Book review: Ken Dodd: The Biography

Ken Dodd is a fascinating comic – a throwback to the days of variety, to this day performing a gruelling schedule of five-hour shows, mixing puns, surreal whimsy and cloyingly sentimental touches, as he approaches his ninth decade.

A Doddy show is a unique experience, and not only for their marathon five-hour durations that verge, as someone else might say, on a hostage situation. Not only is he a living memorial to the roots of comedy – right down to the daft tickling stick that’s a direct descendant of the jester’s phallic prop – but he still maintains a unmatchable rapport with his audience, a fan base which is much wider than the blue-rinse legions you might expect.

He’s also, judging from what rare glimpses into his private life have been revealed, a fascinating man. His notorious tax trial threw up images of an inveterate hoarder; stashing huge quantities of cash around his ramshackle house in Knotty Ash, the building he has lived in since childhood. And then the fact that he’s never married, despite two long-term relationships.

What better subject, then, not only for a biography but also a long-overdue reappraisal. As a quintessentially live performer with only limited TV exposure – and an unfortunate association with his childish Diddymen - he’s never been hailed as the unique genius he is. Now is the time to do that, rather than waiting for the inevitable posthumous praise of the obituary columns.

But Stephen Griffin has an insurmountable problem in writing the first biography of Dodd in 16 years. The comic is a fiercely private man, ‘almost pathologically insular’ Griffin says, who allows precious few people into his seemingly odd private life. And none of them are willing to betray that trust by talking to an unauthorised writer.

It’s left him with a book that’s scant even on biographical facts, let alone any insight. Instead, for chapter after chapter, we have little more than commentators’ speculation about the man. Many line up to praise his work, a few offer idle thoughts into what makes him tick.

Bizarrely, Steve Punt – of all people - crops up time and time again offering his ha’penny’sworth. I’m sure his opinion is as valid as anyone’s, but he’s probably never been considered in the same breath as Dodd before now. Is Punt’s the only comic the author, a former local newspaper arts editor, could find?

There’s many a second-hand quote from various interviews conducted with the often reclusive Dodd over the years. The most telling come from esteemed Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington – a long-tme Dodd cheerleader – whose brief 1977 book on the comedian must be a much more incisive look at the man behind the teeth, given the number of times Griffin quotes from it.

The text is also litterered with the sort of giveaway phrases like ‘Dodd must surely have thought…’, ‘Dodd appears to have…’ and the like that indicate a desperate lack of hard facts and a reliance on reheated newspaper cuttings.

What we do know is that Dodd was born into a blissful family on November 8, 1927 – although even this most basic of facts is disputed, with the comic giving his age in Who’s Who as four years younger than that.

Aged eight, he answered an advert in The Wizard comic and sent off 6d in stamps for the booklet How To Be A Ventriloquist. He started performing around Liverpool, even as he grew older and started working with his father in his coal-merchant business and later as a door-to-door salesman. The second advert that was to change his life was one asking for people to entertain the forces during the war.

His professional debut was at the Empire Theatre, Nottingham, in September 1954, way down the variety bill. And for the next half century he’s almost never stopped touring. Part of the Doddy legend is that over the years he’s built up a ‘giggle gazetteer,’ methodically listing exactly which of his great many jokes go down best where, so he can adapt his act to every city he returns to. Which is all of them.

It’s evidence of lifelong obsession with studying comedy, and he has a sizeable library of books on comedy theory and practice. But away from this aspect of his life, details are much more scant.

His 1989 tax case offered more insight into Dodd than anything else, which is why Griffin goes into great detail on this episode of his life. But written, as this new biography is, from the newspaper accounts of the day it seems dry and distant, giving us facts without feeling. Though credit must go to whoever created the gag of the time: ‘Ken Dodd’s so starstruck, he won’t come off. If he gets two years, he’ll do four.’ Or the lag wag who hung a sign from his HMP Liverpool cell window: ‘Appearing here soon: Ken Dodd.’

In the end, of course, he got off – but at a heavy cost to his much-treasured privacy… and his pocket.

Another, more recent trial, is also covered: That of the stalker who harassed Dodd and his long-term partner Anne Jones. Again, this section is a detached read – and odd in that it gives the woman, Ruth Tagg, her account of a supposed encounter, even though she was obviously in a tortured mental state. But so sparse is material on Dodd, everything finds its place in the book.

But despite the reliance on a newspaper library, there are still some revelatory passage, including hints of a more steely character behind the shambolic image.

One acquaintance talks off Dodd’s short fuse and there’s another isolated anecdote when his radio producer berates his star for – what else? – overrunning: ‘Dodd, staring into his dressing room mirror initially acquiesced. Then, just as his producer was about to leave, without taking his eyes off the mirror, he added, “There’s just one thing Bob…” “What’s that, Ken?” “Remember you need me more than I need you.”’

There are some inconsistencies in the book, too. For example, saying that he has an innate empathy with an audience, able to read their every feeling. Yet that’s hard too odds with a man who’ll keep a 7.30pm show going on till the early hours, to the obvious discomfort of most in the audience. Most comics instinctively know when to get off, says Arthur Smith, who once shared a corporate bill with him, Dodd apparently des not.

The conclusion from this book is that Dodd’s childhood was so idyllic, he has never wanted to leave it. Hence his recreation of that era on stage; the fact he’s never started a family because he can’t break from his parents; and the fact he lives in a home unchanged since his youth, right down to the positioning of the HP sauce bottle.

There’s also the suggestion that on stage he’s such a huge character at the centre of his bizarre world, while off it, when he finds it harder to cope with the ordinariness of everyday life. And how ordinary it is, for all his wealth Dodd still wears M&S clothes, drives a functional car and rarely goes on holiday abroad.

It’s all pop psychology, of course, based on not meeting the ‘patient’ or anyone around him. After all, the best conclusion Griffin can come up with after 269 pages of this most superficial of analyses is that: ‘It’s difficult to pin down Dodd. Just as we form an opinion – pro or anti – we learn something else that blasts that conception out of the water’.

The book does raise interest in this long-overlooked comic icon, which has to be welcome, and rightfully celebrates his life. But as for an insight into what makes Doddy tick, Griffin throws up far more questions than answers.

Ken Dodd: The Biography, by Stephen Griffin is published by Michael O'Mara Books, priced £17.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £12.59

Steve Bennett
September 20, 2005

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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