ATV Icon: Remembering Ken Dodd.
Entertainer Sir Ken Dodd is the latest to be inducted into the ATV Network Hall of Fame, as the Merseyside star is laid to rest later today (March 28th 2018) at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.
Kenneth Arthur Dodd was born on November 8th 1927 in Knotty Ash, Liverpool, in a 1782 built house on Thomas Lane which has been part of his family for generations. The son of Arthur, a coal merchant, and Sarah. The middle child – ‘we had one of each’ he joked – his older brother was William and his younger sister June.
Nicknamed Doddy he studied at Knotty Ash School with an early talent for singing saw him as part of the local church choir. An advert in a magazine stirred an interest in showbiz – although the ventriloquist career it was promoting never took off, it did become, adapted humorously, part of his stage and television act. Aged 14 with his vent-dummy called Charlie Brown he entertained local children.
Ken appears at the Aston Cross studios in Birmingham on Thank Your Lucky Stars for ABC Weekend TV.
By 18 Ken was working across the country as a salesman, taking on gigs in the evening at social clubs. It would be the East Midlands that gave Dodd his ‘big break’ when, aged 26, he tread the boards of Nottingham Empire as ‘Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter’. A year later, in 1955, he was working his way up the showbiz ladder working alongside comedy greats in Blackpool and by 1958 he was topping the bills at theatres in the North West resort.
Television soon came knocking for his family humour with variety shows from ABC North broadcast from Blackpool, celebrity appearances on ATV Midlands’ Lunchbox, ATV London’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, BBC TV’s Juke Box Jury and Six Five Special. Theatre shows and television specials would form part of his career for the next fifty years. But it wasn’t all comedy, in 1968 ATV lured him into a serious cameo in ratings winner Crossroads. Ken appeared as himself in the daily soap opera. He would also in the 1980s take on a non-comedy part in BBC One science fiction drama Doctor Who.
However, it was his wit that viewers loved the most and in 1959 he was given the first of what would become many entertainment vehicles for the star with The Ken Dodd Show on the BBC. The sixties also saw Doddy, with his operatic singing voice, become a “pop star”. This also lead to a television series entitled Doddy’s Music Box for ABC TV on ITV.
Ken Dodd appears as himself in Crossroads alongside Noele Gordon as Meg Richardson.
Ken had many chart-hits with his releases making the UK Top 40 on no less than eighteen occasions. His first release, back in 1960, was the ballad Love Is Like a Violin from Decca Records. It peaked in the UK Top 10 at number 8. The song that would become his signature tune ‘Happiness’ by Bill Anderson charted in 1964 while the 1965 release on the Columbia record label of Tears topped the UK singles for five weeks, it became the biggest hit of the year with over one million sales in the United Kingdom alone. The track is now noted as being the third best selling song of the 1960s.
Other popular tracks included The River and Promises. He also recorded numerous albums with a varying mix of tracks such as May You Always, Love Me With All Of Your Heart and Eight by Ten. In later years he would also make available to theatre audiences a special CD release which featured the reflective Absent Friends which he performed live at each gig.
There were also, as possibly to be expected, comedy songs such as Where’s Me Shirt released by Doddy and the Diddy Men.
Ken with his Diddy Men on his ATV series.
Ken’s Diddy Men – “diddy” being local slang for “small” – were often referenced in his material, and later appeared as puppets and also played by children. A version of the Diddy Men also went on sale in the 1960s, again as part of merchandise from his theatre gigs. The Diddy Men would appear on his ATV and Thames Television series’ for ITV across the 1970s.
Throughout the 70s and 80s Doddy was a regular on the chat show scene with notable appearances with Russell Harty, Michael Parkinson and Derek Batey’s Look Who’s Talking. Game shows were also a popular format for comedians and Ken was hugely popular on the quiz circut making appearances on shows such as ATV’s The Golden Shot and Celebrity Squares, BBC One’s Blankety Blank and Yorkshire TV’s 3-2-1.
Ken also had a great faith and he was proud to share it on several more serious programmes including the Beeb’s Songs of Praise, Yorkshire Television’s Stars on Sunday and Tyne Tees Television’s Highway. In 1982 Ken was given an OBE, it was just one of a number of times he would be mixing in royal circles. He made his Royal Variety performance debut in 1965, appearing several times thereafter. Dodd was also selected to perform Tears on A Jubilee of Music, for BBC One in 1976. The special was a celebration of key pop chart hits from across the Queen’s first 25 years as Britain’s monarch.
Ken in a sketch for his ITV series.
The late 1980s saw the king of Knotty Ash hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. While later he would make endless gags about his issues with HMRC, at the time tabloid newspapers were enjoying his ‘fall from grace’. In 1989, Dodd was charged with tax evasion. The trial, produced several revelations notably that his Diddy Men, who had appeared in his stage act, were often played by local children from stage schools, and were revealed never to have been paid. However, after the three-week court case, Ken was aquitted.
His ‘tabloid downfall’ became another hit as he went straight into a sell-out run at The London Palladium, a version of the show was later broadcast by ITV, this lead to further television work being offered during the 1990s and into the 2000s. He had a ratings success with London Weekend Television’s An Audience with Ken Dodd in 1994. It was so well recived by ITV audiences that four years later the follow up, Another Audience with Ken Dodd, was produced for the network.
In the past twenty years several documentaries have celebrated the work of Doddy and his life, these include most recently the Channel 5 special Ken Dodd: In His Own Words which celebrated his 90th birthday.
Ken returned to ITV screens via LWT specials An Audience with Ken Dodd.
In 2017 as Ken approached that landmark birth date he was bestowed with a knighthood. Many felt that ‘Sir Ken’ was a long overdue title. Madame Tussauds in Blackpool also gave him, and his waxwork, a ‘diamond’ tickling stick – just one of his famous props known to millions of comedy fans over the years. A statue of Ken, with a tickling stick, is located at Liverpool’s Lime Street train station; a tribute from the city that loved him, and he equally loved in return.
Sadly not long after his 90th celebrations, Ken became unwell. He was hospitalised for six weeks with a chest infection, however, seemed keen to get back to ‘the job he loved’ when released from hospital only a few weeks before his death. Dodd died at his home in Knotty Ash, the same home in which he was born and raised. Ken married Anne Jones on the 9th of March 2018, two days before his death. They had met first back in 1961 when she appeared in The Ken Dodd Christmas Show at the Manchester Opera House. They however didn’t venture into a relationship until 1978 a year after Anita Boutin, whom Ken had been engaged to, passed away. Anita died aged only 45 from a brain tumour. They had been a couple for 22 years.
Ken and his humour will resonate with audiences, thanks to his many television performances, some of which are on DVD, for many years to come due to his comedy being entirely family friendly. Yes sometimes saucy, but often just silly fun that appeals to the youngest of viewers just as much as the oldest. He was described as “the last great music hall entertainer” and we should all be grateful we witnessed him in action – either live in theatre or on TV – in our lifetime.