Ken Dodd Interview

 

Liverpool, Laughter and Lunacy

Ken Dodd looks back at his extraordinary career and reflects on the nature of comedy, in an article originally published in the 2014 edition of The Merseysider magazine

‘I think there’s a bit of anarchy in every comedian. We want to turn the world upside down, but only so we can see what it looks like.’

It’s the eve of Ken Dodd’s 86th birthday, and I’m interviewing him at the opening of a new exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. By Jove! It’s Ken Dodd! brought together a large selection of photos taken by Stephen Shakeshaft, a former Liverpool Echo picture editor who’s been photographing the comedian for over 50 years.

Stephen’s at the opening as well, and he remembers taking his first picture of Ken when he was a 17 year old Echo trainee. ‘He had a Christmas show coming up at the Royal Court and I was sent to Williamson Square to get some shots. The Union Cold Store was there then and I photographed him holding a couple of turkeys. He was the first celebrity I’d met so I was very nervous, but he was really natural and easy-going – and still is: one of the great things about Ken is that he hasn’t changed at all.’

There are images of the great comic on stage, in the dressing room and in a variety of other locations and situations. ‘I like the offstage ones most of all,’ says Stephen. ‘The best pictures are the ones that people don’t know you’re taking.’

Ken with photographer Stephen Shakeshaft

Ken with photographer Stephen Shakeshaft

Some of the photographs go a long way back, but Ken’s career of course goes back even further. His roots are clearly in music hall, and he’s often been described as the last of the great vaudeville comics. When he gave his first professional performance in 1954 authentic music hall was already largely consigned to the history books, but Ken had absorbed its techniques and traditions at an early age. ‘My mother and father used to take me every week to the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties in Fraser Street. My dad loved the variety shows. The acts were mostly booked by a firm in Glasgow, and we saw a lot of Scottish and Irish comedians. I saw some of the greats of music hall there, very old variety acts like Wilkie Bard and Gertie Gitana.’ (These were both performers whose careers started in the 19th century.)

Music hall mutated into variety, a form that’s still just about with us thanks to the annual Royal Variety Performance. Ken acknowledges that variety is often dismissed as ‘old fashioned’, but he’s a passionate defender of the genre. ‘A variety show gives the audience just that – a variety of skills. The performers are individuals who’ve all taken the little bit of magic they’ve got and polished, burnished and refined it until they’ve got that small jewel of a performance.’

©Stephen Shakeshaft/Liverpool Echo

©Stephen Shakeshaft/Liverpool Echo

Ken began honing his own act during his early years as a very young amateur entertainer. He remembers, ‘Most comedians when they start hide behind an alias, and mine was Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, operatic tenor and sausage knotter. It wasn’t very intelligent – I had a little painted on moustache, with my bow tie askew and my shirt hanging out. I had old pit boots from when I helped out as a coalman in my father’s business and wore those as well. And I used to carry a battered old euphonium. I never played it, just carried it, mostly to keep my hands still. Watch any amateur actor and their hands are all over the place.’

Ken slowly acquired confidence as a performer, but says ‘I still feel apprehensive before a performance, especially if it’s an important show. Like my first opening night at the Palladium…God, I remember that: I lost a stone before I got to the dressing room. You feel agitated, like a horse in the stalls before a race.’

©Stephen Shakeshaft/Liverpool Echo

©Stephen Shakeshaft/Liverpool Echo

His belief that comedians should continually analyse and refine their own performances is reflected in his famous Giggle Map, which records the varying responses to different jokes and routines across the country. He says his favourite photograph in the exhibition is a rear view of him walking through a theatre car park after a performance: ‘It’s the clown leaving at the end of the show, thinking about how things went: thinking that joke didn’t go down too well, or I could have told that one better.’

Of course you don’t need a Giggle Map to confirm his extraordinary popularity in our part of the country, where he’s been voted the Greatest Merseysider of all time. Stephen Shakeshaft says, ‘The Liverpool audience love him because he’s a true Liverpudlian, who still lives in the Knotty Ash house he grew up in. He’s a genuine Scouser, and Liverpool loves him for that.’

It’s an affection that’s clearly reciprocated, and Ken has some interesting observations on his home city and its humour. ‘There’s certainly a distinctive Liverpool humour, and I think it’s because Liverpool was a great point of entry and departure. It was acknowledged as the gateway to the world, and people left here for many different places and came in from many different countries. Some of those who came stayed, and they brought with them their own cultures and their own sense of humour. Remember “Scouse” is a Scandinavian word. Lobscouse is a Norwegian stew and that’s a good way to think of the population of Liverpool – lots of different nationalities mixed in together.’

He breaks off here to recommend visiting the Scandinavian Church on Park Lane. ‘It’s marvellous. You go inside and you’re transported to Scandinavia. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences you could have.’ Reflecting further on the main elements of Liverpool humour he says, ‘You’ve got the wild Celtic humour of the Welsh, the cynicism of the Scots, the wackiness of the Irish, the English with their understatement…’ He sums up: ‘It’s very sarky but with a bit of lunacy in there as well. Mind you, the regional differences aren’t as great as they used to be – television’s diluted them.’

©Stephen Shakeshaft/Liverpool Echo

©Stephen Shakeshaft/Liverpool Echo

Ken’s still known for his phenomenally long shows, which can last four or five hours. ‘People ask, “How do you remember so many jokes?”, but you don’t remember jokes, you remember routines. The jokes come in batches – jokes about going to the doctor’s and so on.’ In 1974 at the Royal Court he set the world record for the longest non-stop joke-telling session, delivering 1,500 jokes in a little over three hours. Remembering the occasion now, he’s very self-effacing. ‘We were looking for an angle to interest the press and TV, so I announced I would break the world’s joke-telling record, even though as far as I know there wasn’t one. It must have been a slow news day because they all bit. They sent along a heart specialist who monitored my heart rate, and there was a live link-up to a BBC radio programme. All the jokes had to be off the top of my head – the record’s been beaten since, but people read from joke books now.’

Over the years he’s built up a huge store of material, but if you go to one of his shows you’ll still hear new gags – or reworked old ones – related to current news stories. He also has a gift for improvisation, demonstrated for instance when he was in the audience for a recent Liverpool performance of Tennessee Williams’s steamy New Orleans melodrama A Streetcar Named Desire. At the interval he was heard to remark, ‘If it was set over here he’d have called it On The Buses.’

Perhaps the key to his longstanding success however is the warmth of the relationship he has with his audiences. While I was with Ken he walked over to speak to a party of children from a Shropshire primary school, who happened to be visiting the museum (see our photo). Most of them probably didn’t know who he was, but as he asked them cheeky questions about their teachers their delight in talking to him was obvious. Stephen Shakeshaft says, ‘I’ve been fortunate on occasions to stand in the wings and watch Ken perform. It’s like opening a precious clock and looking at the delicate workings inside. You can hear the reaction of the audience and watch how Ken responds to it. He has a natural rapport with people, offstage as well as when he’s up there performing. He’s not a showbizzy type, and his humour relates to ordinary life. He can see the comedy in the experiences that all of us have every day of our lives.’

Cartoon by Spanner. By Jove! It’s Ken Dodd! was a Museum of Liverpool exhibition.