Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Sir Kenneth Arthur Dodd, 8 November 1927 - 11 March 2018
Ken Dodd was a variety show performer who brought a rare brand of surreal comedy to the stage, screen and charts. Visually original, comically unique he was famed for his epic, gag bound, non-stop performances and extraordinary 60 year career.
Kenneth was born 8 November 1927 in Knotty Ash, Liverpool, Lancashire the town he would loyally live and die in. A town filled with "jam butty mines" and "black pudding plantations" as he later described in his show. He would walk backwards to the Knotty Ash School, and sang in the local church choir of St John's Church. One day he was struck by an advert in a comic: "Fool your teachers, amaze your friends—send 6d in stamps and become a ventriloquist!" it was his calling. Noticing his interest, his Father a part-time saxophonist and clarinetist, bought him his first ventriloquist dummy “my Father knew I was going to be a comedian, when I was born he said ‘is this a joke!” The genesis was not quite complete, a school friend goaded him with the irresistible dare of riding his bike with his eyes closed. The resultant accident left him permanently disfigured, his buck teeth becoming synonymous with his cheeky humour and unkempt hair “I’m a sex symbol for women who don’t care.” He’d later exaggerate this with his extraordinary stage wardrobe including a floor-length red Diddyman coat made from “28 moggies – all toms.”
He left school aged 14 and hefted bags of coal around his neighbourhood with his Father and Brother. At 19 he became a door-to-door salesman, polishing his patter with the banter proficient folk of the Liverpool terraced street scene. He joined a juvenile concert party head by Hilda Fallon who later discovered Freddie Starr and Bill Kenwright and began performing in clubs around Liverpool and Birkenhead.
Dodd debuted as ‘Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, operatic tenor and sausage knotter’ at the Empire Theatre, Nottingham in 1954. In 1955 he was on the Central Pier at Blackpool, then for eight years, in variety and pantomime in venues from Blackpool and Great Yarmouth to Torquay and Bournemouth treading the same boards as the similarly energetic Bruce Forsyth.
‘Doddy’s Here’ a 42-week season at the London Palladium in 1965, saw him at the top of the charts with Tears which knocked the Beatles off the top spot and stayed there for six weeks. It became the third biggest seller of the 1960’s and was the only non-Beatles song in the top 5 at the time, not bad for a Sausage knotter from Liverpool.
The tireless work ethic that characterised this generation saw him playing the Palladium twice nightly and three times on Saturdays, if you didn’t go to the show he was on the radio, on television and in the 25th hour of each day recording, he had four top 10 hits in the following years.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the unstoppable force of Dodd would begin to slow. With fewer summer shows and pantos, his TV presence dwindled and he focused on the theatre with his one-night stands, “One night is all they can stand.” His career and personal life took a knock in 1989 when he was accused of tax evasion by the Inland Revenue. It was discovered he had very little money in his bank account, but 336,000 stored in suitcases in his attic. He was represented by George Carman QC who was apparently affected by Dodd’s humour, famously quipping “some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants.” He was acquitted, but the experience had a huge impact on the intensely private Dodd. The humiliation in his hometown was hard to bare, coming from an honest working class background where he sourced much of his material, his humour was flavoured with common salt and the trust in the bond with his audience had been damaged.
However, he bounced back, processing the situation the only way he knew how, with comedy “income tax was invented 200 years ago, at two pence in the pound. My trouble was I thought it still was … so I’ve had problems, but nothing compared to those of the trapeze artist with loose bowels.” The public laughed away their condemnation, Dodd reminded them he was a hard worker and continued to extract a laugh from the most resilient of audiences.
In 2001, he was gifted Freedom of the City of Liverpool and then voted the greatest Merseysider on a local radio poll. In 2009 his statue, complete with tickling stick was cast in bronze at Lime Street station.
Dodd was a national treasure, a relic of a by-gone variety show era. His persistence and hardwork, his dedication to the audience and above all his joyful pursuit of a laugh from every person in the room elevated him above the younger generations of comedians that dominated the TV in his later years. “Alternative comedy is where you’re supposed to laugh at every other joke. I’m not in the top 100 lists any more. In the last one, Dale Winton and Julian Clary were ahead of me. Mind you, I’m glad they weren’t behind me!”
His shows would go on for five hours or more “at least it’s always light when you leave” and he would parade the aisles banging a drum should anyone not share his stamina. “Some of those Japanese shows go on for seven hours,” he challenged “we can do better than that!”
The Diddyman with the tickling duster and a gag for every occasion will be sorely missed. Much like his topsy-turvy, upside-down act, a suitable send off for ‘Ken Dodd – the different comedian’ may be an introduction “First things First, let me introduce myself ladies and gentlemen. I am Kenneth Arthur Dodd, artist, model and failed accountant.”