Why Ken Dodd's death really was the end of an era
PUBLISHED: 08:10 15 March 2018 | UPDATED: 06:46 16 March 2018
EDP pics © 2006
Paul Barnes reflects on how a long tradition of British comedy has ended with the passing of Sir Ken Dodd.
“What a wonderful day for going up to the Kremlin and asking ‘Is Len in?’” With Doddy every day was wonderful. “What a wonderful day for ramming a cucumber through the vicar’s letterbox and shouting ‘The Martians have landed!’”
Not so wonderful was the day after he died. The news programmes were filled with the clamour of a stage army of current comics jostling to say something about him, most of them saying the same thing, and not very well. The word “genius” came easily and often but there was more to say about Doddy than that. It was all too instant. In the frenzy to be first nobody was given time to reflect, to remember.
There was better stuff in print from people who’d known him for years. They’d seen him in the glory days, such as the time he played London Palladium in 1965, packing the place twice nightly for 42 weeks, relentlessly lashing audiences into submission until they fought for breath as they laughed.
Doddy himself was breathless with admiration for others in the business, and not just comedians. He reckoned British actors to be the best in the world. “My respect for them is absolute,” he said. The compliment was returned. Considering Doddy as a survivor of a dying breed of music hall comedians, John Osborne was inspired to write The Entertainer, even taking the entire cast of the play to see Doddy in action.
Audiences for Doddy were seeing not just the man himself but a distillation of other music hall comedians who had influenced him. The one he claimed above all others was Frank Randle, lecherous and unlovely, burping his way through his act. “Eeh, ah’ve supped some ale to-neet!” Doddy would never be so coarse as Randle, but he understood what Randle’s audiences responded to. It comes as no surprise to learn that Doddy admired, even revered, Robb Wilton, Will Hay, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray and Frankie Howerd. You only have to listen to Doddy’s delivery and hear occasional echoes of them all.
Back in the Forties I saw Robb Wilton in his bumbling fireman sketch. As a poor woman panics, her house in flames, Robb strokes his chin, moves an untidy pile of papers and having got the address says, “Have you got an appointment?” I saw Frankie Howerd too in those days. At the back of the stage a silent, unresponsive woman, Madame Blanche Moore, sits at a grand piano. Frankie jokes at her expense, eventually relenting. “Don’t laugh,” he pleads, “it could be one of your own.” Doddy savoured their styles and technique; they lived on in him.
Confession. I never saw Doddy in the theatre, never indulged and survived one of his marathon performances, emerging long after the last bus had gone. But I relished him on television, and just as much on radio. And still will.
Sir Kenneth Arthur Dodd, RIP. Rest in Plumptiousness.