IT’S time to exercise your chuckle muscles – Ken Dodd is back in town.
THE arrival of Ken Dodd at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre in September could not have been better timed.
With Heritage Open Days week in full swing, and historic landmarks opening their doors to the public across the country, it was only right that a national treasure such as Ken should be on show too.
“My job is to entertain. I love every second I perform. I just can’t wait to get on the stage and make people laugh. Laughter is the greatest music in the world,” said the 83-year-old comic.
“People come to my shows wanting to be entertained and to escape the cares and worries of everyday life. I love slaving over hot audiences, and I never get tired of entertaining them.”
Ken still lives in the house where he was born – a rambling 17th century farmhouse in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash – and it was here he took his first steps along the road to stardom.
“Me, my brother Billy and sister June loved going to the theatre with our parents. The variety shows were our favourites – especially the annual pantomimes,” he recalls.
“That’s when I became stage-struck, or struck by the stage! I’ll never forget the year mum and dad bought me my own ventriloquist’s doll. It was magical!
“I christened him Charlie Brown, learned how to throw my voice, and started doing impromptu shows for all my pals. Later I had my own Punch & Judy show and entertained at charity shows.”
Despite a blossoming interest in the theatre, Ken opted to join his coal merchant father, Arthur, in the family business after leaving grammar school at 14. It was not destined to be a success.
Just a few years later he signed up as a door-to-door salesman, supplementing the money he made selling household goods to local housewives with work as a semi-professional comedian.
Finally, at the age of 26, he took the plunge and turned professional. Ken’s début came at the Nottingham Empire in September 1954, followed by a show at the Sunderland Empire in October.
“I remember being absolutely terrified before appearing at Sunderland,” he said. “My name was right at the bottom of the bill – not even as big as that of the printer!
“My dressing room was at the top of the Empire and there was a notice on the wall, saying that in 1898 a comedian had been fined by Sunderland magistrates for using vulgar language.
“I felt that the notice was an insult to proper comedians. If you don’t know what the audience wants, you shouldn’t be on stage. Humour is all about making people smile and be happy.
“I was very nervous waiting in the wings after that, but once I was on stage I started getting laughs, so I did OK. At least they didn’t boo me off!”
The audience, in fact, loved him. Within a few short years Ken was topping the bill at theatres across the country – returning time and time again to the Empire and other North East venues.
“I have a soft spot for the Sunderland Empire, probably because it was one of the first places I played. It had a reputation as a graveyard for comedians, but I always enjoyed myself,” he said.
“Northern audiences are terrific. The people up there have a wonderful sense of humour and they love their comedy to be droll. Bobby Thompson was a master of that.”
Ken’s early career saw him headline a record-breaking 42 week season at the London Palladium and, in 1965, he even knocked The Beatles from the No. 1 spot with his record Tears.
Other successes over the years include numerous Royal Variety Show appearances, TV shows such as An Audience With Ken Dodd and portraying Yorick in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet.
His services to showbusiness and charity saw him awarded an OBE in 1982 too, and he was also the first recipient of the Living Legend award from The British Comedy Society.
It is for his stage performances, however, that the creator of the legendary Diddymen remains enduringly popular – and he is absolutely discumknockerated (over the moon) to still be touring.
Amazingly, he has not stopped entertaining since turning professional, and each year the octogenarian drives more than 100,000 miles to perform to packed theatres across Britain.
“Audiences may have changed over the years, but humour hasn’t. We are still laughing today at things Shakespeare found funny – such as real-life situations,” said Ken.
“Comedy should never be over-analysed. It is either funny or it isn’t. There is a subtle difference between those who say funny things and those who say things funny.
“I think it is fashionable to misbehave and swear on stage, but people should learn to control themselves. My job is to entertain, not offend, and I want to make people happy.
“As a performer you play an audience like an instrument to get your message across. You coax, cajole and flirt, to a certain extent. There is no need to be rude or vulgar.”
Ken’s comedy heroes while growing up included Max Miller, Tommy Trinder, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Robb Wilton, Tommy Handley, Billy Bennett - “jolly chaps” who were full of fun.
But while most of his own peers – such as Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson and Bob Monkhouse – are now performing on that great stage in the sky, Ken is still a tireless showbiz trouper.
“The secret of happiness is to plant a seed and watch it grow. Some people grow a family, some people a business, career or home. When you see it bloom, it makes you happy,” he said.
“You have sad times, times when you are down, but also very good times too – which keep you going through the bad times.
“It would be very nice if there was a village or town called Nostalgia which you could visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. The present is too exciting.”
Ken has no plans, either, to hang up his famous tickling stick just yet – even though his 84th birthday is only three months away – and his non-stop Happiness Show tour just keeps trundling on.
