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Ken Dodd on his tattyfalarious life

He’s seen off the taxman, inspired a new comic generation and at 80 still packs theatres. Maureen Paton meets Ken Dodd.



Ken Dodd is quietly waiting for me among the crowds on the concourse at Liverpool Lime Street station. Although the flared teeth and hair make him instantly recognisable, he cuts a surprisingly low-key figure with nothing more to protect him from his public than a large tweed overcoat. He ushers me into a cab from his neighbourhood car-hire firm, the Knotty Ash Cab Company, after introducing its well-fleshed driver with one of his reflex witticisms as “a refugee from Weight Watchers”.

With the two of us wedged into the back seat alongside a couple of Doddy’s trademark tickling sticks in a plastic bag, there’s not a stretch limo or showbusiness spin-doctor in sight for the last great survivor of his comedy generation.

At 80, he doggedly does it his way. It’s hard to stop the tangential Ken from swerving off the main conversational motorway and into slip roads of nonstop gags, delivered in that inimitable, slightly breathless gabble with nothing but a bottle of Italian lager for lubrication over lunch. “I’m a terrible gasbag,” he admits. “I enjoy being Ken Dodd. It’s a bit egotistical, but I do. It’s hard work sometimes, but I live in a rather pink and pleasant land where everybody smiles. It’s a way of life, it’s what I do. And very rarely do the British public intrude on your life,” adds Dodd, whose faith in humanity remains undented even after enduring his own stalker back in 2003 (she was eventually detained under the Mental Health Act).

A surrealist hero to many young Turks thanks to 150 live shows a year, he will be 81 on November 8. He dismisses his chronic bronchitis as “a bit of asthma”, but surgery for a strangulated hernia put a temporary stop to his gallop back in January. “I had this terrible pain in the abdomen, and the doctors said, ‘You’ll have to get it fixed unless you want to be carried out in a box.’ But I got a new routine out of that, and now I do exercises every morning – with each eyelid.”

With current UK tour dates stretching into 2009 and a charity gig next month at his favourite temple of variety, the London Palladium, Doddy insists he has no plans to hang up his tickling stick yet. But when I compare him to a veteran warhorse, he looks slightly hurt and says: “I prefer to think of myself as a racehorse in the stalls before I go on stage. I need 10 to 15 minutes to myself and then I’m away. My memory is quite good, but I can still gag my way out of it if I dry because I have lots of rehearsed ad-libs. A man only retires when he stops doing what he doesn’t want to do and starts doing what he does want to do. I’m doing what I do want to do; I’m completely and utterly stagestruck. The Palladium show is supposed to be a tribute to my 54 years in showbusiness, though I don’t like the word tribute; I prefer the idea of being celebrated by my peers.”

All his comedy heroes – Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Arthur Askey, the Crazy Gang – have, as he puts it, “strutted their stuff” at the Palladium. And it is fellow Liverpudlian Askey, who died in 1982, that he misses most. Askey, who was two decades older than Dodd, became something of a mentor. “I probably get my optimism from Arthur. I went to see him in hospital when he’d just had a leg off, and he was sat there telling me a joke about a diving team finding some of his old gag-books in the wreck of the Mary Rose.”

With the iron discipline of that music-hall heritage to live up to, Dodd is a driven thing who prides himself on trying out half a dozen new ideas in every performance and bridles at being described as the torchbearer for a vanished world of variety. “Variety is not old-fashioned, it’s mainstream comedy and that’s what I do. There’s nothing old-fashioned about laughter.”

