My wife waves me off for the train to Hull. “Just one thing,” she says with a smile that means business. “Don’t come back with a Dirty Fido.”
I’m on my way to Dinsdales Joke and Trick Shop. At the far end of Hepworth’s Arcade in Hull city centre, it’s a wonderful period piece: one of Britain’s oldest joke shops, little altered since it opened 80 years ago, and – accolades come no higher – an old haunt of Tommy Cooper.
The window display is a dazzling showcase of merriment, packed with whoopee cushions, Dirty Face Soap (“looks white – washes dirty”) and Squirty Cigarettes. There are joke spiders and Dracula teeth, flies in ice cubes and the Jumping Bandage Finger (“Great Laugh”). Not to be confused with the Nail Through Bandaged Finger. Pride of place goes to the Egg Bag Trick and the Ventrilo Bird Warbler, in vintage 1950s packaging.
In our online, on-message times, it’s a glimpse of a more innocent world: the poster-paint-bright, loudly guffawing world of The Beano and The Dandy, of Bamforth’s seaside postcards and Carry On films. “We Sell Laughter – Keep Smiling!” trumpets Dinsdales’ sunshine-yellow sign. And the customers do: they Carry on Smiling; they Carry On Tittering (pardon my French).
No-one smiles more broadly than manager Graham Williams, here since 1978. “If you’re a joke shop, you can’t be bland, can you?” he says, and he’s not. It’s worth a trip just to hear his cheeky-chappie patter, his quickfire repartee, even if you don’t want to buy a set of chattering dentures or an Elvis costume (they also do fancy dress). A laugh a minute; a giggle a millisecond. “I talk a lot,” he says; very true.
Standing behind the counter, with a rubber chicken dangling above his head, he launches into a company history. “The business was set up by Grandad Dinsdale,” he says. That was GW Dinsdale, The Record King, as he styled himself on his cardboard record sleeves, stocking a selection of 78s on labels called Sterno and Zonophone and Winner. “Then when radio came in, he thought: ‘Why would people buy records if they can listen to the radio free?’”
So he branched out into jokes, into itching powder and sneezing powder (imported from Africa) and never looked back. His son George Alfred carried on the business – “my Uncle George, he was a professional magician and his wife Shirley was his assistant. They toured as Ricardo and Shirley and he did all the doves stuff, still does magic. They ran the Scarborough shop in the summer season – we had two shops – and Shirley’s mother, Grandma Maudie, ran the Hull one. And there’s cousin Angela, George and Shirley’s daughter...”
Uncles, aunts, cousins, record dealers, magicians... hold on, let’s get this straight. I start to sketch a family tree in my notebook, but a middle-aged couple come in. “Can I have a look at that mask up there?” says the man, pointing to a top shelf where a lurid rubber demon screams bloodily down at us. “He’s looking at the one with a stake through its head, next to the Viking helmet,” says the woman. “It’s a severed head, not a mask,” says Graham, and gets it down.
While the couple decide whether they want it, he opens a drawer and hands me what looks like a miniature plastic camera. “It’s what was called a camera viewer in the Fifties,” he says. “It’s got naked ladies.” And it has. I flick the shutter and take in some tasteful, rather elegant nudes, now probably in their eighties.
“A lady came in about 15 years ago – she was from Sweden – and said: ‘Do you sell ‘tip-and-strip’ pens? Because I was the first woman who modelled for them.’ I got one out and she said: ‘That’s me!’” Graham reaches one down from a shelf – a Tease-Me Strip Pen. Turn it upside down and two models’ swimming costumes drain away. “That’s her on the right – the blonde, only 18 when she was doing it.”
We open more drawers. Exploding golf balls. Bouncy eggs. Thirties catalogues of spinning bow ties, Big Bertha stink bombs, jumping frogs, Snakes in the Grass (“Wonderful table novelty... amusing... harmless”).
“We sell all the things kids’ parents and grandparents had. Like whoopee cushions – top-sellers for Grandad, still top-sellers 80 years on. People say they came here when they were kids and it’s hardly changed. They love it here because it’s like going back in time.”
One drawer is labelled “Mucky Pup – large.” It’s a variation on Dirty Fido, the once-familiar rubber dog-poo joke. “At one time we had 11 different types,” says Graham. “We sell loads of poo – absolutely loads. ‘Stepped-in Poo’ is a big seller. It’s got a footprint in it.”
The couple with the severed head decide to take it. “Dexter will like it,” says the woman. “I’ve got a room full of horror collectables,” the man explains. “And a pet rat called Dexter, named after the serial killer in the TV series.”
They go out, satisfied customers. “There’s always demand for gory stuff,” says Graham. “You never ask what people want to use things for. You just pretend it’s the most normal thing in the world.
“When Rocky Horror’s on, you get bank managers and solicitors wanting stockings and suspenders. One customer told me he was in Australia and he found a wedding dress in a cupboard. He said it fitted him perfectly. He used to come in and show us photographs of himself in the dress – and the wigs we sold him, blonde ones usually. And we get a lot of students. People say kids have changed, but they love all the old traditional stuff. It’s new to them.”
I try to get back to the family tree as a toehold on reality as I know it, but a glamorous women comes in, looking for wigs for her two sons’ Sixties school party. Standard hippy wig (long, black synthetic nylon)? Funky Afro? Bowl wig? “Like the Beatles,” says Graham. More like Herman’s Hermits, I suggest, and we agree on that.
Another woman comes in for some fake cigarettes. A couple with a son called Bronson buy him some cap-bombers (throw them and hear them explode). The phone rings. “Yes, we sell blow-up dolls,” Graham tells the caller and puts the phone down. “Oh yes, blow-up sheep, blow-up pigs, blow-up guitars. Blow-up Zimmer frames are the biggest seller at the moment.”
I abandon the family tree. So what about Tommy Cooper? “He used to come in the Scarborough shop. He’d buy rubber chickens, silly things, general daft props for his act. Uncle George said his trousers were always too short.” Inevitably we both do “Just like that!” impressions. Then Graham imitates the chicken walk made famous by Norman Collier, the Hull-based comedian who was another regular customer. The joke shop in The League of Gentlemen, he adds, was reputedly based on Dinsdales.
Two men buy a plastic squirty pistol. A woman asks for a “vanishing hanky trick”. Another wants some exploding bangers for cigarettes. The customers come as relentlessly as Ken Dodd’s jokes. The whole of Hull must be one long party, one big whoopee cushion.
A mother and daughter come in, very thoughtful. The daughter is looking for a costume to wear at a Christmas-themed business meeting she’s due to attend (it’s early July). She’s not sure about the angel costume Graham offers or the green velours elf outfit.
“Could you go as a tree?” asks the mother. She glances at a display cabinet. “I used to make plastic fried eggs like those,” she says. “Plastic chocolate biscuits. Big ears. All sorts.” They settle on a Grumpy Gnome costume. “It will double as one of the Seven Dwarfs,” says the daughter.
Graham seems to be just revving up. “I found some 1981 gyroscopes last year. And I came across boxes in the warehouse labelled ‘1952 window display’; it was all still there. I’m the custodian of this shop, just passing through, looking after it. My son thought having a dad with a joke shop was the best thing ever. But my wife once said: ‘Are you ever going to grow up?’” I say this is a not uncommon thing for wives to say and set off home.
“You’ve not brought a Dirty Fido, have you?” says my wife as I open the door. No, I say, I haven’t. “But I’ve brought this...” I pull a bouncy egg from my pocket and drop it. She looks horrified. It duly bounces. How I laugh. How she doesn’t.