Obituary: Ken Dodd – ‘a national treasure and one of the most admired entertainers of his generation’

Ken Dodd Ken Dodd. Photo: Maurice Gray

Ken Dodd became notorious for allowing his one-man shows to regularly spill over into the early hours of the morning. Audiences – at least those with the stamina to stay the course with the seemingly inexhaustible comedian – loved him for it.

With his trademark shock of unruly hair, erratically prominent teeth (the result of a childhood cycling accident) and a stage presence that moved seamlessly between the sentimental, the silly and the sublimely anarchic, Dodd often appeared to be an unstoppable force of nature. The potent blend of energy, effervescence and eccentricity that defined his stage persona transformed him into one of the best-loved and most admired entertainers of his generation.

Ken Dodd, Arthur Smith and Geoff Rowe at Dave’s Comedy Festival in 2014. Photo: Scott Choucino

But those qualities also disguised a deeply serious approach to his craft. A keen student of theatre history and comedy, he was widely read in theories of humour and able to quote Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson and an impressive raft of thinkers and analysts on the subject. His 1973 show Ha-Ha offered his own quirky take on the history of comedy, from its origins in Greek theatre to the present day.

He maintained his own “giggle map” of the UK, religiously adding to it after every performance and using it to tailor and finesse his act to target and tickle the funny bone of regional audiences with unerring accuracy.

Ken Dodd: record breaker

Immersed in the tradition of the music hall and variety, he was a virtual dynamo on stage, a succession of dizzyingly disconnected one-liners dashed off with a relentless machine-gun attrition – a quality that earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for telling 1,500 jokes in just over three hours at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre in 1974.

By then, Dodd had been performing for nearly 40 years, his interest piqued by an advert for a teach-yourself-ventriloquism book that emboldened him to make his stage debut at eight years old. His final appearance followed 81 years later at the Liverpool Echo Arena in December 2017.

Neil Thomson and Ken Dodd at the Grand Theatre Blackpool

The son of a coal merchant, Dodd was born in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash and left school aged 14 to work alongside his father. At 18, he became a travelling salesman, using his van to tour the club circuit in the evenings where he had begun to attract attention as the outlandish Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, operatic tenor and “sausage knotter”.

He turned professional in 1954 and within four years was headlining summer season bills in Blackpool. Making the move into television in 1960, he hosted his own eponymous show – the first of many – where he was often accompanied by the Diddy Men (initially string puppets, later played by children). Audiences eagerly took to his made-up nonsense-lexicon that memorably included “tattifilarious”, discomknockerated” and “nikky nokky noo” as well as catchphrases such as “By Jove, Missus” and “How tickled I am!”.

Although the small screen ultimately proved too confining for Dodd’s irrepressible personality, it gave him exposure to an audience that stayed loyal to him throughout his long career.

Ken Dodd: a life on stage

But it was on stage that Dodd’s mischievousness and warmth fused with alchemical brilliance. His 42-week season at the London Palladium in 1965 retains the venue’s record for the longest run of a one-man show. Increasingly, too, his popularity was matched by growing respect from critics and his comedian peers, although none have yet matched him at his inimitable and unfettered best.

He ventured briefly into straight theatre as Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1971, a performance hailed by The Stage as “outstandingly successful [and that] could well be the envy of any Shakespearean player”. He was also seen as Yorick (in a non-speaking flashback) in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of Hamlet and in Jonathan Myerson’s television adaptation of The Canterbury Tales in 2000.

Tried for tax evasion in 1989, Dodd emerged from the tabloid frenzy that enveloped him as an eccentric figure who hoarded substantial amounts of money at home. But the headline-grabbing trial prompted a surge of support for the comedian (who was subsequently found not guilty) that transformed him into a national treasure – a status confirmed by rapturous reviews for two appearances on London Weekend Television’s An Audience With series in 1994 and 2002.

Ken Dodd launches the official opening of The Comedy Carpet on Blackpool’s North Promenade complete with his famous tickling stick

He also enjoyed success as a recording artist. His signature song, 1964’s Happiness, was one of 18 singles to reach the Top 40, with the following year’s Tears topping the charts to become the third bestselling single of the 1960s.

He was appointed an OBE in 1982 and knighted in 2017. Other tributes included a British Comedy lifetime achievement award and a Variety Club award, while a life-size statue was unveiled in Liverpool’s Lime Street railway station in 2009.

Kenneth Arthur Dodd was born on November 8, 1927 and died on March 11, aged 90. He is survived by his partner of 47 years, the former Bluebell dancer Anne Jones, whom he married two days before his death.

Ken Dodd: From panto to Shakespeare in The Stage Archive