Ken Dodd: Merseyside’s Professor of Mirth, 2008 interview

5th January 2008

Ken Dodd: Merseyside’s professor of mirth

Interview to coincide with the start of Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 05 Jan 2008.

This week, after enjoying a bumper Christmas stocking of TV programmes celebrating his talent and achievements, Ken Dodd made a rather less happy start to the New Year.
After he was forced to go under a hospital surgeon’s knife following a gig on Sunday, there was some speculation that Dodd, who turned 80 last year, was facing serious ill health. In fact, the operation was for a hernia and the famously indefatigable “Doddy” has vowed to be back on stage within a matter of weeks.

The incident underlines both the remarkable fortitude of Britain’s longest serving showman and also the feeling that, these days, you miss him at your peril.

The BBC Arena documentary showed a beatifically patient Dodd being assailed on his walkabouts by autograph-hunters, his every move doltishly captured on mobile phones by passers-by. But there’s no coming close to grasping his will-o’-the-wisp genius until you’ve sat in a theatre watching him work his particular kind of eccentric magic.

To see Doddy in action, as I was lucky enough to at the bitterly cold tail-end of the year in Wolverhampton, is to understand why he’s a living legend. He arrives on the Civic Hall stage banging wildly on a drum, those protruding teeth angled into a rabbity grin, his hair mussed up in a mad-professor quiff.

Just to clap eyes on him is to laugh, but he’s got a lifetime of quips he wants to share. And, with a little help from a magic act, a cabaret artist and a chorus of children, who act as interludes, share them he does, until five hours later, almost tickled to death, his audience staggers out.
Laugh? They had to.

“If you don’t laugh at the jokes, I’ll follow you home and shout them through the letterbox,” runs one familiar line. He says: “There’s no such thing as an old joke, only jokes that people have heard before”, and although some sound as if they belong to another era (“How do you make a blonde laugh on a Sunday? Tell her a joke on a Wednesday!”), the infectious glee with which he tells them ensures that none belly-flop into silence.

Some are just glorious, whatever their age: “How many men does it take to change a toilet roll? Nobody knows. It’s never been tried.”

When he carves the air with his hands like a deranged conductor, a sight that John Osborne once took the entire Royal Court company to see, it’s as if he’s summoning a whole vanished world of popular entertainment. Even at midnight, he’s unflagging in his mission to whip up the spirits of those around him.

He’ll drive back to his hometown of Knotty Ash, on the outskirts of Liverpool, with his partner Anne Jones. Before that, as he removes his make-up, signs autographs for fans and opens a can of lager, he’s happy to chat about Liverpool, laughter and his miraculous longevity, on earth and on the stage he knows as heaven.

Dominic Cavendish: Are you pleased that Liverpool is now the European Capital of Culture?

Ken Dodd: I’m delighted, but the main thing about Capital of Culture is that it isn’t so much an accolade as an opportunity. Liverpool must show that it is a great city. Of course, I know it’s a great city, with a wonderful history. There have been fabulous people, poets, singers, actors, comedians, leaders of men, followers of women! We need to remind people of that.

DC: Local politicians say the city has turned the corner after decades of hardship.

KD: Fingers crossed. Whatever else you can say, one of the great traits of the Liverpool character is optimism. It’s a city that thrives on hope. The motto should be: “Everything’s going to be all right.” Liverpool was like a very rich aunt who was doing very well and suddenly lost all her jewellery. Now perhaps the good times are coming back.

DC: Liverpool has an image problem, doesn’t it? You yourself do gags about cars being found jacked up on four encyclopaedias during Capital of Culture year – and evening classes in graffiti.

KD: Unfortunately the Scouser fell into disrepute. But this business about the scally, that will go. I play every city in Britain and whenever I pick up the local paper, there’s always some story – “Man hit over the head with a bottle”, that sort of thing. Every city in Britain has its share of criminals, vandals, it’s not just Liverpool. In my view, there was one man who caused all the trouble, who made us figures of more than ridicule: Derek Hatton. It started with him in the ’80s – he gave Liverpool a terrible name.

DC: You’re doing a lecture as part of Capital of Culture, celebrating Liverpool’s unique humour. Can you tell us about that?

KD: I’m really looking forward to it. It will be in St George’s Hall – where Charles Dickens gave his readings. I’ve stood on the same spot as Bob Hope and Jack Benny at the London Palladium, and now I want to stand on the same platform as Dickens.

DC: What is so distinctive about the Liverpudlian sense of humour?

KD: There is a cockiness about the Liverpool wag, which is what I am and what Ted Ray and Tommy Handley were. I call it Mirthy-side. Why is our humour so strong? I think because Liverpool is such a great melting-pot of nations. In every Liverpool audience, you have every race under the sun. The word Scouse, interestingly, comes from the Norwegian word meaning “stew” – and that’s what Liverpool is, a great stew.

DC: How did Liverpool shape your comedy?