“I’ve played practically every theatre in Britain at least twice. In my job I deal with smiling people. I’m very fortunate, as it is a lovely environment,” he said.
“Age doesn’t matter, I’m not going to retire. I am still absolutely stage struck. I love showbusiness, I love the job and I love meeting people. If my brain is capable, then while I can perform I will do.
“As long as people keep coming to my shows and laughing their heads off, then I will continue touring. It’s my love. It’s my life and I enjoy every single minute of it.”
Sidebar: Ken facts
1. Ken was born on November 8, 1927, in a 1740-built farmhouse in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash. He still lives in the family home.
2. Ken’s ‘Happiness Show’ takes him on a virtual non-stop tour of the UK – clocking up over 100,000 miles annually
3. Ken and his sister, June, had dancing lessons together and would give their parents impromptu shows in the 1930s.
4. His famous protruding teeth were caused by a childhood cycling accident.
5. In 2004 Ken celebrated his 50th Anniversary as a comedian. Early in his career he was described on show bills as: Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty – Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter.’
6. He made his Shakespearean debut as Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the PlayhouseTheatre, Liverpool, in 1971.
7. Ken created his famous Diddymen early in his career and they have featured in his stage shows, on television, in comics and even board games.
8. Characters including Dickie Mint, Mick The Marmaliser and The Hon Nigel Ponsonby Smallpiece are among the mythical Diddymen who work in the legendary Knotty Ash snuff quarries, blackpudding plantations and broken-biscuit repair works.
9. Ken became a major recording star in the 1960s with huge hits like Tears, Love Is Like A Violin’ and Happiness – which remains his signature tune today.
10. Tears is the tenth best-selling record of all time.
11. Ken is in The Guinness Book of Records for telling 1500 jokes in three-and-a-half hours.
12. Ken has his own ‘Giggle Map’ of Britain. It tells him what makes people laugh in different parts of the country.
13. His famous tickling sticks are made specially for him in Cumbria, and he gets through hundreds every year.
14. Ken has an entry in Who’s Who and was awarded the OBE in 1982 for his services to showbusiness and his tireless work for many charitable causes.
15. An Audience With Ken Dodd was his first ever video. He received a double-platinum award from the Video Retailers Association for sales in excess of £2million.
16. He has received a British Comedy Award for a Lifetime Achievement in comedy and is an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.
17. Ken made his film debut in 1997 as the non-speaking court jester Yorick in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. The cast included Sir John Gielgud, Sir John Mills, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Brian Blessed and Julie Christie.
18. In 1999 he played Mr.Mouse in a Channel 4 version of Alice In Wonderland, appearing alongside Whoopi Goldberg, Gene Wilder, Sir Donald Sinden, Miranda Richardson, Sir Peter Ustinov and Ben Kingsley.
19. In 2001 Ken was made a Freeman Of The City of Liverpool.
20. In April 2003 he was named as the Greatest Merseysider of all time. Runners-up were John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
21. In April 2011 his waxwork figure for Madame Tussauds, Blackpool, was unveiled. Ken has appeared in the famous resort every year for over 50 years.
22. Comedian Eric Sykes said of Ken: “He is a comedy genius who is so funny that he should be available on the NHS. He’s a Chippendale in a room full of MFI.”
WEARSIDE theatre enthusiast Margaret Pedersen was tickled pink the day Ken Dodd presented her with a tickling stick. Indeed, she still treasures it today.
Margaret, 80, from Grangetown, was working on the confectionery counter at the Sunderland Empire when she met the comedian more than 20 years ago.
“He was a lovely man, with lovely manners. He was just like one of us really – there was nothing stuck up about him at all. He made the audience laugh, and he made all of us laugh too,” she said.
Margaret, a former West Park Central pupil, came into contact with dozens of stars during her 16 years at the theatre – but Ken remains one of her favourites.
“I used to manage the sweet and merchandise stand, which is how I met so many stars. They used to come and visit me, to see how their merchandise was doing,” she said.
“One time Ken Dodd came up and started joking around. When I asked for his autograph, he gave me his tickling stick as well. He was very nice.
“Vera Lynn was nice too, although she would only sign a photo if you made a donation to her good cause of helping the troops. She had a proper collection plate for the money.
“But everyone was very friendly really, so much so that one of the dwarves from our Snow White and the Seven Dwarves panto invited himself to my daughter’s wedding!”
Margaret eventually left her beloved Empire in 1984 for health reasons, but still remains a devoted theatre fan.
“It is nice to hear that Ken is still touring. I still have the tickling stick he gave me all those years ago. He really is a nice man, there is nothing snobby about him at all,” she said.
“He was always one of my favourites to watch, and the audiences always loved him too. He never got above himself, he was just nice and natural.”