Sir Ken Dodd’s longevity was remarkable in so many ways. But alongside his 60-year career and his great age – he was still performing aged 90 – was his conscious and deliberate rooting in Liverpool. Specifically, Knotty Ash.
Much has been made of Doddy’s decision to remain living in the house in which he was born and grew up. And where he died on Sunday.
Not for him the nostalgia of distance. Not for him a swanky pad on the south coast or the Costa del Sol. Nope, Knotty Ash was where it was and where it mattered. On that basis Ken Dodd was about as authentic as it gets.
Success makes strangers of us all. It can turn nobodies into somebodies, transform them into small-town heroines and heroes, add a dollop of egoism, throw in some bad behaviour, tabloid headlines, court appearances, a downfall, a comeback and a rehabilitation founded on humility and humbleness.
Showbiz history is littered with such tales. Two of my favourite rags-to-riches stories feature coalminer’s son Richard Burton and juvenile delinquent Steve McQueen. Both were separated from parents – Burton from his mother, McQueen from his father – and both fought their way to the top of the heap.
Burton became a tax exile, holding onto his millions – and at his zenith he was earning an obscene amount – by moving to Switzerland. McQueen swapped filthy tenements for a Hollywood home he nicknamed The Castle; later he moved to an exclusive beachfront pad on Trancas Beach in Malibu.
Burton and McQueen, along with many other stars, became estranged from their roots. Burton was prone to bouts of “hiraeth”, a form of melancholic longing for the past that afflicts the Welsh. McQueen was pained by the mystery of his father, Bill, who he finally tracked down after more than 30 years – but only after the man had been dead for several months. Both stars fought to escape the penury and pain of their (very different) youths. Yet, at journey’s end, each looked back through a rosy prism to a time that was harder but somehow simpler. McQueen even bought a property far from Hollywood and filled it with the toys he never had as a child. Dead at 50, he at least found solace in the freedoms money brought him.
Ken Dodd wasn’t wrapped up in looking back, yet he must have known he was the very last of a particular breed. His passing brings an end to the era of the variety star, the seaside comic, the end-of-pier rat-a-tat delivery. For Doddy, unlike Burton, McQueen and Co, it was all about laughter.
He didn’t bother with the rest.