“A fabulous old theatre full to bursting, heavy with the smell of cigar smoke and orange peel, and the heavy, scarlet red curtains…”
This was the description I recently heard Ken Dodd give of the night that made him want to be a comedian. He talked about the variety acts of jugglers and dancers but what caught his eye most was the ‘men in ill-fitting suits’ who stood on stage with just a microphone. The comedians. He knew from that night on that making people laugh was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Many years later, I am sitting in a similar old theatre, minus the cigar smoke that no longer clung to the heavy velvet curtains, watching the man himself. This is my earliest memory of comedy. I don’t remember much of the show, the punchlines lost in the mists of my childhood, but I do remember laughing. Laughing like I never had before. When I think about it, I think that this was the moment that began my obsession with comedy.
Since then I have seen Ken Dodd live more times than I can count. I’ve no idea how many shows, even less so how many hours. Ken was famous for his marathon gigs, his shows running to over five hours even when he was well into his 80s.
What set Ken apart was the way in which he didn’t just tell jokes but created an entire comedy world. He has famously said that he considered his shows to be not one man shows but two-handers, between him and the audience. It was this warmth that maintained a loyal following throughout his career.
It is impossible to explain in a few lines why Ken Dodd was so good or how much inspiration and support he has given to aspiring comedians and comedy writers over the years. The fact that he himself was a student of comedy throughout his life, still reading and researching it to near the end despite having scaled the highest heights of his profession, should stand as a beacon to any new performer who wants to know what it takes to make it. When I myself once asked him for advice, it was graciously given. The many eulogies and tributes from the great and the good stand as testament to the fact he was a nice man as well as a funny one.
As well as selling out a run at the London Palladium which spanned from Easter to Christmas in 1965, he was a hit singer, with his single Tears being the third best-selling song of the 60s, beaten only by two records by The Beatles. With his passing we lose a giant of comedy, a true star and the last link to the music hall tradition. How tickled we were to share his world for a while. Tatty bye, Doddy. Thank you for the laughs.
By Paul Barrow