Ken Dodd, who died yesterday, aged 90, was the last of the old Variety entertainers who knew how to unite an audience, irrespective of age or class. He was (in)famous for his marathon shows – I once saw him perform for five hours – but the thing that made him unique was his profound understanding of British comedy, reflected in a timeless act whose roots stretched right back to Music Hall. ‘Once you’ve stood on a stage and you’ve won your first laugh and earned your first applause, you’re hooked for life,’ he once told me, recalling his debut, at a local orphanage on Christmas Day 1939. Seventy eight years later, he was still going strong. His 2017 Christmas show was his swansong. It was fitting that it was at the Echo Arena, in his native, beloved Liverpool.
The first time I saw him onstage he was already in his mid-60s, an age when most successful comics have long since swapped the remorseless slog of live stand-up for the security and comfort of the TV studio. Not Doddy. ‘It’s a wonderful way to spend your time, slaving over a hot audience,’ he told me. When I saw him again, 12 years later, he was in his late 70s – but he was still doing several hours a night, nearly every night, driving home after every gig, clocking up 100,000 miles a year. Wherever he was playing, he always slept in his own bed, in the house where he was born, in Liverpool’s Knotty Ash.
Kenneth Arthur Dodd was born on November 8 1927, the son of a Scouse coal merchant. ‘The funniest comedian you ever saw was my father,’ he said. He’d tell Ken jokes and silly stories. He took him to the theatre. ‘That’s where I fell in love with the lovely rosy, cosy glow of the stage.’
Ken helped his dad deliver coal, and when his parents bought him a Punch & Judy show, he was hooked. He started gigging in the back garden and soon graduated to charity shows and church fetes. By the time he left school, at 14, he was already an accomplished ventriloquist – working as a door-to-door salesman by day, playing concert parties at night.
By the end of the 50s he’d become a radio regular, but it was in the Swinging 60s that he really made his mark. He played a record-breaking forty-two week run at the London Palladium (twice nightly, three shows on Saturdays) and had a huge number one hit with Tears, one of the bestselling singles of all time. With his electric shock quiff and trademark buck teeth (the result of a childhood cycling accident) he looked like a mad professor, but even in his 80s, he still had a lovely singing voice.
In 1989, he was cleared of tax evasion after a five week trial. For Ken, it was three months of acute stress and two years of nagging worry, but the publicity did his career no harm, and became one of the mainstays of his act. ‘I had a very successful business lunch with my accountant,’ he’d tell his audience. ‘He paid the bill and I managed to snatch the receipt.’
So what made him so special? It certainly wasn’t the gags. Most of his jokes were hand-me-down one-liners which wouldn’t look out of place on the end of a lollipop stick or inside a Christmas cracker. It wasn’t his staying power – his compulsion to spin out every performance into the small hours was one of his least appealing habits. No, the thing that set him apart was his intimate rapport with a live audience – something that almost felt like love. ‘You have to love an audience,’ he told me. ‘You have to love people for all their silliness and for all the daft things we do, and find joy in being alive, not sneering and snarling and moaning and whinging about everything. Life is wonderful. Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.’
The last time I saw him live was on a rainy evening in Stockport. I’d been sent to see him by The Guardian and I reckon it’s worth quoting back the last few paras of that piece, not for what I wrote but for what he said…
‘”God, I love this job,” he says, to himself as much as anyone. “If you don’t laugh at the jokes, I’ll follow you home and shout them through your letterbox.” It’s well past midnight, and the last bus has long since departed. “All you need now is a lift home,” he says, but we’re in no hurry to leave.
“I’ve been blessed in my life,” he says, intimate at last in front of a few thousand strangers. “How many men get to work with their heroes?” He reels off a list of names – some famous, some long forgotten. He’s almost talking to himself now, the rest of us listening in.
Ken Dodd is blessed indeed. How many folk are fortunate enough to be the focus of such affection, for several hours, night after night? “Stockport, I love you,” he says, as the curtain rises and falls again, for the final time.
At last, we shuffle out into the darkness, all laughed out, and I’m reminded of something else he said. “People say: ‘Where’s your favourite theatre?’ My favourite theatre’s the one I’m playing tonight.” Tomorrow night it’ll be another town, but tonight Dodd really does love Stockport, and that’s why Stockport – and every other unloved town in Britain – loves him back.