Sir Ken Dodd's widow Lady Anne on her new book about life with the 'tattyfilarious' comedy great - and why he loved Yorkshire

Sir Ken Dodd made people roar with laughter for decades, but a new book co-authored by his wife reveals a man less known to his adoring fans. John Blow reports.

Sir Ken Dodd at Leeds City Varieties in 2011. Picture: Simon Hulme.
Sir Ken Dodd at Leeds City Varieties in 2011. Picture: Simon Hulme.

Sir Ken Dodd’s beloved partner of 40 years recalls with pride how she was by his side at every showbusiness appearance during their decades together.

But even after all that time, Lady Anne Dodd couldn’t help but stand in the wings and watch as the legendary entertainer – affectionately known as Doddy – brought the house down and get swept up by the act herself.

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“Sometimes I’d go to the side of the stage and he’d be finishing up with Dicky Mint, his ventriloquist doll, and I’d suddenly find I’m watching and I don’t want to leave. And that’s when you’ve seen it time and again,” she tells The Yorkshire Post.

Lady Anne Dodd with a painting depicting her late husband by David Cobley. Picture: Ron Davies.

Ahead of the launch of her new book, The Squire of Knotty Ash and his Lady – written with Yorkshire-born Tony Nicholson and released today by the Bradford-based Great Northern Books – Anne says that when performing in front of his audiences, Sir Ken “gave them himself”.

The book aims to do a bit of that too. Although it details the happy and comic aspects of his life, the biography also presents a more complex man who the authors feel was misrepresented by some sections of the Press, while revealing details about the showbusiness figure’s life that are less known: his more serious and intellectual side, his devotion to the Church of England, the famous tax case and why he felt such a need protect of his own privacy.

As well as being a fan of Dodd for years, Nicholson, 68, originally from Ilkley, had worked as a producer with him in the past and then on a BBC documentary, How Tickled We Were, after he died. He had also previously written Shut That Door!, a biography of comedian Larry Grayson and Anne enjoyed his writing style, so they set out together on the project.

Nicholson spent time interviewing Anne (née Sybil Anne Jones) at the house Ken lived in all his life at Knotty Ash, Liverpool.

Sir Ken and Lady Anne in earlier year. Picture: Ron Davies.

During a Zoom call from the house, where Anne still lives with their poodle Rufus, she says: “Ken had always wanted to write a book – he wanted to write a happy book. And he never did do an autobiography, just never got around to it, but he was planning it while he was in hospital. I found notes saying what he would want to do.

"Obviously I can’t do a book as if he would have done, but other people have produced books and I think Tony agreed he wanted this to be a joyful, happy, good book – entertaining – and I feel that’s what we’ve got.”

Writing the life story of Sir Ken must have been a daunting prospect after such a lengthy career.

He became a household name, making audiences roar as he fired off one liners and joked of Knotty Ash’s “Diddy Men”, “jam butty mines” and “black pudding plantations”, delivered his own surreal, “tattyfilarious” lexicon, and was immediately recognisable by his distinct features and perennial “tickling stick” props.

In 1965, he embarked on an unprecedented 42-week sell-out season at the London Palladium, earning him a Variety Club Award. Then 25 years later he returned for a sell-out six-week stint at the same venue.

Doddy also enjoyed a 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.

He appeared at various Royal Variety Shows and during his seventh decade of indefatigable performance (his routines famously lasted for hours), he was knighted at the age of 89 in 2017 as part of the Queen’s New Year’s Honours.

Sir Ken loved to perform in Yorkshire, not least on the coast because of the top quality fish and chips, says Anne, but because of how well the audiences took to his material. “He loved going to Yorkshire because they were very quick,” she says. “Reactions are definitely different in different areas, certainly in Yorkshire they’re very quick.”

The book charts the couple’s first meeting during the 1961 Christmas season at Manchester Opera House, where Sir Ken was topping the bill. At the time, he was engaged to Anita Boutin, who died in 1977 after a brain tumour diagnosis.

His friendship with Anne later blossomed into a long relationship and, two days before his death on March 11, 2018, they married. The book, from which Anne’s royalities will go to the Ken Dodd Charitable Foundation to support performing arts organisations, details why the star wanted to keep his personal life away from front pages.

Anne said: “You have to have a private side, and he was quite serious. He always said Arthur Askey – an old Liverpool comedian and he revered him when he was a boy – told him once when he was just starting up, he said, ‘Doddy, you know, when you close your front door – close your front door, and that’s it. You must have privacy at one certain place, you must be able to cut off’.”

She also discusses their only regret, of not having children, and says that parts of the press misreported that she had IVF, “which simply wasn’t true”.

But Anne, who was also in showbusiness with the Bluebell Girls dance troupe and is now in her late 70s, also reveals what Sir Ken was like to live with. He could of course be relied upon as a source of humour at Knotty Ash.

“I mean not going around the house saying ‘How tickled I am’, but what was lovely was if you saw him watch a programme that made him laugh,” she says. “To see him laugh at something was wonderful – really laugh – and it could be anything from modern comedians, as long as they weren’t too mucky, to traditional Dad’s Army or Frasier. He liked all sorts of his eclectic taste in comedy, he loved to see what everybody else was doing...”

Nicholson, who started his own showbusiness career in the 1970s as a comedy scriptwriter, writing jokes for the Two Ronnies, says Sir Ken was “one of the all-time greats”.

But he says: “I’ve learned a lot about Ken the man, because...I worked with him for nearly 12 months on and off, so I knew him as Ken the performer but I’ve learned a lot about the man. I didn’t know how deep his faith was and what an intellect that he had and things, so I’ve learned a lot. And his kindness.

"The press could be quite unkind to him and talk about him perhaps being a bit tight with his money and things, but what certainly he wasn’t was so mean with his time and things – he would do so much for other people.”

Anne talks of the regard arts critic Michael Billington had for her husband after he wrote that the only two performers he had seen who were “kissed by genius” were Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ken Dodd.

He also put Sir Ken at the top of his list of most memorable nights in a theatre for the one-man show Ha-Ha at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1973.

“To put Ken up there – that to me is the pinnacle,” says Anne.

Jim Henson nearly made a Muppet

The book is sprinkled with comic anecdotes from Sir Ken Dodd’s glittering career in showbusiness.

Lady Anne recalls one such story when Sir Ken and Jim Henson, co-founder of the Muppets, introduced themselves to each other while seated at the Children’s Royal Variety Show.

Naturally, Henson unpocketed Kermit the Frog to say hello too – but he hadn’t bargained on the presence of the couple’s dog, who went straight for the face and wouldn’t budge.

Anne says: “We managed to prise his mouth open – he didn’t like that, he nearly bit me – to get him off.

“We were lucky, because he didn’t have a spare (Kermit) apparently. And Jim Henson was absolutely charming about it – ‘Oh that’s okay, I’ll just wipe the saliva off’.”