Entertainment & Arts

Ken Dodd: Don't call me eccentric

Ken Dodd at the Museum of Liverpool
Image caption Ken Dodd has opened an exhibition of photographs taken during his career

Ken Dodd is the last star comedian from the variety era. Now 86, he is still drawing crowds for his five-hour stage shows. Opening an exhibition about his career, he gets serious about life and laughter - and why he does not like being called eccentric.

He is the king of the diddymen, the squire of Knotty Ash, the clown with the tickling stick and the owner of the most famous front teeth in the land.

If the number of catchphrases is a mark of a comedian's success, Ken Dodd has done well, with such trademark sayings as "how tickled I am" and "by jove missus" and nonsense concoctions like "tattyfilarious" and "discomknockerated".

At the Museum of Liverpool to launch an exhibition of photographs taken during his career, he fluffs up his hair for the cameras and wields a discomknockeratingly large tickling stick.

This is his 60th year as a professional comedian - so has the eccentric image helped his career?

Image caption The exhibition features photos by the Liverpool Echo's Stephen Shakeshaft

"I'm not eccentric," he protests. "Not in the least." The funny thing is, he does not appear to be joking. In fact, he seems to take offence at the suggestion.

Until now, the interview has been conducted with Dodd, eyes half-closed, recalling early BBC broadcasts from clubs and music halls in the 1950s. But now he is upright, looking me square in the eye.

"I'm better dressed than you. You're wearing denim trousers. You look like an out-of-work plumber.

"I'm not eccentric. Why am I eccentric?" There is the hair, the outfits, the tickling sticks, I suggest.

"The hair bit - when I was a little boy I always wanted curly hair," he replies. "And part of it is a slight - only a very slight - rebellion.

"I think all comedians are rebellious in various degrees. But I don't think I'm eccentric, no. Not in the least. I think I'm a very, very staid person. Very, very conservative."

Not eccentric? Pull the other one, Doddy.

He has cultivated the persona of the daffy professor of comedy since making his professional stage debut in 1954, inspired by the entertainers he saw while growing up in Liverpool.

When Dodd was just seven or eight, his parents would take him and his brother and sister on weekly trips to variety theatres in the city.

"Slowly this curtain would go up and you'd be transported into a magical world," he recalls. "Everything was rosy glow. Everything looked wonderful, happy.

"This man came on - he'd wear a check suit with a red face and he'd shout at the audience. He would say things and everybody would fall about laughing. I thought, that's a good job, that's what I want to be."

Today, his live sets are stuffed with affably absurd rapid-fire gags ("On Friday, there was a tap on the front door. That plumber's got a funny sense of humour"), plus slow-building storytelling and sentimental songs, to which he adds humorous lyrics.

Image caption Dodd became a star on BBC TV and radio in the 1950s

At times, his humour is masterful and timeless. At others, it is musty and old-fashioned, often based on "oo-er-missus" innuendo or creaky stereotypes of her indoors versus a useless husband.

His crowds, largely made up of fans of a certain vintage, do not seem to mind, and the performances on his seemingly never-ending tour still regularly last five hours and more.

"Comedians are jesters and jesters have a fools' licence," he says. "Political correctness doesn't apply to us. We are encouraged to say things that everybody would love to say but are scared stiff of saying. A jester is part-entertainer, part Mr Happy, part-anarchist."

The star often speaks of how there are two Ken Dodds - the comedian and the real man. Asked what the private Ken Dodd does on his days off, he paints a picture of someone who is more serious than his on-stage image might suggest.

"I can sum it up in one word - thinking," he replies. "As you go through life, you're given this wonderful brain to think with. Everybody wants to know the meaning of life. Where we've come from, where we're going to, what we do while we're here. Yeah, there's a lot of philosopher in every person's private life."

Dodd also spends a lot of time researching the history and workings of humour.

Image caption Dodd will mark 60 years as a professional comedian in 2014

He used to visit a library in every town in which he performed, scouring books about comedy and comedians. "There are about 22 different rules for creating gags, comedy, jokes," he explains.

At one point, Dodd mentions in passing how "the audience are my family". This is a reference to the fact that has never had children. He has also never married, although he has a long-term fiancee, Anne Jones, a singer, pianist and flautist who is the support act on his tour.

The star says he was always ambivalent about having a family of his own, but has recently been reflecting on the subject while thinking about his own parents, who he describes as "the best mum and dad in the world".

"I was driving the car about a year ago and suddenly the thought swept over me - by what right did I have to demand that two people, my mother and father, should take care of me, look after me, feed me, clothe me, nurse me when I'm ill?

"We don't have any right to this. The more I think about this, this one word keeps popping up, a word that's much abused and maligned, but the word has been there for centuries - love.

"There are all different kinds of love. Parents must love their children. I don't know. I suppose I would." In other words, he would have loved his children. He takes a rare pause for thought.

"I love my dog. I love him very, very much," he goes on. "And all the dogs I've ever had, I've always loved them. So I must have the capacity to do it."

The interview time is up and the real Ken Dodd retreats again.

Eccentric? Yes. But there is more to him than meets the eye.

The exhibition, titled By Jove! It's Ken Dodd!, features photographs by Stephen Shakeshaft and runs at the Museum of Liverpool until 21 April.

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