First Night: Ken Dodd, City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds

Still banging out gags to a relentless beat
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The Independent Culture

What better way to enjoy seeing Ken Dodd than at Leeds City Varieties theatre, the one-time venue of the BBC music hall homage The Good Old Days? Though Ken Dodd's career started when music hall had just said "tatty bye" and thrown its trilby hat into the ring, Dodd is the last remaining link to the antics of Dan Leno, Max Miller et al.

Clutching tickling sticks, the audience of a certain age seem undaunted by the comedy hostage situation that they are about to submit themselves to. Backed intermittently with a number of other variety acts Dodd has no trouble passing the time because, like the Knotty Ash bass drum he beats to herald his entrance onstage, he bangs out gags to a relentless beat. For example, introducing himself to the ladies in the audience (who are given the job of censoring him if he gets too near the knuckle) he rhythmically delivers: "Angela? Angel for short but not for long!", "June? Ten degrees hotter than May!"

Dodd's toothy bewilderment seems undimmed even if his wild-man hair has thinned and a rasping cough punctuates the wide-eyed stares and chuckles. Ludicrous observations from the Dodd joke memory bank such as: "I love the ballet but I never understand who's winning!" and "If you have a beard and you eat Shredded Wheat, how do you know when to stop eating?" have a timelessness to them as current acts such as Tim Vine and Harry Hill testify. The latter comparison is strengthened by Dodd adding comic twists to refrains from songs: "I've often walked these streets before ... but I never noticed you had no front door."

It's not hard to understand the fascination that writers and academics have for Dodd, something that came to the fore a few years ago when he gave a talk, Shakespeare: A Fellow Of Infinite Jest, at the RSC.

Through one man we have a cherished example of continuity of comedy from the Tudor jester (symbolically through his tickling stick) and on to today when his craft can still be re-interpreted.