For years, Southsea and Worthing – and occasionally Chichester – were fixtures for Sir Ken Dodd on his south-coast comedy circuit: memories all the more precious now that he has gone.
He’d warn us at the start that we’d be going home with the milk floats, and indeed, with lots of variety acts thrown in, there would be times when it would seem like the night was going to go on forever.
But you knew to relish every moment. You knew you were in the presence of a great.
I had the privilege to interview Sir Ken maybe half a dozen times over the years. The process was always the same. You were told to leave your message on his answerphone – and as soon as he realised it was a call he wanted to take, he would pick up.
And then… well, Sir Ken did as he always did. He performed. And what a thrill it was to be his audience of one. He didn’t care about the time. He wouldn’t watch the clock. He would talk and talk… and you would pinch yourself at that oh-so-familiar voice coming down the line at you.
And when the conversation finished, you would know something special had happened. Something noble, in fact. There is so much rubbish, so much that is sad in this world of ours. It was wonderful to speak to someone whose sole mission was to make people happy.
Reproduced below, in tribute to a great I am so pleased I got the chance to speak to, is one of the last interviews we did…
A sense of humour is a sense, just like the senses of smelling or hearing or seeing or touching or tasting.
So says Ken Dodd. And just like any sense, you’ve got to work on it.
“Some people have got a very well-exercised sense of humour,” Ken says. “They can see the incongruities, the funny things. They like to play mental games
“But everyone is born with it. Everyone is born with a chuckle muscle. It’s that spirit of play. As a boy it’s what means you can turn a box into a pirate ship or a playpen into the OK Corral.
“And as you get older, you have got to keep that spirit of happiness going. Some people, due to the way they live their lives, let their chuckle muscle get smaller and smaller. And then they become a newspaper editor!”
Other people keep it in trim and keep it working, and that’s what Ken is all about. He unashamedly calls his show the Happiness Show, but go along and you’ll see that that’s exactly what it is.
Two of the best nights in recent years at Chichester Festival Theatre have been the nights Ken Dodd came to entertain. He’s mystified now that he’s no longer the kind of entertainer the CFT will book. He suspects the reason is that the theatre has got too much subsidy.
But he’s delighted to be back in the area, just down the road at the Kings in Southsea. He’s a joke-teller and a joke-seller, he says, and it’s a particular kind of humour – one that gives you a tonic.
“When you say humour, it’s like saying music. You have got classical and jazz and you have got rock and roll and romantic ballads. Comedy is the same. There is drollery and witticism and the jolly jester, which is the type of humour that I fall into… the optimist… the kind of comic who says ‘What a beautiful day’.”
There’s too much cynicism around, he says. Too many comics who will try to persuade you that it’s a rotten day. Ken prefers the other extreme and always has done.
“I want people to have a good party, a jollification. I whip up a party atmosphere. We keep it going. Happiness is the main theme.”
And in doing so, he keeps alive his other great passion, namely live entertainment. He is a crusader on behalf of live theatre. His Ken Dodd Happiness Show takes him on a virtual non-stop tour of the UK, clocking up over 100,000 miles a year.
It’s that degree of traveling which has enabled him to perfect his famous giggle map – a guide to what’s funny where.
Ken’s love of showbiz began when he saw an advert for a ventriloquist’s doll in a local paper. His parents bought it for him and he christened it Charlie Brown.
He worked on a semi-professional basis for many years to supplement his earnings as a salesman ‘on the knocker’ in Liverpool. He had his own van and sold household goods around Liverpool housing estates.
And he carried over some of the saleman’s habits into his approach to showbiz.
“When I first started, before I turned pro, doing all the clubs and pubs and masonics, I used to keep a notebook. I was a salesman at the time and I used to sell buckets and shovels. I used to make a note of where I sold things, and so it seemed logical to me as an entertainer to make a list of what went down well, how the joke about the two sailors did in various places and so on – whether the jokes were good, very good or don’t ever do this one again!”
And with time, various patterns emerged. He reckons he can boast that he knows what makes people laugh in Edinbrugh or Yorkshire or in West Hartlepool or indeed Southsea.
A good gag is a good gag wherever you are, but appetites certainly vary. In North Lancashire they like gloomy jokes, funeral jokes about memorial stones. In the farming areas of Yorkshire, farming jokes go down well.
And Southsea? “Well, you have to touch the sailor’s collar for luck there!”
Invariably, it’s a patchwork of topics, but important too is to throw in the local jokes and also the topical jokes, things about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, for instance.
“Though you don’t really have to make up much about them!”
Over the years, inevitably fashions have changed in humour, Ken says. When he made his professional debut at the Empire Theatre, Nottingham in September 1954, jokes were about being skint. Now the jokes are more about where you are going to get the next jag from. Now there are more jokes about money, more jokes about professions.
But the basics remain the same, her and him jokes, Mr and Mrs jokes, and that’s always been the case: “I expect Aristophanes used to joke about Mrs Aristophanes!”
And it’s those kind of jokes which should help keep live entertainment live. TV is just the pits now, Ken says: “The shows that they are putting on are cheap. It’s all to do with pounds, shillings and pence.”
And sadly the theatre has gone a little that way too. Ken recalls that when he first started in 1954 there would have been around 25 shows across 15 to 20 miles around Blackpool. Blackpool itself would have had 15 shows.
“Today I don’t think there are five.”
3,000 to 4,000 people would have been employed. Now it’s just a few hundred.
Back then, every show was determined to be the best, to have the funniest comics, to have the loveliest dancers, and competition was fierce.
“The quality was stupendous.”
And it used to be that way with commercial TV, something Ken strongly supported – a way of breaking the BBC monopoly. But now it’s all just another monopoly again.
The secret of a good comic is said to be timing, and Ken’s was certainly spot on when he started out: “I was very very blessed. I came into the business in 1954 when theatre was thriving and every town, every city had two or three theatres.
“Over the years, I was able to build up my window-cleaning round, as I call it. I go back to the same theatres every year. Some theatres I go to three times in a year.”
And for the audience, the point it that they become part of it in a way that is possible only with live theatre: “A live show is the best show. You don’t just watch it. You are in it.
“And it has been going on since Mr Aristophanes and a couple of other lads down there. And then you had the Coliseum, though there weren’t many laughs there. You had the lions there. A bit like going to Wigan!”