Yet when I ask the inevitable Edith Piaf question, he shows unexpected vulnerabilities for one who likes to quote Aristotle on the definition of comedy (“a wheel with a wobble”), has lectured on and acted in Shakespeare and who appeared at the Hay Festival this summer with Salman Rushdie, Will Self and Jimmy Carter (“but not on the same night”). “I have loads and loads of regrets like everybody else. If I had my time over again, I would have got some drama-school training to learn about voice production, the portrayal of emotion; although,” he adds, “they might have ironed out some of my barmy traits, so that I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

He seems to suffer from the inferiority complex common to those who left school early by today’s standards (he was 14). Like all autodidacts, he obsessively collects books and still dreams of opening a comedy museum with his extensive archives. “I love looking into the origin of words but I’m not clever enough to have been a professor of linguistics. I would love to have been a journalist, experiencing life and then communicating it to other people; a great skill. I even got an interview with the Daily Express and would have been taken on as a cub reporter, but my dad needed me in his coal-merchant business. But then I ran away to join a panto for six weeks, and my dad ended up encouraging me because he loved the theatre. ”

Dodd has thus far resisted all entreaties for an authorised biography (two unauthorised ones exist) because he frets about making it “properly entertaining, worth reading”.

And there’s one other rather endearing regret, his only sign of vanity. Doddy damaged his teeth when he fell off his bike. “I would have loved to have got my teeth fixed, but they became my trademark. The advantage of having sticky-out teeth is you always look as if you’re smiling. The audience thinks the gags must be funny if the comedian is laughing.”

He was appointed OBE in 1982 for services to showbusiness and charity but refuses to indulge in regrets about no knighthood, even though there is an online petition, with Sir Mick Jagger among the signatories, to get him equally honoured. “Far be it from me,” he says circumspectly. “I shall wait for the call; I’m an ordinary bloke from Knotty Ash. I’m a glorified waiter, my job is to make people happy.”

Dodd, who lives in the Georgian farmhouse where he was born, turned professional in 1954 after giving up a day job as a salesman, but had already got his first laugh as a shy child of 8 with a ventriloquist’s act in a Christmas Day performance at the local St Edward’s Orphanage. “My father started telling me jokes to show how it was done. I had the most wonderful parents and all boys want to be like their fathers, so I learnt things like timing, rhythm and intonation at my dad’s knee.”

The secret of his success seems to be that he is never cynical or jaded but always keeps that sense of wonderment alive, no mean feat given the longevity of his shows. “I don’t do long shows,” he protests, “I give good value. When I first played the Palladium, there were up to 14 acts on the bill, but now there are only two or three. So you don’t want to short-change the audience.”

The small screen has never done complete justice to his wayward genius. “I do television now and again, but it’s very mechanical, bureaucratic and tabloid. The performance you want to give is being filtered through the minds of a dozen other people before you are allowed to do it, so it’s TV by committee,” he says.

He is hard to pin down in other ways, too. In the age of celebrity confessionals, Doddy has managed to stay unsullied. Two subjects that are off our lunchtime menu are his private life (he has had two longstanding fiancées, Anita Boutin – who died of a brain tumour – and the former Bluebell dancer Anne Jones, who plays the piano, guitar and flute and sings in his shows as Miss Sibby Jones) and his 1989 tax evasion trial (he was acquitted, though not before humiliating revelations in court about his ventricular tachycardia – irregular heartbeat – and his unsuccessful attempts to conceive a child with Jones).

And now he argues that the tide has turned his way. “You have to learn to keep the dark side of life in its place because it’s not right for a comedian to be sad. I have had my share of ups and downs but life’s too short to be depressed. I don’t delve into my private life, it’s very intrusive: a bit like reality TV. But can’t the media see what’s happening now? No one is watching Big Brother, they’re watching shows like Strictly Come Dancing instead. Skill, glamour, choreography – that’s what people want. They don’t want to read about the socks I’m wearing in bed.” Yet he invariably refers to the tax case in his act by introducing himself as a “failed accountant”. That, he explains, is simply to establish a rapport with the audience. “People today are all stressed out about home economics, and accountants are the current bogeymen. Comedy is very psychological, so you’ve got to dance around that a little bit.”

We go walkabout after lunch and it’s the young people in the street who spot him first and wave, which bodes well for Ken Dodd’s next ten years in showbusiness. He asks me rather wistfully if I have children before remarking: “Humour is timeless. We laugh at the same things today as in Shakespeare’s day: men, women, love, money, sex.”

 

4th October 2008