Tuesday 22 January 2019

Tatty-bye Ken Dodd, a man with laughter in his veins

The Scouse comedian, who died last week, was utterly crackers - and everyone except the taxman loved him, writes Barry Egan

BUCK-TOOTHED GRIN: Ken Dodd with his waxwork at Madame Tussaud's in London.
BUCK-TOOTHED GRIN: Ken Dodd with his waxwork at Madame Tussaud's in London.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Charlie Chaplin once said that all he needed to "make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl". Ken Dodd didn't need that much to make comedy.

In a speech about Shakespeare's comedy at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2005, Dodd, the Bard of Knotty Ash, said: "It's about men and women and thingy, you know, sex, and kings and queens and politicians and bishops. It's all the same.

"Mind you he wasn't a gag man, William. Me - I'm an eyes and teeth man," he said with a smile.

In 1965, John Osborne, directing at the Royal Court when Dodd was packing out the London Palladium twice nightly for 42 weeks, took the company to see the young eyes and teeth man, the king of tattyfilarious comedy.

"We all went away exhilarated," recalled Osborne, "by this incredible phenomenon of human invention and overwhelming energy".

Eric Sykes believed that Dodd "should be available on the NHS".

When Harold Wilson went to a show in the mid 1960s, Dodd joked that the UK leader had gone into hospital "to have his mac off".

Another British PM, Margaret Thatcher, once described Dodd as her favourite comic. (A feeling reciprocated by Dodd who was a staunch Conservative all his life.)

In 1974, Dodd went into the Guinness Book of Records for telling jokes at the Royal Court Liverpool non-stop for three hours, 30 minutes and six seconds. This was from the coal merchant, Arthur Dodd's son who made his professional debut as Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter, in Nottingham's the Empire Theatre in 1954. Ken remembered: "At least they didn't boo me off."

Dodd also recalled pulling up at The Empire Theatre in a taxi and seeing he was bottom of the bill on the posters. "I think the printer's name was bigger than mine," he laughed.

Not so funny, however, was his accommodation...

"You've seen theatrical digs in films, where all the artists and actors get round a table and are looked after by a plump lady called Ma... well, it was not a bit like that.

"In those days Nottingham was in the throes of being rebuilt and anywhere there was a bed it was taken by bricklayers, plasterers... you couldn't get in anywhere," added Dodd who eventually found a hotel that "catered for commercial travellers, who would get up at six in the morning so as to get on the road.

"To get any breakfast I'd have to get up with them. Then they'd want you out to do the hoovering and remake the beds. So I'd wander down to the theatre arriving at about eight o'clock."

Dodd had, he recalled, "the typical Empire dressing room right at the very top of the building"; "with the regulation three-legged chair and a dish of mouse pounder in the corner. I used to stretch out on the dressing table and go to sleep. I could hear the cleaners outside the room, saying 'This fella's crackers'."

That fella was indeed crackers but we loved him.

Dodd used to ask the audience at the end of all his shows: "Give in?" Then, on cue: "Don't worry, I know where you all live. I'll follow you home, and shout jokes through your letterbox!"

A surreal "front-cloth" comic, Dodd had tickling sticks, Diddy Men (inspired by his own Uncle Jack) and catchphrases like "by jove missus" and "how tickled I am". ("How tickled I am, under the circumstances. Hello, missus") - cue Dodd producing his famous tickling stick - "have you ever been tickled under the circumstances?")

Dodd also used words that wouldn't have been out of place in Finnegans Wake - "tattyfilarious", "discomknockerated", "goolified", "nikky-nokky-noo" and "tatty-bye".

He said his final tatty-bye last Sunday when he died in the home where he was born more than 90 years before. His partner of 40 years, Anne Jones, was at Dodd's bedside. (His previous partner Anita Boutin, who Dodd had been engaged to for 22 years, died from cancer in 1977.)

Dodd had spent six weeks in the Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital with a chest infection and was allowed home three weeks ago. He performed his last show at The Auditorium in the Liverpool Echo Arena on December 28.

