Diddy? Doddy! Ken Dodd hits the road again

Back on stage last night, Ken Dodd is again touring Britain. His lengthy shows would exhaust men half his age, yet he never stops. As our best loved comic nears 80, Michael Henderson ponders what drives Doddy?

Saturday 27 January 2007 01:00

As the Leeds audience discovered last night (and early this morning), a show by Ken Dodd is like no other. Dine well before you set off, and take something to nibble during the break, or when the lady trumpeter comes on, because when you come out of the theatre (eight minutes to one is usually about right), the restaurants will be closed, and you'll need to find a cab home.

Not that Doddy's admirers resent this endurance test. For many it is something they willingly put themselves through once every year or two, to keep the chuckle-muscles active. "Give in?" he asks at the end of every one of shows (he does about 140 each year). "Don't worry, I know where you all live. I'll follow you home, and shout jokes through your letter-box!"

The thing is, he's not joking at all. More than any comedian, living or dead, Dodd is wed to the stage. Ever since he made his professional debut at the Empire Theatre, Nottingham, in 1954, he has dedicated his life to the task of cheering us all up, and British audiences have not withheld their thanks. Though he may mean little to a generation weaned on television, and the cult of instant celebrity, people still turn up in their thousands to see the last of the great music-hall entertainers. Nor will he stop. That would be an abdication. This comic ("not stand-up, if you don't mind - solo comic") will die with his boots on.

If a modern audience finds Dodd puzzling, the feeling is reciprocated.

"Some of these female comics," he says, "you need a textbook on gynaecology to understand what they're on about." But he is not a bitter man. Dodd is well-disposed towards the world, despite its cruelties, and is eager to share his good fortune with everybody who sees him. It may not be the act it once was - at 79, it can't be - but it remains, in Michael Billington's phrase, "a structured orgy, a timed fiesta".

What makes Dodd unique? The looks help, of course. The electric-shock hairdo, the buck teeth, the manner of a man who retains the child's sense of delight in turning things upside down "to see what's underneath".

He is at heart an innocent, not necessarily of the ways of the world; rather, the innocence of a man without malice, in whose life wonder still plays an important part - the most important part.

Next, the patter. It is too easy to call it "stream of consciousness", which brings to mind woolly writers who don't know what they're about. Dodd knows exactly what he's doing, at all times, but, as he admits, "no two shows I do are the same". He has that breathtaking quality of binding together subjects - jokes as well, though he is not primarily an out-and-out gagster - in a virtuoso display of such apparent artlessness that the listener can be struck dumb.

There will be longueurs in any act of this kind, and, when he returns to the stage after the break, Dodd sometimes needs a few minutes to get going, like a cyclist pedalling uphill. Having reached the plateau, he soon gets his breath back, and the final hour of his shows are often the most rewarding. This is Dodd playing the audience as Bill Evans played the piano, in such command of his material that he can wander off the beaten track and never lose his way.

Better to say that if genius exists in comedy then Dodd has it. John Osborne, who took a group of actors to see him at the London Palladium in 1965, when Dodd established the house record, playing twice nightly for 42 weeks, paid the pro's tribute to the pro when he wrote: "We all went away exhilarated by this incredible phenomenon of human invention and overwhelming energy."

That "energy" may be described as generosity; love, almost. He may be as self-obsessed as any other comic, keen for the next laugh, curious to know what works and what doesn't, and why, but Dodd reveres those who came before, and knows that he is the last representative of the great English performing tradition. He knows everything there is to know about the great performers, from Billy Bennett to Peter Kay, and has lectured extensively on the different types of comic - the drolls, the "Uncle Joes", the wits (Dodd admired Peter Cook, which may surprise some), the patter-merchants.

More than anything Dodd is loyal to the city of his birth. Unlike those garrulous Liverpudlians, the sort of whom Alan Bennett has written, "they all want to do their little verbal dance for you", Dodd assumes a quiet pride in his home town that never lapses into sentimentality.

There is a professional interest, too. He trots out the list of comics who came from the same parish like an ordinant: Bennett, Tommy Handley, Ted Ray, and the man he liked most, Arthur Askey, "who was like a firework display, as funny offstage as on. I am very conscious that I am following people like them and Robb Wilton. They were all good-hearted people."

It isn't surprising that Dodd finds so little to laugh at in the acts of modern comedians, for whom foul language and studied cruelty serve as crutches without which they would struggle to stand. "My job is to send people away from the theatre feeling better than when they came in. We all know there's plenty of misery in the world but that doesn't mean it's a miserable place."

Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd and Eric Morecambe went before their time, made famous by television in a way that Dodd never really was: his act, being absolutely a live experience, could never transfer successfully to the screen. There were also those Diddymen, whose charms were quite easy to resist. To this day there are people who associate Dodd with the Diddymen, which is a shame, and their loss.

So on he goes, playing theatres in places that other comics disdain: Retford, Ellesmere Port, Oldham, Kidderminster, Stockport. Everywhere the ritual is the same, a joint celebration between performer and audience, and yet each time it is different. Certain subjects remain altered (the length of the show, his troubles with the taxman) but every performance is tweaked, this way and that, to freshen the bloom.

"By the time I've finished, Tony Blair will have visited another five countries." "The VAT have just sent me a form for self-assessment. I thought I invented it." No, it's not "cutting-edge" humour, thank goodness. If you want that sort of thing, which is supported by small armies of critics who have never seen an old-fashioned "front cloth" comic, there are plenty of earnest metropolitan types who will satisfy your need. You might even laugh.

In Leeds tonight, as he did last night, Dodd will search for what he calls "the silver thread" that connects him to the audience. Then he will be up and running, carrying them with him to a land of absolute content. As Billington says, the journey goes "beyond the explicable, and that is a sign of genius".

His race is nearly run: even Doddy knows it will soon be time to say his final "tattybye". But as he goes round one last time the least we can do is cheer this magnificent pleasure-giver on his way. One in a million.

The Bard of Knotty Ash

* Full name: Kenneth Arthur Dodd. Better known as Ken Dodd, the Bard of Knotty Ash and the wild-haired, fluffy-stick-waving elder statesman of British comedy. Born: 8 November 1931 in a village on the outskirts of Liverpool called Knotty Ash. Unmarried: He still lives in the house in which he was born.

* Famous for his exaggerated persona - spiky hair, protruding teeth, the trademark tickling stick and made-up words like such as "tattifilarious".

* He did his first show when he was a schoolboy and started his career as a ventriloquist.

Made his professional debut in 1954 at the Empire Theatre, Nottingham. Five years later he was the star of the long-running BBC series The Ken Dodd Show, broadcast from a theatre stage. The show featured The Diddymen who lived in Diddyland, which boasted the highest sunshine rate in the world and was situated in the centre of Knotty Ash.

* Entered The Guinness Book of Records in 1960 when he told 1,500 jokes in three-and-a-half hours. Created record on his London Palladium debut in 1965 by starring in his own 42-week season. He was awarded an OBE in 1987.

* Dodd became embroiled in a tax-evasion row with the Inland Revenue in the late 1980s but was eventually cleared of all charges. "I told the Inland Revenue I didn't owe them a penny because I lived near the seaside. Self-assessment? They nicked that idea from me you know."

* In 2005 he delivered a lecture on Shakespeare's comedy at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. "It's about men and women and thingy, you know, sex, and kings and queens and politicians and bishops. It's all the same. Mind you he wasn't a gag man, William. Me, I'm an eyes and teeth man."

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