It's not as if Dodd hasn't earned his place in the pantheon. Since his stand-up debut more than 40 years ago, he's had his own TV and radio series, hit records, numerous sell-out runs and, following an appearance as Yorick in Kenneth Branagh's film of Hamlet, he's even managed to land a large part in a forthcoming film of Alice in Wonderland. And yet, with the possible exception of Richard Digance, Ken Dodd remains one of the most unfashionable names in comedy.
Not that he could give a ticklestick. Dodd tours constantly with his "Happiness Show" and, the night I saw him, had no trouble attracting a full house to one of Birmingham's larger theatres. The likes of Reeves and Mortimer may draw the lucrative student audience but there's an ageing but sizeable constituency who couldn't care less whether comedy is the new rock'n'roll. And Ken Dodd's their man.
"Forget your worries," enjoined the programme, "and laugh along with Ken Dodd." Prozac, however, exists for a reason and long passages of the evening unfortunately reminded you why. The troupe of all-singin', all- dancin' kids were just about bearable, exuding a tacky glamour. After fizzy renditions of "Burlington Bertie" and "Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace", they later emerged as Ken's Diddymen, the gang of obese garden gnomes who have been a fixture of Dodd's since the Sixties. However, audience patience approached breaking point with the arrival of a singer and pianist (who shall remain anonymous to protect the guilty) whose butchering of Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin and Cole Porter is best left to the imagination.
While Dodd would no doubt justify these baffling distractions in the name of "variety", it was obvious that they were there to provide the ageing comic a breather between his hour-long stand up spots. His shows often go on into the small hours.
Like the halo of wiry hair, the front teeth were as you remember them. "Music-hall daft" seemed to be the look, rounded off by a scarlet, fur greatcoat, a Union Jack bowler hat and, of course, the ticklesticks. And when the gags began, they looked like they were never going to stop - one-liners, shaggy-dog stories, retorts to the audience (you couldn't call them put-downs because no one was so remiss as to heckle), all rattled off at tremendous pace. Much of it was smutty, but good, clean smut, mind - there were children present, after all - and definitely no swearing. As he punned at one point: "Sex: it's what people in Solihull have their coal delivered in." Certain parts of the show were genuinely innocent, though. There was even a drummer on stage to emphasise particular punch- lines: "A lot of towns are twinned these days. Not Birmingham - it's got a suicide pact with Grimsby! [boom-tish]"
Dodd's delivery was amazingly fresh, with the odd topical moment, but, as with a typically irrelevant Demis Roussos joke, if Dodd thought a gag would get a laugh, in it went, no matter how cheap or ancient.
Besides the frisson of his mild political incorrectness, there's plenty to admire in Ken Dodd. There's the timing, the mastery of the audience and the sheer stamina. But funny? Only occasionally. Tattifilarious? Well, that's a different question altogether.
Woodville Halls, Gravesend, 22 Oct, 01474 337459, and touringReuse content