Underrated: Ken Dodd

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Robert Low

While British academics and politicians earnestly seek to define happiness and then somehow impose it on the country, Ken Dodd just gets on with the job of supplying it. At the age of 83, Dodd still performs 150 comedy shows a year throughout Britain, some of them lasting for more than five hours, which is even longer than a speech by his contemporary Fidel Castro and a good deal more uplifting. 

While Castro declines into senility, Dodd marches on with his high-energy routines, dressed in outlandish costumes, waving his “tickling stick”, firing off jokes at breakneck speed and lighting up the theatre with his buck-toothed grin. His trademark song, with which he ends every show, is even called “Happiness”. He has no need of the four-letter words or crude imagery which today’s stand-ups rely on to garner a laugh. The result is that television now ignores him, preferring the coarse routines of so-called comedians like Frankie Boyle whose idea of a joke is to mock the disabled. The nearest Dodd ever came to that was poking fun at himself: “It’s ten years since I went out of my mind. I’d never go back.” 

Even the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, which stands on the site of the variety hall in which he made his professional debut in 1954, dropped his annual Christmas show in 2009, the po-faced manager claiming Dodd “wasn’t funny enough”.

Dodd’s greatest crime is probably to be a staunch Conservative who believes in self-reliance and free enterprise. He introduced Mrs Thatcher at the Wembley election rally in 1979 during which Kenny Everett memorably urged her, “Let’s bomb Russia!” Dodd inherited his values from his hard-working father, who ran his own coal business in Knotty Ash, a middle-class Liverpool suburb, and he enjoys poking gentle fun at his fellow Liverpudlians. “We’re not frightened of work in Liverpool,” runs one of his gags. “It fascinates us.” He also inherited from his parents a love of variety and music hall. Both keen musicians themselves, they constantly took their son to comedy shows, which enchanted him, and by the age of eight he was a skilled ventriloquist.

He built up a following as an amateur comedian and singer but had no thought of turning professional until contacts in the Manchester Jewish community, with whom he had become a big favourite, tipped off a London agent. “What made me sit up was his happiness,” the Daily Express drama critic shrewdly noted in the late 1950s, before Dodd had gained a national reputation.

His career really took off in the 1960s when his show ran for 42 sell-out weeks at the London Palladium. 

Beneath his zany exterior, Dodd was a serious and highly professional operator from the start. He kept notebooks in which he jotted down audience reaction to his jokes and ad-libs, jettisoning anything which didn’t work. He still carries round plastic bags filled with every joke he has ever told and claims never to have done the same show twice. He is a keen student of theatre history, likening his tickling stick to the pig’s bladder on a stick that medieval jesters carried as a comic prop, and seeing himself as the natural heir to clowns like Dan Leno.  Indeed, in the early 1970s he conceived a one-man show based on the history of laughter, hiring small theatres to test it out on audiences, who were however baffled by this new departure. “They were very nice about it,” he reflected, “but they just didn’t laugh.” Dodd went back to what he did best.

I saw his show in Liverpool in the mid-1970s at the height of the IRA’s terror campaign when theatres were regularly evacuated because of suspect packages. “Anyone here from Ireland?” he inquired. When a lone hand went up in the circle, Dodd said, “When you leave, we all leave.”

There was a time when he was the toast of the cognoscenti. The Guardian‘s Michael Billington wrote an admiring (and admirable) short book about him. John Osborne took the entire cast of one of his Royal Court plays to see Dodd in action. But in 1989 he was charged by the Inland Revenue with tax avoidance on a massive scale. He wisely hired his fellow Lancastrian George Carman QC to defend him. The court heard how Dodd had banked huge sums in the Isle of Man, taking the money there in suitcases. Asked by the judge, “What does £100,000 in a suitcase feel like?”, Dodd replied: “The notes are very light, m’lud.” He claimed he had honestly thought he did not have to pay tax on such savings, and Carman remarked, “Some accountants are comedians but comedians are never accountants.” After a three-week trial, Dodd was acquitted by a Liverpool jury but paid a massive figure in back tax. He rapidly incorporated the ordeal into his act: “Self-assessment? I invented self-assessment.” The trial put paid to a knighthood but now that Bruce Forsyth has been granted one there are signs of a renewed public campaign for Dodd to be similarly honoured. He has no thought of retiring, to the delight of his adoring, if ageing, audiences. His one remaining ambition is to establish a museum of comedy. Ken Dodd deserves a room of his own in it. 

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