In this feature from December 2015, Dominic Cavendish meets the veteran entertainer, who has received a knighthood in the 2017 New Year's Honours, to discuss his remarkable life
Across a career that has now lasted an incredible 60 years, the comedian Ken Dodd has given a new meaning to the phrase ‘value for money’ . His current touring show Happiness sails past pub closing-time and the chimes at midnight as a matter of course. Never mind praise for the Herculean rigours of Hamlet, five hours is the bare minimum for his act. But the most remarkable thing is that ‘Doddy’ is now 88.
In Wolverhampton, on a drear Sunday night in December, punters have turned out in force at the Civic Hall to see the living legend at work. They know they’re braving a marathon. Not all of them are sure they will last the course. Although he’s not much on our screens these days and the likes of Michael McIntyre command the big arenas and fees, they haven’t given up on him.
He’s a link with a now bygone world of variety and music-hall, that very British land of cheeky chappies and eccentric novelty turns who trod the boards up and down the land in old playhouses and clubs. He’s the last great music hall entertainer, indeed he was part inspiration for John Osborne’s unforgettable tribute to the type, The Entertainer (1957) - the playwright visited Dodd and interviewed him, and later took the company at the Royal Court – Laurence Olivier included – to watch Dodd in action.
The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington, who wrote a book in praise of Dodd, has called him ‘the greatest solo performer in Britain’.
At about half past one in the morning, at the end of the show, I pound through a bewildering maze of corridors backstage determined to seek him out, come hell or high water, and pay homage.
He grants me ten affable minutes of chat as he sits in front of a dressing-room light-bulb mirror, swigging a can of lager, traces of greasepaint on his face – still sharp as a pin, but old-world courteous. “My job isn’t to educate people or even do politics,” he tells me. “I’ve got to make people feel good, I want to make them happy.”
I ask the question that has been on the lips of everyone I have spoken to during the brief lulls in the evening’s entertainment. How much longer does he plan to go on? Does he plan to retire?
He scoffs at the suggestion. “Retire? Never! It takes it out of you - believe me you know when you’ve done a show, it takes a day or two to recover.
“I don't feel 88. But what would I do if I retired? Oh god, no. You couldn’t find anything as fascinating as this – maybe, the only thing I could think of that would be as good as this would be gardening; the secret of happiness is to plant a seed and see it grow; the secret of keeping going is to feel that you’re necessary; to feel that you’ve some use in life. To feel completely useless, that's awful I couldn’t sit on a beach – oh no, that wouldn’t be me. I suppose I could sit on a beach and write but no, I've got to take part…”
He smiles – those famous buck-teeth of his, the product of a bicycling accident when he was a kid, have been replaced by a streamlined set of gnashers, but the effect is similarly endearing and a little unnerving.
His never-slaked thirst to find out more about comedy – attested to by piles of books on the subject back home – is what sustains him. “I don’t have any secret to my longevity,” he continues, “except that I love what I do. Every audience is different so no two nights are the same. You don’t do a show at them, you do it with them, you play them like an instrument. You have to find where the hotspots are, which ladies you can flirt with.” He flashes another smile, a charmer to his funny bones – nearby his long-term partner and PA Anne Jones scurries about scooping up props and merchandise, keeping an eye on the time as it heads towards 2am.
If people criticise him for being out of touch, out of date, sexist even – he’s still making jokes about blondes - he won’t pay heed. “I don’t take any notice of pundits or people who try to tell you what to do. I think in every comedian there is a streak of anarchy. We don’t take kindly to people telling us what we should say. If someone ever said to me you mustn’t say that, I’d say “Paddle your own canoe!” But I don’t like vulgarity and obscenity – the great comedians never did anything like that – they didn’t need to.”
Just after 7pm on the night I witness, the “The Squire of Knotty Ash’ (a self-awarded title referring to his aptly daft-sounding home-town, near Liverpool) arrives on stage, gaily and madly banging on a big drum, and cheerily advising those in the cavernous auditorium about the ordeal that awaits them. He brandishes two of his ‘tickling sticks’ - a sort of customised feather-duster. The threat is to tickle us near to death: “50 per cent of the people here are optimists. They’re the ones who booked a taxi for twenty past twelve…. . They do a wonderful breakfast here!””
Over the course of the next few hours there are supporting variety acts - a chap who plays Silent Night on the saw, a magician who spirits birds from his jacket - that make you feel you’re on a cruise-ship heading for the land that time forgot. But in the main it’s Dodd, who casts not just a benign aura but a fresh one.
He bombards us with gags. If we didn’t catch it, didn’t get it, no matter. There’s another coming just behind. He gives us gags corny (“I wanted to take the dog to obedience class but it wouldn’t go”); gags pithy (“I don’t do much television these days because I can’t cook”); gags that flirt with being risqué and even outrageously passe (generalising about men and women is part of his patter – “What’s black and blue and lives in the gutter? A comedian who makes ‘blonde’ jokes,” he quips). On paper, that might sound mechanical, in the flesh it has a demented vigour. It’s as if he rejuvenates as he goes; a touch of the old dog, trying it on with the ladies, but more the incorrigible school-boy, the class clown.
Occasionally his warmth tips into something too cosily old-fashioned; building in some breathing spaces, he slips into crooner-mode. The man who once beat the Beatles to the top of the charts (with “Tears”, in 1965) and has enjoyed a successful tandem career as a recording artist (his records have sold millions) shows his sentimental streak in singing “When I Grow Too Old to Dream”, and “Tears” too.
But he ambushes other medleys with nonsense lyrics and Dodd is more more wicked in his humour, than one might assume. “It’s 50 years to this very night that the circle collapsed,” he informs those watching on high, deadpan. Much later, he’s obliges with a name-check of Alan and Hazel Smith, who’ve trekked over from Leicester and whose wedding-night 60 years ago he made by serenading them at the Palladium with ‘Happiness’. “Bloody idiots!” he says, marvelling that they would waste such a precious evening in his company - then adds, quick as a flash: “They’ve been married 60 years and no sign of an armistice.”
In a sense, Ken Dodd’s an allowed anachronism – a gag-merchant who resisted the tide towards confessional stand-up that the alternative comedy wave of the 1980s brought thundering in. Still standing, he has acquired his own dignity, exudes a unique rather English fortitude.
What a journey it has been for this coal-merchant’s son who left school at 14, made his professional debut in 1954, a year after the Coronation, and has been toiling at the coal-face of humour ever since.
Yet for all his indefatigable work, plying the circuit, giving more than seems humanly possible, a knighthood has never been proffered him. Would he like one. I ask him at the end of our dressing room meeting. He gurns, he grins, he puts a hand through his hair. “Well, if one day I’m awarded something like that, that would be the greatest pleasure." He chuckles, answers modestly: "I’m certainly not against it!” As one year gives way to another, it’s high time ‘our Ken’ became Sir Ken.
Tour dates for Ken Dodd's Happiness can be found at kendoddshows.com