I WENT to see Ken Dodd at the Whitley Bay Playhouse as a bolshie teenager more than 20 years ago. I say “went” but I was in fact dragged there by my parents who had bought tickets for the whole family.
As a 17 year-old desperate to maintain his street cred, going to watch the man behind the Diddymen and the Jam Butty Mines of Knotty Ash was about as uncool as you could possibly get. I remember sitting in my seat with my arms folded (and probably with a face like a smacked backside) determined not to laugh throughout the entire show which, as anyone who’s ever been to see him will know, is a long time – as the man himself says, “...with my shows, you can always be sure of getting home in daylight.”
Needless to say within five minutes I was chuckling, after half an hour I was laughing out loud and by the time the show finished two-and-a-half hours later, my face was stained with tears of laughter.
Like many before me, and countless others since, I had been well and truly tickled by a man who the late Eric Sykes said was so funny he should be available on the NHS. Dodd has been pushing the nation’s funny button for nearly 60 years, but it’s only when you look back through his career that you realise what a remarkable entertainer he really is. He made his debut at the London Palladium in 1965, which led to an unprecedented 42-week sell-out season and earned him a Variety Club Award – 25 years later he returned for a sell-out six-week stint at the same venue.
He has also enjoyed a hugely successful recording career, particularly back in the 60s, when he had a string of hits including his song Tears which reached number one in the UK singles charts, knocking The Beatles off the top spot. Even now, at the age of 85, he continues to take his Happiness Show around the country on a virtually non-stop tour, and on Saturday he arrives in Bradford where he’s performing along with special guests at St George’s Hall.
Dodd has played in Yorkshire umpteen times over the years, but says he always looks forward to coming here. “I still have the record for the longest pantomime run at the Alhambra – we were giving out Easter eggs on stage,” he says, with a chuckle.
“I enjoy doing TV and radio but I do my best shows in front of a live audience and Yorkshire is one of the best places in the country for comedy. I think there’s definitely a greater sense of humour among northerners than people who live down south. People in the north tend to have a more optimistic view of life.”
Some people may disagree with him but few, if any, entertainers still doing the rounds today have the kind of insight into audiences that he has. “I started my apprenticeship working in social clubs and graduated to doing Round Table and Masonic events. This is where I learned how to respect an audience because there are two ways you can do a comedy show – with an audience, or at an audience, and I do it with the audience.”
Dodd, who still lives in the same house in which he was born – a 17th century farmhouse in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash – says his fascination with comedy started from an early age. “I fell in love with comedy when I was 12 years old.
“Mum and Dad took me and my brother and sister to the theatre, usually the Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool, and we saw all the great old comedians. We would go on Saturday afternoons and the auditorium had this wonderful rosy glow, and then the music started and the curtain went up and I was hooked.”
As a boy he was an avid reader of adventure comics like The Hotspur and The Rover. “They always had adverts and one day I spotted this ad on the back page. It had a box and a speech bubble saying ‘Amaze your friends, become a ventriloquist’ and that’s how I started.”
His parents bought him bought him his own ventriloquist’s doll which he christened Charlie Brown. “I wasn’t a natural performer but I learned how to throw my voice and started doing impromptu shows for all my pals. Later I had my own Punch and Judy Show and would entertain at charity shows or garden fetes.”
By the age of 14 he had set his heart on becoming a comedian. “Whenever we went to the theatre the ones who were always top of the bill, the engine drivers, were the comedians. So I asked my dad ‘how do you comede?’ And he said by telling jokes.”
His dad was one of his early inspirations. “He was always laughing and telling jokes and I learned the art of comic timing by copying him. Boys often model themselves on their father and that’s what I did.”
Despite this early enthusiasm Dodd didn’t become an entertainer straight away. He helped his father in the family coal business before working as a door-to-door salesman in Merseyside to supplement any earnings he made on the local comedy circuit. He turned professional in 1954, making his stage debut at the old Nottingham Empire and the following year he made his TV debut at the world famous City Varieties in Leeds, where he starred in The Good Old Days, which first brought him to the public’s attention. “In those days you only had the BBC and you only had to cough on TV and you were famous.”
What about his own comedy heroes, who has made him laugh out loud over the years? “I was fortunate to have grown up with comedy heroes like Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Robb Wilton, Tommy Handley, Billy Bennett and the great comics of that era,” he says. “They were followed by the likes of Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise. All were legendary funnymen with natural ability and lots of warmth. Comedy should never be over-analysed. It is either funny or it isn’t. There is a subtle difference between those who say funny things and those who say things funny.”
So how do today’s comedians differ from those plying their comedic craft when he started out? “There was more ‘art’ to comedy years ago,” he explains. “Comics were masters of their craft. Today there are precious few places to learn that craft, and far too much emphasis is placed on tasteless material and sadly swearing is all too often being passed off as comedy.”
Dodd is widely regarded as a master of comic timing and has long been a meticulous student of the art of comedy. “When I did a show in a town or city I would go to all the libraries and look up books on ‘humour’, ‘comedy’, and ‘laughter.’ I’ve read all the great philosophers, people like Schopenhauer and Freud, and read what they have to say about this great, mysterious thing called laughter.”
He says comedy itself, and what makes people laugh, is fascinating. “It’s a wonderful subject and there are three key elements. Humour is the act of making us laugh, comedy is the technique a performer uses and laughter is the end result.”
But he doesn’t believe comedy gets the acknowledgment it deserves. “Music is a vast subject, it can’t be described in a single word that’s why we have rock ‘n’ roll, chamber music and classical music and so on, and it’s the same with comedy.”
The one question he always gets asked by journalists is “has humour changed?” So I ask him, has it changed?
“No, it hasn’t changed. We still laugh at the same things the Greeks and Romans laughed at, and the same things people laughed at in Shakespeare’s day, things like men and women, power, love and sex. The techniques may have changed but we’re still laughing at the same subjects. It’s the audiences and their expectations that have changed.”
Another question he gets asked, perhaps not surprisingly given the length of time he’s been performing, is what makes him keep going? “People retire when they stop doing what they want to do and start doing something they don’t. Well, I’m still doing what I want to do,” he says. “I’m a jester and it’s my job to make people feel happy.”
I reckon most people would agree it’s been a job well done.