‘Happiness and Tears: The Ken Dodd Story’ reviewed

❉ There are some fantastic tales to discover in Louis Barfe’s absorbing and fascinating biography.

“Louis Barfe’s vast knowledge of light entertainment, variety and television shines through as he places Ken Dodd and his work in context and introduces us to some of the remarkable people he worked with.”

Louis Barfe’s brilliant and meticulously researched biography of the late comedian and variety extraordinaire Ken Dodd Happiness and Tears is described in its publicity as the ‘first serious biographical assessment’ of Ken Dodd and – having read the absorbing and fascinating biography over two nights – by the time you come to the end of Barfe’s survey and exploration of Ken Dodd’s career which officially started in 1954, you are aching for more. A good proportion of the book is a selective listing of Dodd’s TV, radio and stage appearances, always useful to have, editors take note. Before he died, Ken Dodd was still realising his ambition to perform and over-run in every single theatre in England, accompanied as ever by his loyal partner Anne and their dog. When Ken Dodd  died, Louis Barfe notes, variety died. An age had passed.

Ken Dodd started variety just when BBC radio’s The Goon Show was evolving into the series which influenced the next generation of comics. His early acts sound quite Goonish, very Michael Bentine (which was also noted by a TV critic in 1965) especially with his character ‘Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, operatic tenor and sausage knotter.’ As Bentine displayed his weird creations in Potty Time (a TV show that is, and not a medical requirement), Ken Dodd had his Diddymen – squeaky voiced miniature humans on the radio, a children’s show and on the stage – as you can see in his This is Your Life appearance performed by children from a stage school. You either loved them, or added them to the list of things you found unsettling about Ken Dodd.

What is interesting from a reading of the book is what Ken Dodd wasn’t. He only had two serious relationships and there is no hint of a waft of love children – there probably wasn’t the time. He had no ambitions to take his act to America unlike Morecambe and Wise, probably knowing full well that it would have been lost in translation. He did not appear in adverts nor write novels.

He just wanted to perform and get the laughs from the audience he loved and respected, whoever they were. He understood the psychology of the English audience and allowed for regional variations around the country. This man simply exploded onto the stage, battering his audience into submission quite literally with his quick fire jokes, and tickling sticks (one of which is mounted on a very long pole). Apart from a couple of times he performed in a Shakespeare play (the best script writer he had ever worked with as he once said), he had no ambition to become a straight actor, or become a movie star. He did not want to play anything too far removed from his audience and himself. After all, he was Ken Dodd, a brand with distinctive trademarks far apart from anyone else as all good music hall comics needed. If you’re hiring Ken Dodd, you get Ken Dodd. He was a force of nature when unleashed. His turn in Doctor Who, when he was cast in the programme in 1987 as a galactic tollgate keeper, was simply a quietened version of himself in a lilac coloured suit.

He was often asked about being his reputation for being in control but again one man bands have to be, and those who worked with him, such as Rita Webb, sometimes had to be reminded of their place in the scheme of Dodd’s things. Yet he was extremely generous to his colleagues; this was no insecure jealous man who hated anyone else getting the laugh. He was supremely confident in his abilities and wanted to encourage everyone else to do their best. He remembered the generosity he received from one top of the bill Jimmy Jewel to the bottom of the bill Ken Dodd. Unfortunately his legendary lack of time keeping and aversion to rehearsal made it difficult for the crews.

Dodd seems to have had a happy childhood in Knotty Ash, a suburb of Liverpool, with his elder brother and younger sister and the funniest man he ever knew, his coal selling father. This was his training ground either in giving him some of the characters he would later play in sketches or the singing, which made him a rival for popularity in the charts with the Beatles in the 1960s. The only family stories in the book are the ones Dodd told himself during his many interviews so maybe there will be a family memoir one day.

He saw Liverpudlians as supreme optimists and they loved him back. He never left Liverpool other than for work purposes, and it was here where he died. He lived long enough to see a statue of himself put up in the city. His comedy was generally optimistic. He worked with his father by day but studied and practised by night what would become his craft, as any apprentice should do. He devoured books on comedy and performing, listened to the radio (Tommy Handley was a quick fire Liverpudlian who straddled the 1940s with his influential comedy programme ITMA), and just watched others ply their skill.

Louis Barfe charts Dodd’s early years as a music hall act and he seems to have risen to the top almost immediately, quickly gaining early appearances on the radio and a summer season at Blackpool’s Central pier with alongside Morecambe and Wise (who had just famously flopped on the BBC) and Jimmy Clitheroe, for whom the author has created a memorable and apt description. Radio appears to have been Dodd’s preferred home at the BBC since television never seemed to know how to handle his talents, yet he was given the prized evening slot of Christmas day in 1965.

Louis Barfe’s vast knowledge of light entertainment, variety and television shines through as he places Ken Dodd and his work in context and introduces us to some of the remarkable people he worked with whether these are his fellow performers or the behind the scenes people. There are some fantastic tales to discover for yourself including the time a floor manager stood in for the secretary general of the United Nations and how a tomato was christened Norman.

He also does not shy away from Ken Dodd’s one major Achilles’ heel, his habit in underpaying either his writers, musicians, and the tax man. He survived his traumatic and embarrassing tax evasion trial in the late 1980s, which was shortly after the jockey Lester Pigott was imprisoned for his brush with the tax man. He was acquitted mainly thanks to his high priced barrister, the infamous George Carman QC.

Carman did not appear on Ken Dodd’s This is Your Life, which was a special one hour edition to celebrate its 500th subject. It couldn’t have been any shorter, could it?

❉ ‘Happiness and Tears: The Ken Dodd Story’ by Louis Barfe is an Apollo book, first published in the UK November 14th 2019, and is available from all the usual outlets.

❉ Writer Michael Seely is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and is the author of acclaimed biographies of director Douglas Camfield and Cyberman creator, scientist Kit Pedler. Michael Seely’s Doomwatch guide ‘Prophets of Doom’ is to be reprinted by Telos and will be out early in the new year to coincide with the programme’s fiftieth anniversary.

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