Sir Ken Dodd at 90
Yes, there really is such a place as Knotty Ash, a suburb of Liverpool, but it was Doddy who put it on the map.
“I was born and grew up in Knotty Ash where I had a very happy childhood,” he recalled. “I got on well with my mum and dad as well as my brother and sister and we lived in an old farmhouse — I still live there as it happens. It is older than me! My dad was a coal merchant so we were never cold.
“When I was a boy I used to like digging holes, lighting fires and falling out of trees. I also loved to read and especially the Just William books. I loved them, they were full of adventures and naughtiness and made me laugh.
“My dad was my rock, always encouraging and never too busy for us. He had a fun side and if we were ill he used to say that he would send for Doctor Chuckabutty. I loved the name and used it later as a character.”
As well as Just William books Ken was an avid reader of comics like Wizard, Rover and Hotspur and was always fascinated by the practical jokes that could be bought — ink blots, itching powder and so on. Especially he was captivated by the advert which said “Impress your friends, fool your teachers — learn how to throw your voice”. He couldn’t resist it and sent away to become a ventriloquist.
“My dad was very encouraging,” said Doddy. “He loved music and show business in general. He regularly took us to all the main theatres in Liverpool to see the great variety artistes of the day as well as to circuses and fairgrounds where we used to visit all the sideshows. I loved it and especially when we went to Blackpool and saw all the great summer shows and attractions.”
When Ken got his vent’ info his dad bought him a doll which they called Charlie Brown. He also wrote him a script and helped him to learn how to deliver it, saying: “You must be original, you must have your own style.”
And so Kenneth Arthur Dodd made his debut at the age of eight at St. Edward’s Orphanage. He was a big success and received half a crown for an act that included a song, some tap dancing and, of course, comedy with Charlie Brown.
By this time he looked like a smaller version of what we see now. At the age of seven his friends had dared him to ride his bike with his eyes closed. He did of course, fell over the handlebars and now has the trademark teeth stuck out to remind him not to try it again.
Other invitations started to come in and when he was 10 Ken appeared on stage at the Scala Theatre, Widnes. When he was 12 he appeared at the mighty Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. Doddy was on his way but at this stage it was just a fun thing to do and when he was 14 he joined his dad and his brother Billy in delivering coal.
By this time Ken’s love of theatre and show business was sealed. His idols were Arthur Askey, Tommy Handley, Nat Jackley, Ted Ray, Max Miller, Robb Wilton and film comedy greats like Will Hay and Laurel and Hardy. He readily admits that he was influenced by them from an early age and still loves to relax by watching Will Hay and Laurel and Hardy films.
The coal business taught him a great deal about people and how
to talk to them. He got used to humping coal sacks about and even drove the truck sometimes. He also soon learned how to knock on a door and say: “Hello Missus — fancy some nutty slack?”
He was still peforming at charity events and so on and when the Second World War broke out he was 15 and invited to join the Mersey Mites, a concert party run by a lady called Hilda Fallon who was like a favourite aunt to everyone. He received 1s 9d for every show and gained a lot more experience.
At 19 Ken decided he needed another challenge and started his own business, encouraged again by his dad, becoming a door- to- door salesman of pots, pans and cleaning items including, of course, feather dusters. So, Doddy would knock on a door and say: “Hello Missus, what a lovely day for spring cleaning. How would you like a feather duster to tickle the lampshades?”
Meanwhile he was still doing various concerts and charity shows. Several talent scouts saw him and reported back that there was a young man worth looking at. He even had a letter from Bernard Delfont and another from Lew Grade offering him dates in the south. Ken turned
them down as he felt he was not ready to go beyond his own local audiences.
Then he had a letter from David Forrester, another leading agent and manager of the day who arranged to meet Ken on his home ground — at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. David Forrester ordered tea and cream cakes which delighted Ken as he has always had a weakness for cream cakes. It was not long before they reached an accord and he had agreed to be represented by David Forrester — and to pay for the tea and cakes.
“That impressed me — I thought if he can take care of my money like he takes care of his own then this should be good.”
The result was that on 27th September 1954 Ken Dodd as Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter, made his full professional debut on a variety bill at Nottingham’s Empire Theatre. He was low on the bill with singer Tony Brent and jazz trumpeter Kenny Baker the main stars.
“I was in such small print everyone thought I was the printer. I spent the afternoon in a milk bar across the road going through my act over and over again to make sure I got it right. It seemed to go all right and afterwards I was just relieved that nobody had actually booed me off.”
What happened next is one of the most amazing show business stories in British history. Ken’s act grew as did his fame. He added even more eccentricity in the form of jam butty mines, life- size cows falling from the ceiling, giant tickling sticks and general mayhem both visual and spoken.
By 1958 he had topped his first summer show, had his first television show and was a regular on Workers’ Playtime and other radio shows including his own. It was not just his comedy but also his singing voice. David Forrester encouraged him to make some recordings and in 1960 “Love Is Like A Violin” was released and made it to number eight.
By 1962 Ken was earning £ 1,000 a week and had made it as a star — but there was still more to come of course. The Diddymen had made their debut by now. Charlie Brown became Dickie Mint and still features in the show today.
At last Doddy felt that he was ready to face London and in 1965 he topped the bill in his own show at the London Palladium. It was called “Doddy’s Here” and it opened on Saturday 17th April at 6pm.
“I was scared, there’s no other way I can describe it,” he said. “The thought of trying to make all those Londoners laugh was frightening.”
As it happened the first performance was filled by coachloads of Merseysiders who gave him an ovation when he stepped on stage. At around midnight, everyone went home happy and the newspapers raved about him. Later that year his recording of “Tears” earned him gold discs and broke countless sales records.
From then until now, Ken Dodd has continued to fill theatres all over the country. In 1982 he was awarded the OBE in the New Year’s Honours list and, of course, more recently he has been knighted. Prince Willliam carried out the ceremony but Her Majesty the Queen is reportedly word- perfect at his signature song, “Happiness”. Will he ever retire? “Never,” he said with absolute determination. “I still have a lot more to do. A chuckle a day keeps the doctor away. Anyway, who wants to retire from Happiness?”
House Full signs are still regularly seen outside theatres when Sir Ken Dodd is in town, one of the few entertainers who really is a legend in his own lifetime.
Liverpool’s famous waterfront, the city to which Doddy remains intensely loyal.
Ken, flanked by Max Bygraves, Spike Milligan and Dudley Moore, talks to the Queen after the 1965 Royal Variety performance at the London Palladium.
The statue of the entertainer at Liverpool’s Lime Street Station.