Sir Ken Dodd - The Squire of Knotty Ash
THERE is only one Doddy and at last Liverpool’s treasured Squire of Knotty Ash, King of the Diddy Men and ‘Mirthyside’ is adorned with an official knighthood in the Queen’s 2017 New Year’s Honours List as Sir Kenneth Dodd after more than 60 years in show business.
Hailed as Britain’s greatest stand-up comedian and solo performer, the man is a phenomenon and still touring the Ken Dodd Happiness Show. Discussing his knighthood a national newspaper said: “Never mind being knighted for services to entertainment and charity, he surely deserves a ‘K’ just for stamina alone.”
Aged 89-years-old, this has been far too long a wait in many people’s opinion, especially as he was invited decades ago to perform for the Royal Family at Windsor Castle. It’s as if even he can’t believe his own luck, as on his website message, signing off with his new title, he adds: “It’s still me, Ken!”
Although quintessentially a product of Liverpool (and always remained living in the city), it’s not stopped his humour from being highly appreciated all over the country. Indeed, one of his great ambitions was to play every theatre in Britain.
Although his style is born out of the music hall and variety theatre, fused with saucy seaside postcard humour and the Carry On films, there is no one like Ken Dodd. The man is a complete original, with his fly-away hair, mad eyes, buck teeth (caused by a cycling accident aged seven) and his tickling stick, a cue for his opening line of “How tickled I am!”
In 2009 he was honoured, tickling stick and all, with a life-size bronze statue at Liverpool Lime Street Station, curiously paired with former Liverpool MP Bessie Braddock, and even more curiously a popular backdrop for Japanese tourists’ selfies.
But more potent than his trade mark eccentric looks is his ability to cast a spell over an audience. He has a well-developed funny bone which he uses to directly attack people’s “chuckle muscles” (as he calls them).
The audience is literally battered into mirthful helplessness by a joke rate (“titters per minute”) with a top speed of seven gags per 60 seconds, which works out about 2,000 per show. It’s like being relentlessly shot with non-stop one-liners. Perhaps Doddy is a human ‘Gagling’ machine gun?
At the Liverpool Playhouse in the 1960s he achieved a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s long ever non-stop joke-telling session at three and a half hours.
The sheer number of jokes per show is, of course, also due to his notoriously lengthy performances which can run to more than five hours. He taunts his audience saying: “50 per cent of the people here are optimists. They’re the ones who booked a taxi for twenty past twelve. They do a wonderful breakfast here!” or “I’ve seen children grow out of their trousers”, or “A watch is no good for you in this show. You need a calendar. We might be finished by Tuesday.”
Ever the cheeky chappie and class clown, he has a surreal streak of imagination. This put the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash into the public consciousness (many outside Merseyside believe it’s a fictitious place) along with Jam Butty Mines and nonsense words like “tattyfilarious”. He created comedy personae like Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty - Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter. The Diddy Men - Dicky Mint and Mick The Marmaliser, which started off as dummies in his ventriloquist act.
His regular comic introductions inevitably start with the words: “By Jove, what a lovely day for . . .” and a remark such as, “What a lovely day for sticking a cucumber through a letter box and shouting, ‘Watch out missus, the Martians have landed’!”
Ever the professional and consummate comedy craftsman, though, he carries around plastic gag bags, stuffed with jokes to ensure that he doesn’t repeat material in the same show. As an old school classic performer, he never swears in his act.
They say comedy is all about timing and possibly that derives from his musical ability. Doddy has a fine baritone voice which resulted in a worldwide multi-million record selling career with sentimental ballads in the 1960s, when he was as famous as the Beatles, beating Liverpool’s supergroup to the top of the charts with Tears.
In spite of being a closet-intellectual and a serious student of humour, Ken left school aged 14 to work with his brother on their coal merchant father’s round. However, he revealed: ‘When I was about 12 or 14, something very wonderful happened. I found that I had been given - blessed with - a magical gift, the gift of making people laugh. I take no credit for it.”
After turning professional in 1954, by 1965 he was regularly performing at the London Palladium, earning £3,000 a week, and achieving an unsurpassed 42-week run, plus prime time television and radio shows.
These big pay packets later led to a bizarre episode in 1989 when he was charged with tax evasion, of which he was acquitted. In a headline news case which kept the country agog for three weeks, the court heard he had £336,000 in cash stashed away in suitcases around his home.
He claimed this was because of anxiety about the state of the UK economy and he told the court: “I’m a comedian, not a book-keeper.”
To which his QC, George Carman wryly added: “Some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants.”
When the judge asked the comedian what £100,000 in a suitcase felt like, Doddy couldn’t help replying: “The notes are very light, M’lud.”
Needless to say, this doubtless traumatic experience was turned into new seam of stage material for the comedian (“Self-assessment? I invented that!”).
However, he’s even wandered into fashionable hipster territory with a joke question: “I always ask a man with a beard, when you eat Shredded Wheat, how do you know when you’ve finished?”
While Sir Ken has a god-given talent to create laughter, he isn’t complacent or takes his audience for granted. He said: “I feel honour-bound to give them the best I can. That is the holy temple out there and people have paid you the greatest compliment in the world by coming to see you.”