His raison d'etre with comedy was to make the audience happy. "My job is to send people away from the theatre feeling better than when they came in. We all know there's plenty of misery in the world but that doesn't mean it's a miserable place," said the Bard of Knotty Ash, a village on the edge of Liverpool where he was born Kenneth Arthur Dodd on November 8, 1927.

In his coloured suits and his trademark buck-toothed grin (courtesy of a cycling accident as a child apparently; there was another story that he cycled onstage and it ended badly), Dodd would delight in the surreal and the ordinary.

"How many men does it take to change a toilet roll? I don't know. It's never been done." He would turn things upside down "to see what's underneath". What was underneath with Dodd was a philosophical man, profoundly different, if not at odds, to his public persona of a grinning loon. He once said he could "sum up" his private side in one word: "Thinking."

"As you go through life," Dodd went on, "you're given this wonderful brain to think with. Everybody wants to know the meaning of life. Where we've come from, where we're going to, what we do while we're here. Yeah, there's a lot of philosopher in every person's private life."

They called him the last star comedian from the variety era - continuing the music-hall tradition of the likes of Arthur Askey and Max Miller. Of the latter, Dodd said, intriguingly: "The grand-daddy of all front-cloth comics, Max didn't tell filthy gags, no matter what you may have heard. It was bawdy, yes, it could be spicy stuff, but you must remember there was a Watch Committee in every town. They used to sit in on a Monday, and if they didn't like what they heard, there was no show."

Even though Dodd wasn't smutty, nor was he remotely politically correct.

"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!"

"I knew there'd be war because I drove past Vera Lynn's house and heard gargling," was a typical (if there is such a thing as typical in his comedy) Dodd joke. Others that might have had you laughing out loud include...

"Do I believe in safe sex? Of course I do. I have a handrail around the bed."

"I think I've only had one day off in my entire career - and that was for suspected pneumonia. I was back on stage the next night with a mustard patch on my chest. The doctor insisted that I wore it, but all the stage hands kept rubbing their ham sandwiches on it, so it had to go!"

"I haven't spoken to my mother-in-law for 18 months. I don't like to interrupt her."

Despite the mother-in-law jokes, Dodd married his long-term partner Anne Jones two days before he died. (They met when Jones was in the Ken Dodd Christmas Show in 1961 at the Manchester Opera House.) Some claimed that the marriage was the comedian getting the last laugh on the British taxman, because by marrying Jones she would be avoiding huge inheritance bills on his estate.

He had an infamous run-in with the UK taxman in 1989 when his unconventional tax affairs ended up in court, resulting in Dodd being shown to be somewhat of an unconventional character who had £336,000 in cash hidden in wardrobes, cupboards, under the stairs and up in the attic. (But really, why would anyone be surprised at his eccentricity when they'd seen his act on stage for the previous few decades?)

Dodd was asked why he had £336,000 stashed all over his house.

"I know it is old-fashioned and eccentric," Dodd answered, "but I liked having my savings there. It proved to me that I have played the Palladium, that I was someone".

Despite being a multi-millionaire, Dodd said he lived on £3,500 a year and did not take a holiday until he was in his 50s. (Dodd's defence counsel George Carman QC told the judge: "Some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants.")

As for his 20 or so off-shore accounts, Dodd said that he particularly liked flying to banks in Jersey and the Isle of Man because it was "pleasant to meet the staff in all the different establishments".

Equally, it was always pleasant to see Dodd. Michael Billington, The Guardian's theatre critic, once compared him to Laurence Olivier: "Like Olivier, Dodd works in another dimension which takes you beyond the explicable, and that is a sign of genius. They create their own aura, and their own atmosphere. Dodd may play four nights a week but each show is an event, just as an Olivier night was different to all others."

Last week Paul McCartney tweeted a picture of Dodd with the Beatles and his final salutation. "Farewell to my fellow Liverpudlian the tattyfilarious Ken Dodd."

To which we can only add, tatty-bye.

Sunday Independent

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