why did the blonde stare at the bottle of orange juice for two hours? Because the label said concentrate."

"Fellas, why don't you go home tonight, grab a handful of ice, throw it down the missus's top and say 'How about that for a new chest freezer?' "

"I've done some brave things in my time. I played Nottingham Labour Club. I was the one who shouted 'Three cheers for Mrs Thatcher'. And it was during the bingo."

"Do great comedians come in cycles? Yes, some do, but others prefer to walk to work.

"I've seen a topless lady ventriloquist. No one has ever seen her lips move."

"I wouldn't part with my teeth. I'm the only patient who can sit in the dentist's waiting room and have his teeth checked at the surgery at the same time."

"I told the Inland Revenue I didn't owe them a penny because I lived near the seaside."