Ken Dodd: farewell to the tattifilarious marathon man of comedy

Ken Dodd: farewell to the tattifilarious marathon man of comedy

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Ken Dodd, who has died aged 90, was quite simply a master at making people happy. His shtick – childlike, cheeky, saucy; anarchic and egalitarian – was machine-tooled to disarm our cynicism, and Dodd was relentless in its application. A titter forever playing on his lips, he’d defy you to keep a straight face, to resist the silliness. Each daft joke (“My sister, she was engaged to an Eskimo. She broke it off”) was another rabbit punch to the funny bone. You’d drop your guard eventually, and he’d get you in the end with a one-liner or a flight of nutty fancy: “What a beautiful day for wearing a kilt and standing upside down in the middle of the road saying, ‘How’s that for a lampshade?’”

Dodd was most famous for his longevity – the length of his career, the 42-week span of his record-breaking run at the London Palladium in 1965, but (most of all) for the duration of his performances. It’s a curious thing for a comedian to be known for, but Dodd was a curious fellow. A genius, sort of. A force of nature, certainly. But, more than anything, he was his own man, ploughing a lone furrow in increasing defiance of age and taste.

I saw only one of his legendary live performances. It was in 2008 and I’ll never forget it, because I made the mistake of thinking I could drive from Glasgow (where I was spending Christmas) to the Liverpool gig and back in one evening. Suffice to say, I was still on the road at 3:30am. The rumours were true: Dodd’s shows were endurance tests, and you would be tested well into a fifth (or sixth) hour. “Hey, are you looking at your watch?” he would tease members of his audience. “A watch is no good for you in this show. You need a calendar. We might be finished by Tuesday.”

Ken Dodd at Darlington Civic theatre in 2015.



Dodd at Darlington Civic theatre in 2015. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Guardian

I can’t have been alone in thinking less might have been more. But interminability became the Dodd brand; his unflagging zest was a spectacle in itself. “I think he gets possessed,” marvelled Denis Norden, “like these revivalist religious groups when the power comes upon them.” For substantial sections of his shows, Dodd relinquished the stage to his so-called Diddymen – platoons of schoolchildren singing schmaltzy second world war medleys, at the gig I attended. It’s often forgotten that, alongside his comedy, Dodd was a chart-topping singer: Tears was the third-biggest-selling single of the 1960s. In classic light-entertainment tradition, he spliced his knockabout stage comedy with heartfelt balladeering. “I’ve got my tickling tackle and my knicky knocky noo,” ran one. Dodd (whose career began in the guise of Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter) created his own lexicon and imaginative landscape, peopled by diddymen wielding tattifilarious tickle sticks, by chuckle muscles, jam butty mines and titters-per-minute. You could call it a surrealist cosmology to rival Lewis Carroll or Spike Milligan. It marked Dodd out from his peers, increasingly so as the music-hall era gave way to the punk stylings of alternative comedy.

Dodd seemed to stand apart from contemporaries such as Kenneth Williams, Ronnie Barker and Frankie Howerd. He didn’t appear in the Carry On films, had little in common with the Goons, and was nowhere to be seen on ITV’s quick-fire standup show The Comedians. He’s not easily identifiable as a deliberately duff magician (like Tommy Cooper) or a slick gag man (Bob Monkhouse). He was as lowbrow as they come, but also the intellectuals’ comedian. He acted in Shakespeare, and the playwright and Dodd fan John Osborne once led a delegation of Royal Court theatre types to see him perform.

Ahoy! Dodd in Manchester in the mid-60s.



Ahoy! Dodd in Manchester in the mid-60s. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

His skills didn’t – like those of Brucie or Tarby or even Les Dawson – lend themselves to presenting TV shows. Maybe that’s because of how he looked. Those buck teeth (unconvincingly explained with reference to a cycling accident when he was young), the pop eyes, the shock hair were too startling for Dodd ever to play the everyman, the smooth host, the safe pair of hands. He looked as if he could only ever be a jester. As if comedy weren’t just his job, but his destiny.

You can catch echoes of Dodd’s style in today’s comedy scene. Pun merchants Milton Jones and Tim Vine have something of his attritional quality, while Spencer Jones displays some of his knowing childishness; and in the work of Vic and Bob, say, or the early shows of Bridget Christie, when she dressed like an ant or Charles II, a measure of Dodd’s straight-bat ridiculousness is at play. But really Dodd’s comedy was not playing to the rules we follow today. His comedy operated as a mask, whereas 21st-century comics are expected to reveal something of themselves. “I am my own double act,” Dodd once said. “There’s the private person who thinks and feels like anyone else, then there’s the performer.” Unlike with most double acts, though, the former got nowhere near the stage.

But self-revelation wasn’t the point of a Dodd performance. The humility he expressed in interviews (“I love people … The best use of our lives is to enhance other people’s lives”) seemed real: the shows weren’t about him but about the communal experience he was facilitating. He seemed to work from the assumption – not common these days – that we’re all a community, we’re all kin. And, even if we don’t feel that way to start with, laughing together will make us feel that way in the end. That he could operate on those terms well into the acrimonious teenage years of the new century is a testament to the remarkableness of the man. When the clock chimes half past midnight tonight, anyone who likes a laugh should raise a glass to the man, whom only death could finally persuade to leave the stage.



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