Why Ken Dodd has no plans to hang up his tickling stick
Ken Dodd describes what it is that makes him love showbusiness
At the age of 82, veteran funny man Ken Dodd has no plans to hang up his tickling stick, he tells Newsnight's Culture correspondent, Stephen Smith.
He hung out with the Beatles, and his gigs sold out night after night. He shifted millions of records - only the Fab Four themselves had bigger hits in the 60s - and his trademark riffs have been pored over by critics and envious fellow artists alike.
Dodd is the Chuck Berry of comedy, a cussed and self-made pioneer who, at 82, refuses to lie down - indeed, he is still playing to full houses up and down the country, as many as three or four nights a week.
But following unwelcome brushes with the media and the law, he is only heard from when he's on a stage.
He is "the master of the perfectly crafted joke," said Clive James recently, and one national broadsheet came away from Dodd's show in Blackpool this summer calling him "magnificently intelligent".
A working act
The comedian with teeth like a condemned piano, whose hairstyle suggests an unhappy encounter between Amy Winehouse and the national grid, is the last funny man standing in a tradition that once took in such cherished household names as Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Les Dawson.
But as far as Dodd himself is concerned, he is very much a working act.
"People ask me to name my favourite theatre. I always say 'the next one'," he tells me.
Everyone is born with a 'play' gear, a part that is playful. But sadly, lots of people lose that due to stress. Comedians don't. They still want to play
As in the case of Chuck Berry, getting an interview with Ken Dodd is vanishingly difficult. I once tracked down the legendary duck-walking guitarist to a speakeasy outside St Louis.
Why don't you speak to journalists, I ask.
"Why should I? I don't need to," replies the cow-licked veteran.
Chuck's answer was word for word the same one I got from Dodd, when we finally met amid the faded plush of the Royal Court Theatre in his hometown.
Of course, comparisons between the two octogenarian troupers can be taken too far. Berry's storied rap sheet includes transporting a minor across state lines, whereas the worse that can be said of Dodd is that his eccentric financial arrangements led to charges of tax evasion in 1989, of which he was acquitted.
But there's little doubt that the court case was an enormous strain on the comedian, though not, on the face of it, bad for business. Dodd went on to play the London Palladium from Easter to Christmas the following year. He holds the record for the longest comedy season there, with a residency of an astonishing 42 weeks, posted back in 1965.
'I'm good value'
Nonetheless, it was thanks to his experience in the proving grounds of the halls, a constant regime of "two shows a night, three on Saturdays", that Dodd was able to develop what he would call the "chuckle muscle" to sustain his marathon turns.
Even today, he is infamous for going on so long that dawn is all but breaking as the house lights finally come up.
I'm not a brave person, but somewhere inside me is a piece of steel saying 'you can do it: do it!
"I give good value. It's like a party, I'm having a ball. And anyway, the doors aren't locked," he jests.
Of making people happy, he enthuses: "It's exciting, it's thrilling. It's powerful."
Asked if he feels his audience's love, he responds: "Oh yes, a lot of affection. You've got two thousand people there, it's a good feeling."
Surprisingly, Dodd has little truck with what comedians call "funny bones", the idea that some performers are born with a gift for gags.
"People aren't naturally funny, you develop it," he explains. "A sense of humour is seeing the funny side of a topic: how would it look if it was upside down?
"I compare it to cars, everyone is born with a 'play' gear, a part that is playful. But sadly, lots of people lose that due to stress. Comedians don't. They still want to play."
Dodd put in long hours of practice in order to engage his play gear optimally, consulting library books on humour and amassing a private library running to some 50,000 volumes.
But what happens if the jokes don't come one night, if the gearstick is rusty?
"Every part is tingling with anticipation or fear," he admits. "You know you have to do it because you said you could do it. I'm not a brave person, but somewhere inside me is a piece of steel saying 'you can do it: do it!'"
So, how does he feel about current comedians?
Dodd's career has spanned decades
"Oh, you shouldn't have currants in your comedians," quips Dodd. "That is a typical journalist's question."
In fact, Dodd's view is that there's a fork in the road of comedy, or rather a deviation from the true path.
"There's the mainstream - we have some wonderful new comics here on Merseyside - but they can't get on television. Why? I don't know.
"The powers that be don't want to put them on. Then we have alternative comics - their material is based on things in the bottom half of their trousers, it's not quite the thing."
Of course, Dodd will always have his records - including his platinum ones - as well as his memories of working with everyone from "Kenneth Branflake" (Kenneth Branagh) in Hamlet, to the mighty Mop Tops.
"The Beatles were on one of my shows before they went pro," he recalls. "Four lads, one was playing a packing case. I didn't really get it myself."
But then again Dodd isn't one for resting on his laurels.
"A man retires when he stops doing what he doesn't want to do and does what he wants to do. I'm doing what I love doing," he explains. "I love showbiz. I love hearing laughter. I'm completely and utterly stagestruck."
One final question: why did he grant a rare interview?
"Because you people in the news are too pessimistic. I thought you needed cheering up," he jokes.
"I got a scholarship as a kid. My best subject was English so I went for a job with the Express. I could make tea, and I'm willing to learn how to swear, so I thought I'd be a good journalist."
Watch Stephen Smith's full interview with Ken Dodd on Friday, 24 September 2010 and afterwards on the Newsnight website.
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