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Mean genius of comedy

Alexander Larman on Happiness and Tears: The Ken Dodd Story by Louis Barfe

Books

By his tickle stick shall ye know him. In the annals of twentieth-century comedy, there was no other figure quite like Kenneth Arthur Dodd, a man whose persona went hand in glove with his inimitable appearance. A great shock of hair sticking up as if he had received a potent electric shock; two enormous, protruding, buck teeth, comic and vaguely sinister at the same time; and, of course, his tickling stick, forever held priapically aloft.

Doddy, as he was popularly known, wore several hats throughout his career with a remarkable degree of success. As a comedian, he played to millions over half a century, including a record-breaking 35-week run at the London Palladium, but he also had a hugely lucrative sideline as a recording artist with many hits, most notably “Happiness” and “Tears”. The latter outsold his fellow Liverpudlians The Beatles to become Britain’s bestselling record of 1965.

Happiness and Tears: The Ken Dodd Story
by Louis Barfe,
Apollo, £20

He also achieved notable, if fleeting, success, as an actor, particularly with an acclaimed appearance as Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1971. Images from the production show Dodd “cross gaitered, in yellow stockings”, as the play demanded, but it is his expression — withering disdain mixed with giddy excitement — that suggests that his interpretation would have been one for the annals.

Yet it is as a clown that Dodd remains most interesting. He was a noted scholar and historian of comedy, spending his youth in the Picton Reference Library in Liverpool where he immersed himself in the work of P.G. Wodehouse and James Thurber. He followed not just the music-hall tradition popularised by the likes of Arthur Askey, Max Miller or Dan Leno before them, but in the footsteps of Shakespeare’s great clown, William Kempe, andr his eighteenth-century successor Ned Shuter.

When he rose to prominence in the Fifties and Sixties, his whole persona and routine were wildly out of kilter with his peers, with his material elevated to greatness by his energy and sheer oddness. He created an outrageous, outsized character and would play five-hour shows until well into his eighties. When he died in March 2018 the comedian Gary Delaney quipped that his funeral would be held on “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and most of Saturday”.

Louis Barfe’s new biography of Dodd is the first to have been published since his death, following Stephen Griffin’s 2005 life. It has a striking cover, depicting an aged Dodd in uncharacteristically melancholy pose, and the title gives rise to hopes that this will be a revisionist account, looking at the darker and more troubled side of Dodd’s existence. Such hopes are not to be realised. In his introduction, Barfe makes his intentions clear: “Happiness was his default setting . . . [he was] a self-described optimist . . . the tears were rarer than the sunny hours, and were always related to loss.” There is nothing wrong with a highly positive account of a great man’s life, but there is a dispiriting lack of balance and wider critical judgment here. Barfe has come, unashamedly, to praise Dodd, not to bury him.

Not that there isn’t a wide amount of fascinating material here, skilfully marshalled by Barfe with the invaluable assistance of the BBC Written Archives Centre. Dodd was born in 1927 in the unprepossessing but inimitably named Knotty Ash, a Liverpudlian suburb that achieved reluctant fame when Dodd was young for housing “the hermit of Knotty Ash”, an ex-soldier named Paddy.

The title suggests this will be a revisionist account, looking at the darker and more troubled side of Dodd’s existence. Such hopes are not to be realised.

The comedian began as a child ventriloquist, charging neighbourhood boys and girls cigarette cards to see him perform, but his greatest influence was his coal merchant father, who he confessed, on Desert Island Discs, was his major source of inspiration.

Unlike so many of his peers, Dodd enjoyed a happy, stable, lower-middle-class childhood, despite the unfortunate bicycle accident that led to him inheriting “the most famous set of wayward choppers in show business”. When he wasn’t ventriloquising or immersing himself in great comic writing — his favourite was The Wind in the Willows — he set about creating a surreal world, full of characters such as Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, operatic tenor and sausage knotter, and one that would later encompass his best-known characters, the Diddymen, whose influence on the nomenclature of various American rappers has surely been entirely coincidental.

His rise to success and fame, as depicted here, was rapid and untroubled. As early as 1952, he was inundated with fan mail, and an early review in the Manchester Guardian applauded how “the trammels of gentility still cling to the splendid madness of the down-at-heel comic figure created by Ken Dodd . . . Mr Dodd has that glorious gift of comic insanity which is given only to the few”.

At a time when pantomime was the dominant form of comic entertainment (the most popular would drag on until June), Dodd was able to establish himself as a popular solo act. He even survived the Glasgow Empire, a notoriously unforgiving place for English comedians, where Des O’Connor feigned illness to escape the stage and where Mike and Bernie Winters were greeted with the cry, “Fuck, there’s two of them!” Dodd got off lightly, claiming an audience member shouted “Christ, what a horrible sight!” and then collapsed.

Although one uncomprehending early booking agent described him as “a mess, with hair sticking up like a fright wig and a dress suit stolen off a scarecrow” who would do “a bit of nonsense with a big bass drum”, his audiences greeted him with joy. He carefully monitored their enthusiasm; his then girlfriend sat in the audience grading responses to jokes in his “giggle map of Britain”, from “VG” to “what happened to that one?”. His material was surreal rather than sexual, preferring tomfoolery and gentle innuendo — the tickling stick remained at half mast — and tended to avoid the trickier subjects of “death, religion and coloured people”, at least until the Seventies, when a momentarily distracted Dodd briefly introduced more racial humour into his act.

By then, he had already been established as a comic legend. Underneath the kookiness and lunacy was a calm, measured mind. He studied Gestalt psychology as a means of controlling others, on and offstage, and had a particular interest in the history of humour, even lecturing on it at the RSC, an incident unfortunately omitted from this book. The only major criticism that Barfe, or any of Dodd’s friends, have of him was that he was painfully tight with money; Max Wall called him “mind-numbingly mean, even by comedians’ standards”, and he lost his most talented writer Eddie Braben through his refusal to pay him properly. Dodd’s loss was Morecambe and Wise’s gain.

It was his grasping attitude towards his finances that nearly led to his downfall, the notorious trial in 1989 that saw him up on charges of tax evasion. He was defended by the legendary George Carman, who coined the great phrase that “accountants can be comedians but comedians are never accountants”, and prosecuted by Brian Leveson, later of phone-hacking fame. He was acquitted, although he repaid the Inland Revenue nearly £1 million. Barfe makes curiously heavy weather of this incident, which was rich in both drama and comedy; when Dodd, cross-examined on the stand, was asked by the judge, “What does £100,000 in cash feel like?”, he replied, with perfect timing, “The notes are very light, m’lud.”

Barfe’s book uses some new interviews with friends and showbusiness acquaintances of Dodd well, especially Ashtar Al Khirsan who directed an Arena special about him in 2007 and elicited the off-screen confession that “I’m afraid of women and obsessed by money.” The latter is borne out here, but the former is barely touched on. Yet this is not intended to be a penetrating examination of a brilliant and unique talent, but a celebration of a hugely popular man.

To this end, the book’s slim length is complemented — some might say padded out — by a 100-page “Doddology”, an exhaustive listing of every TV and radio programme he appeared on, and the variety shows he graced in his heyday. Barfe concludes that “[Dodd] was a man of complexity who maintained a simple life . . . there was no dark side”, a statement open to challenge. But this is nonetheless an accomplished and readable account of a great comic’s largely happy life and rib-tickling times.

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