So often when an older legend dies, they say, “he/she was the last of the greats,” but this time I think it really is as we say goodbye to the comic hero Ken Dodd.
Ken was born in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash and spent his entire life in the same house. At the age of 14 he left school and he, and his brother, went to work is father’s business where they carried Arley cobbles around fir six years. In his spare time he began developing comedy routines and became testing them out at the local working men’s clubs and came up with the odd moniker of Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, operatic tenor and sausage knotter, an expression he used right to the end.
His comedy delivery was fast and furious and, like Bob Monkhouse, had a one-line answer for everything. He was famous for his buckteeth, wild hair, tickling stick, the Diddymen and classic nonsense words like tattifilarious and plumptiousness. He even gave the radio and television presenter David Hamilton the nickname Diddy.
He made his professional debut in 1956 when he topped the bill in Blackpool and like many old time entertainers of the day, they often had a musical interlude to their shows and where people like Les Dawson and Bruce Forsyth would play the piano brilliantly, or in Les Dawson’s case badly brilliantly, Ken would singer and he was a classical trained singer with a brilliant voice. He charted 18 UK top 40 hits, the first being Love Is Like a Violin in 1960 which reached number eight. In October 1965 he topped the chart with Tears a song first recorded by Sam Ash in 1919. It went on to be the biggest-selling single of 1965 and the second best-selling single of the sixties after the Beatles’ She Loves You. His 1964 hit Happiness became synonymous with Ken and most night closed his show with that song. That song was written and first recorded by the country singer Bill Anderson who I am interviewing next week for a Single of the Week.
His live shows were legendary for their length, often saying he want to give his audience as much as possible. One of his standard routines included a member of the venue’s staff coming on halfway through and throwing Ken a set of keys saying, “Lock up and switch the lights off when you leave.” When I saw Ken in Lewisham in March 2001, I came away with an aching belly and it was nearly midnight.
He had numerous BBC shows including The Ken Dodd Show and Ken Dodd’s Laughter Show, and, in 1965, had the longest-ever run at the London Palladium at 42 weeks. He also entered the Guinness Book of Records for the longest joke-telling session ever – 1,500 jokes in three-and-a-half hours until it was superseded by Tim Vine.
Ken had never married and had always guarded his private life, but in 1989 he had to endure five weeks at Liverpool Crown Court for tax fraud of which he was eventually acquitted. He told court, “I am not mean, but I am nervous of money, nervous of having it, nervous of not having it,” and explained how money was a measure of success. “It’s important to me only because I have nothing else”. Since the nineties he often joked about the ordeal and regularly opened his shows with the words, “Good evening, my name is Kenneth Arthur Dodd; singer, photographic playboy and failed accountant.”
He was awarded an OBE in 1982 and in 2017 the comic was made a knight by Prince William in honour of his decades-long showbiz career and charity work. In January 2018 he was admitted to hospital with a chest infection and released at the beginning of March. Ken’s publicist, Robert Holmes, said, “Ken asked Anne Jones, his partner of 40 years if she wanted to marry. They got the registrar and were married in the house on Friday.” But Ken died two days later on Mother’s Day at the age of 90. Lady Anne Dodd said, “I’ve lost the most wonderful husband and it’s been a privilege to work and live with him for the past 40 years. The world has lost a life-enhancing and brilliant comedian with an operatically trained voice who just wanted to make people happy.”
Ken Dodd’s philosophy was simple, he once said, “Laughter is the greatest music in the world and audiences come to my shows to escape the cares of life. They don’t want to be embarrassed or insulted. They want to laugh and so do I – which is probably why it works.”