KD: If I had to say how I learned it, I’d say instinctively, because my father Arthur was a great gag-teller. He loved jokes and by God could he tell a story. But I also watched so many acts. After the war, the theatres were thronging. We went to the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties, the Empire, the Pavilion. I saw many comics – the most remarkable being Frank Randle. If there was such a thing as a comic imp, he was it.

DC: What’s the secret to the way you tell a joke that in other mouths would fall flat?

KD: A joke is like taking the back off a beautiful watch. It’s a delicate thing. You see balance, timing – why one word has more power than another. There’s a rhythm to it. The best way I can describe what I do is this. When I was playing at the Manchester Opera House years ago, in the early ’60s, Kenneth Griffith, the famous Welsh actor, would come across during the filming of War and Peace and watch the show. One night, he said to me: “Do you know, Doddy, you don’t tell bloody jokes at all. No, boyo, you bloody sing them.”

DC: You are famous for having a “giggle-map” of Britain. Can you explain what that is? It’s not a map as such, is it?

KD: Before I turned professional in 1954, I was a salesman. And just like you keep a book of things that you’ve sold and hope to sell, it seemed perfectly natural to me when I started out to keep notebooks of how a certain joke was received and how I could make it any better. Over the years, keeping the notebooks, you build up a pattern. What makes them laugh in Yorkshire, say, as opposed to Lancashire. In Yorkshire the people are very open and friendly. In north Lancashire, there’s a lot of interest in funerals and epitaphs. I love going out to all these different places.

DC: You go on the road, week after week. You’re now 80 – many comics half your age start flagging. How do you keep going?

KD: I think there must have been a mistake somewhere along the way and I may have been kidnapped by gipsies. I don’t feel 80, I think I’m 35. I now say “Age doesn’t matter unless you’re a cheese.” Does the car work? Yes! That’s all that matters. In 50 years, I’ve only ever missed one night through illness.

DC: That’s incredible. Will you not have to slow down at some point?

KD: I don’t think you should be silly. Perhaps I will have to give up bungee-jumping. I feel OK but I will take advice. I’m not made of iron.

DC: What do you think of today’s comedy?

KD: There is a tendency for younger comedians to go in for outrageous concepts, but that isn’t humour, that’s shock – trying to embarrass people. A sense of humour is a way of seeing the world in a different way. It’s seeing the funny side of life. If you want to go more deeply into it, it’s the perception of incongruity, the perception of the absurd.

DC: How do you maintain that perception of the absurd? As you get older, doesn’t the world seem a darker place?

KD: You have to look at the world and see even the terrible things that happen and say, “Just suppose we can make a difference in this” – and you can, just by your attitude to life. “Just suppose” is one of the great things about humour.

DC: It’s remarkable to think how many governments have come and gone in your time.

KD: I’ve played to five prime ministers. I got on well with all of them, too. The first was Harold Wilson. At one time, I ended up in a boxing ring with him, in Manchester. For some reason, instead of a stage they had a boxing ring. He was in one corner and I was in another. Harold was supposed to crown the beauty queen. God knows what I was supposed to do. I gave Edward Heath a tickling stick, and he took it into the House of Commons.

DC: Margaret Thatcher adored you, didn’t she?

KD: Mrs Thatcher came to Blackpool. We had a long talk, she was very nice. She promised to come to the Palladium, which she did with her entourage. You say the first thing that comes into your head, don’t you? I said: “Isn’t this marvellous, Mrs Thatcher, I’m talking and you’re listening!” How did I have the nerve?

DC: It’s often said that you are the last living link with the great music-hall and variety traditions in this country – are you sad that so few have followed in your footsteps?

KD: The sad thing isn’t that theatres are closing, it is that there isn’t enough real variety talent. On the Continent it thrives. There’s too much emphasis here on pop records. People seem to think that a variety show is boy bands and girl bands, but that’s nothing to do with it.
I’m on the planet of ventriloquists, impressionists, jugglers, acrobats and gymnasts. I think we need another Saturday or Sunday night show, where the host is able to present and encourage genuine new talent. I’d like to do that – host a TV variety show and show everyone what a real variety show is.

DC: You’ve also been quoted as saying you’d like to set up a national museum for comedy. Is that the case?

KD: I do think Britain should have a museum of comedy. I’m thinking of photographs, programmes, props, films. Above all, it would be a place where you could celebrate and remember the great laughter-makers.
We have an incredible tradition in this country. Over the years, I’ve built up a terrific library of books about comedians. I love to read them. But what’s going to happen to them when I’m not here to look after them? So I have often thought about doing something with them, but I wonder whether enough people are interested.

DC: You talk about what will happen after you’ve gone. Do you believe in God?

KD: Yes, I do. I believe you have to find your own way to God, though. You come into the world on your own, you go out on your own, it’s up to you while you’re here.
I have a strong belief that in some way I am guided, that I may have a purpose in life. I don’t know what it is, but I’m doing my best to try and find out.



This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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