Last true vaudevillian had an endless desire to make people laugh

Obituary: Ken Dodd’s Liverpudlian cheek masked the melancholy of a true clown

Inventively surreal: Ken Dodd with a leopard at Bristol Zoo in 1957. Photograph: PA Wire

Inventively surreal: Ken Dodd with a leopard at Bristol Zoo in 1957. Photograph: PA Wire

 

Kenneth Arthur Dodd
Born: November 8th, 1927
D
ied: March 11th, 2018

The last great “front cloth” comic, and Britain’s last standing true vaudevillian, Ken Dodd, who has died aged 90, was even more than that: a force of nature, a whirlwind, an ambulant torrent of surreal invention, physical and verbal, whose Liverpudlian cheek masked the melancholy of an authentic clown. “This isn’t television, missus,” he’d say to the front stalls, “you can’t turn me off.” And then he would embark on an odyssey of gag-spinning that, over five hours, would beat an audience into submission, often literally, banging a huge drum and declaring that if we did not like the jokes he would follow us home and shout them through the letter box.

He had a gag for every occasion and would usually try out six new ones in each performance. He kept voluminous notebooks of jokes, and a record of how they had gone down, and where, and how long the laughter.

There was nothing improvised or on the wing, the whole routine planned with military precision. This never came across on television, where he appeared merely to be a crackpot zany.

As well as playing the London Palladium twice nightly and three times on Saturdays, Ken Dodd was on the radio, on television and cutting hit records

Dodd was one of three children of a coal merchant, Arthur Dodd, and his wife, Sarah; he continued to live in the 18th-century former farmhouse he was born in, a rundown double-fronted manse with adjoining cottages and a large garden in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash. The coal – “sex is what posh people have their coal delivered in” – was stored on the premises, and accounted for his asthmatic cough, as distinctive a characteristic as the crack in his lyrical voice.

He was known for walking backwards to Holt high school and attending dance classes with his sister, June. He left school aged 14 and, with his elder brother, Billy, humped bags of coal for his father, a part-time saxophonist and clarinettist who gave Ken his first ventriloquist’s dummy.

At the age of 19 he branched out as a self-employed salesman, knocking on doors with his own Kay-Dee brand of disinfectant while developing his ventriloquist act. He joined a juvenile concert party run by Hilda Fallon, who also “discovered” Freddie Starr and Bill Kenwright, the actor turned theatre producer, and began performing in clubs and hotels around Liverpool and Birkenhead, just across the River Mersey.

Tickling sticks: Ken Dodd in 2016. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty
Tickling sticks: Ken Dodd in 2016. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

He made his professional debut in September 1954 at the Empire theatre in Nottingham, in the English midlands. In the summer of 1955 he was on the Central Pier at Blackpool, on the Lancashire coast, north of Liverpool, and then, for eight years, in variety and pantomime in venues from Blackpool and Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, to Torquay and Bournemouth, on the south coast.

A 42-week season at the London Palladium in April 1965, Doddy’s Here, took him to the top of the pop charts (his song Tears dislodged The Beatles and stayed there for six weeks) and to the Royal Variety Performance, and won him the Variety Club’s show-business personality of the year.

Suddenly, in addition to playing the Palladium twice nightly and three times on Saturdays, he was on the radio, on television and cutting more records – he had four top-10 hits in the next few years.

He was visited backstage by the prime minister, Harold Wilson – he would report in the show that Wilson had gone into hospital to have his mac off – analytically reviewed in the New Statesman by Jonathan Miller and lionised by the “legit” theatre when John Osborne took a crowd of Royal Court actors along to see him. For once the critics had got there first; as early as 1957 John Barber had saluted “this restless loon with the wild hair and kempt voice” in the Daily Express, and there has been an unofficial critics’ fan club ever since.

Some of those Japanese shows go on for seven hours. We can do better than that!

In a way the rest of Dodd’s career was a series of adjustments to this sensational Palladium season. Increasingly, going solo in a breakaway from the variety-show format, he mined the elements of endurance in his performance and our attendance. He suspended the conventional parameters of time as daringly as Robert Wilson in the avant-garde world: “Some of those Japanese shows go on for seven hours,” he exclaimed. “We can do better than that!”

In the 1980s, his television profile fading, there were fewer summer shows and pantos, and many more one-night stands (“One night is all they can stand”). A cloud crossed over at the end of the decade when he faced charges of cheating on his taxes and of false accounting. He was acquitted after a five-week trial, but the humiliation in his home city, where his grandmother had been Liverpool’s first woman magistrate, was hard to bear.

The image of a man who had never psychologically separated from his parents in order to become an adult, and one who was innately stingy and kept his money in shoeboxes under the bed – “I like to collect pictures of the queen” – as well as in offshore accounts, was initially tragic.

He was a deeply private man, which is why the two court cases hurt him so much. There was no luxury lifestyle, and he usually drove home in the small hours after each show, wherever he was in the country, to save on hotel bills. He had two successive fiancees: Anita Boutin, a nurse, from 1955 until her death from a brain tumour, in 1977; and Anne Jones, who survives him, a former Bluebell Girls dancer who often appeared in his shows as “Sybie Jones”, playing the piano and singing, between running his affairs and stage management.

He married Jones two days before he died, once he had returned to the Knotty Ash home where he had been born, after spending 10 weeks in hospital with a chest infection. – Guardian