Where’s Ken Dodd? Hundreds waited on beach for comic’s ‘swim’ to Scroby Sands
PUBLISHED: 19:48 17 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:47 19 March 2018
When the stars come out, so do the crowds.
A public appearance by a showbusiness celebrity is guaranteed to generate excited fans jostling for a better glimpse of a famous face almost within touching distance on an informal occasion rather than being remote and distant up on a stage or dais.
But I doubt anyone expected the turn-out which resulted from a mixture of rumour and speculation about Ken Dodd apparently planning to swim from Great Yarmouth’s central beach out to Scroby Sands. And back!
A one-way swim is a testing challenge even for an experienced swimmer. A there-and-back effort by a famous novice was a considerable attraction for sightseers. But it was well-known that Doddy had been taught to swim recently by 42-year-old Bill Pickering who had conquered the English Channel and was a veteran of long-distance challenges.
News this week the nation’s famous funster had died, aged 90, prompted recollections about that legendary sporting intention – or colossal publicity stunt – 55 years ago in 1963.
How tickled he was at the support provided by his fans – augmented by peak-season holidaymakers and day-trippers straining to witness their favourite, albeit out of his comfort zone in Knotty Ash and his stage costume and instead in clad in swimming trunks, planning to cope with the North Sea and its currents in a strenuous feat of courage, endurance and stamina that had resulted in heart-breaking failure for many experienced previous hopefuls.
For that summer season of 1963, Ken Dodd was the big-name star of the summer show at our long-gone Regal Theatre, with perky singer Rosemary Squires as the main supporting act in the twice-nightly performances to packed houses. That was the year that the venue’s name was changed to the ABC.
Competition that summer came from Helen Shapiro, Ronnie Corbett and Jimmy Saville at the Royal Aquarium; Harry Worth and Edmund Hockridge (Wellington Pier); the Beverley Sisters and Stan Stennett (Britannia Pier); and Joe Brown and Rolf Harris (Windmill).
A throng estimated at 10,000 (although how that could be anything other than guesswork is debatable) waited in awe and expectancy. Excitement mounted when Doddy and Bill Pickering were spotted by the onlookers, some of whom were puzzled by the fact that their comic hero was not stripped down to a pair of trunks, smothered in protective grease and wearing a hat over his distinctive unruly locks.
Pickering quickly plunged into the North Sea, swimming strongly towards the treacherous sandbank, and Ken Dodd kept up with him all the way – not in the sea, but in the support boat Janet belonging to Yarmouthian Charlie Eastick!
Our unpredictable North Sea succeeded in defeating the powerful and experienced Bill Pickering who was swept too far southwards by tide and current until his target of Scroby Sands became Mission Impossible. After swimming for about a mile, he was hauled back into the Janet to be ferried back to the shore.
Veteran boatmen well versed in the vagaries of the waters between shore and sandbank reckoned that Caister beach would have been a better starting point, allowing currents to help contenders to reach their Scroby goal. That would not have proved a popular plan for the excited thousands of spectators anxious to see the Knotty Ash star comedian embark on the challenging swim that never was.
I cannot recall reading in the Great Yarmouth Mercury in recent years of attempts to swim out to Scroby Sands, or back from there to the beach, or two-way. Perhaps the novelty of the endurance challenge has long-since evaporated and efforts, whether successful or not, go unrecorded, not being brought to the attention of the media.
As for Ken Dodd, the last time I saw him was over at the Sparrow’s Nest Theatre in Lowestoft when he tickled his rapturous audience with his infection good humour until well after his scheduled curtain-down time.