Kenneth Arthur Dodd Comedian, singer, "artist's model and failed accountant" b. 8 November 1927, d. 11 March 2018
Let one thing be understood. Ken Dodd was not an entertainer.
He was an avatar of avid amusement, a god of galloping goofiness, a personification of the purest pandemonium.
He was a force of nature.
Anyone who attended the theatre performances he was still giving with gusto (that's like Bisto only it gives you wind) into his ninety-first year could attest to the sense of being possessed by a harmless form of hysteria as Ken Dodd reeled off joke after pun after rambunctious silliness after surreal flight of fancy for two, three, four hours or more (the length of his performances was legendary; he always said that, with his shows, at least you always went home in daylight).
And yet, for all that, there was no sense of tyranny in it; for what he wanted more than anything else was to carry the audience on his back as he soared into the empyrean of sheer, glorious lunacy. He wanted to take us to a state in which we could forget our quotidian troubles and be immersed in the experience of joyful laughter (perhaps the most divine of emotions). Unlike other consummate comedic technicians such as Bob Monkhouse (who had his defenders too, me amongst them), there was no feeling of calculation about Doddy.
There was a strong element of calculation, of course; like Monkhouse, Ken Dodd was a craftsman of humour, always noting which jokes went down well, where and when. But such was the sheer innocent exuberance of his performance that cynical thoughts never had a chance of entering the mind of the recipient. You just sat back and let him take you wherever he would, knowing that it would be a good place to be.
For all the attention focused on his goofiness (and with a physiognomy like his, only 'goofy' could ever be the mot juste), there was a cleverness, too. He was very well-read, and used the knowledge gained to sharpen and direct his craft, in addition to providing jokes which were surprisingly erudite for someone from a background in the last days of the music halls. For instance:
"I just read a book about Stockholm Syndrome - it started off badly but by the end I really liked it."
Then there were the surreally inverted concepts and images he could conjure up, such as:
"If you bang two halves of a horse together, it doesn't make the sound of a coconut."
There was the playfulness with words and language, in which category can be included the first really jaw-dropping word-play joke I ever heard (although my father had softened me up for it over some years). I was no more than eight years old when, watching one of Dodd's Saturday night shows on BBC 1, he described part of a shopping trip thus:
"So I went into one of our departmental stores, named after the man who invented them, Mr. Dee, who was part mental."
But there was also the sheer silliness of the words which he himself invented, once stating that it was a reaction to - and rebellion against - the constraints of language which led him to create terms such as 'tattifilarious', 'plumptiousness' and 'nicky-nacky-noo'.
And throughout all this, through a professional career which endured for over six decades, the humour was never coarse. It was often cheeky, especially when preceded by one of his formulaic set-up lines, such as, "How tickled I am...", and "What a beautiful day for...", viz.:
"How tickled I am under the circumstances. Have you ever been tickled under the circumstances, missus?"
"What a beautiful day for shoving a cucumber through someone's letter-box and shouting, "The Martians are coming!"."
But of overt crudity there was none. Though the fashions of comedy - and what was deemed permissible within them - changed enormously during his career, he never felt the need to follow them, preferring instead to continue with his air of almost child-like innocence. Indeed, it may well have been that attribute which, when he was hauled before the courts accused of tax fraud in the late 1980s (the only whiff of scandal there ever was about Ken Dodd, certainly compared to some others of his showbiz generation), served to convince the jury that he was incapable of the degree of guile which the prosecution sought to attribute to him. It was certainly one of the very rare occasions where, faced with a celebrity in the dock, most of the country held its collective breath and prayed for an acquittal.
Curiously, the court case revived his career (although 'revived' is a relative term here; he never really went out of fashion), and he used it as a hook upon which to hang self-deprecating remarks such as the one quoted at the top of this piece, and his final - and still, remember, very active - years were spent as that frequently-damning phenomenon, The National Treasure. For he was the very last of his kind, the last defiant remnant of the music-hall tradition.
And Liverpool, the city of his birth, the place he never left, the wellspring and inspiration for his zanyness, has lost one of its greatest sons. Let tickling-sticks be hung from the branches of the Knotty Ash in his memory.
Let us end with the most fitting song of the many he recorded with his able tenor voice (often with a note of the tearful, the only time he overtly approached Pagliacci territory). For happiness, and the giving of it to others, was his gift, his craft, his métier, and that is what truly counted.