I wasn’t plumptious enough to be one of Sir Ken Dodd’s diddymen

Ken Dodd on stage at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich, in 2006.
Picture: RICHARD SNASDELL

Ken Dodd on stage at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich, in 2006. Picture: RICHARD SNASDELL - Credit: Archant

Barely more than 5ft, I always thought there was a small chance Sir Ken Dodd would hire me as one of his diddymen who work in Knotty Ash’s snuff quarries, black pudding plantations and broken-biscuit repair works.

“Maybe your wife’s worn you down, maybe you were 6ft when you started,” he told me, adding I didn’t sound “plumptious” enough. He was interested in Ipswich’s rumoured treacle mine, which he’d heard about from his treacle mine foreman Dicky Mint.

I never turned down the chance to speak to the comedian, who died aged 90 on Sunday. More energetic than a man half his age, I rarely got a word in edgewise; he was too busy cracking gags and I was too busy laughing. In the end I just stayed quite, listened and let him do what he did best.

“How dare you missus,” I remember him yelling in mock indignation when I finally got the chance once to ask if he’d ever considered retiring.

“Why should I when I love every second of doing my job? Anyway, it’s not really a job… it’s more like a hobby. They say a man retires when he’s stopped doing what he doesn’t want to do and starts doing what he does want to do. My happiness is slaving over a hot audience.

“I never get tired of entertaining and making people laugh... well I do sometimes, but it doesn’t last for long. I think I’ve only had one day off in my entire career and that was for suspected pneumonia.

“I was back on stage the next night with a mustard patch on my chest. The doctor insisted that I wore it, but all the stage hands kept rubbing their ham sandwiches on it so it had to go.

“As long as people keep paying me the privilege of coming to my shows and laughing their heads off, then I will continue touring this great country of ours. It’s my love. It’s my life and I enjoy every single minute of it. And by Jove they can’t touch you for it.”

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Ken described himself as stage-struck, adding Ipswich was one of his favourite places to visit.

“I get great audiences in the sound east, they love to laugh… the east coast very bracing and I go to Skegness every year to have me teeth done,” he says of his famous gnashers, the result – he claims – of a childhood cycling accident.

“When I was seven or eight I tried to ride a bicycle with my eyes shut and you can as far as the kerb; then you go over the handlebars and I landed on me choppers. It had its advantages, I can kiss a girl and nibble her ear at the same time,” he quipped.

He didn’t begrudge a single one of the staggering 100,000 miles he travelled every year while touring. Ken loved whizzing round Britain, visiting lovely theatres; joking he had a nationwide window cleaning round too.

“I’ve got the best job in the world, I only see laughing, smiling, happy people - except when I’m singing a love song of course. Even then I don’t mind,” laughed the all-rounder, keeping his fellow Merseysiders the Beatles off the number one spot with Tears.

“It stuck at number one like a rock, they couldn’t get past it or think of words bad enough to describe someone who was sitting at the top singing this tearful ear-full. I think people were fed up to their eyeballs with rock and roll; everything you heard was all hang dang dang dang, like somebody throwing a load of saucepans at you.”

I remember his steadfast denial his shows overran.

“Oh I don’t do long shows… that’s an ugly rumour, I just give good value. It’s like a party and once you start you don’t want to be a party pooper and go home early... when the whole thing is swinging and the audience are really laughing their heads off it’s very difficult to say ‘that’s it folks’… and the doors aren’t locked, it’s not a hostage situation; anybody who wants to go home early can… we’ll definitely finish by midnight otherwise we’ll turn into a pumpkin.”

Ken told me he’d dreamt of doing nothing else since his parents took him to Shakespeare’s Theatre of Varieties in Liverpool. He recalled seeing all the great old stars of variety there.

“I can remember as a little boy being taken into this dark place and these beautiful lights, sound and men and ladies would come on looking very healthy. I didn’t realise its greasepaint, but at the time it seemed to me a magical place, a heaven. This man came on and made everybody laugh and I thought ‘that’s it’. He was the engine driver, a comedian, so I said to my dad how do you ‘comed’.”

A crusader for live theatre, he recalled his apprenticeship in clubs, Masonic lodges and the like. Entertaining since turning pro in 1954 he told me he was at his most discumknockerated – Knotty Ash for over the moon – on the road.

He grew up with Arthur Askey and Billy Bennett; then Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise whom he called masters of their craft. He lamented the lack of places to learn with far too much emphasis put on tasteless material and swearing being all too often being passed off as comedy.

“Humour hasn’t changed since the days of Aristotle and the other good Greek comedians; it’s audiences and their expectations that have changed. My style of humour is definitely optimistic. I always say ‘by Jove, what a beautiful day for jumping off the top of Blackpool Tower with your granny’s tortoise over your head’ or saying how’s this for hang-gliding’ or ‘ramming a cucumber through the vicar’s letterbox and saying, look out the Martians are coming’.

“Public psychology has sort of gone against optimism and you’ve got a lot of gloomy comedians now. I don’t denigrate, I celebrate laughter, I celebrate being alive, just as well at my age,” he laughed.

We joked about the thousands of books filling the Georgian farmhouse in which he was born in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash – yes, it’s a real place – and how he may have to eventually move if he kept adding to them.

“I get told off because I’ve got a house full of them and I’m warned by she-who-must-be obeyed that I daren’t bring any more. I sneak them in though the back door,” he laughed.

I never did get that special tickling stick Ken promised me.

“A lot of people think the tickling stick’s a sex symbol, but I think it’s a fallacy… Sunday mornings will never be the same again.”

Neither will the world of showbusiness without him.

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