"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 12 March 2018

R.I.P. Doddy

From the chapter ‘The Meaning of Scouse’ in my book So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool (Liverpool University Press, 2007)

One summer I took a job as a horticultural labourer.  Each morning the small gang of three labourers would muster in the yard to find out where the boss – a well-meaning Quaker with an awed reverence for The Guardian  – was going to take us that day.  One sunny morning he announced that we were off to trim the lawns and tidy the flower beds at an old people's home in Knotty Ash.  We all erupted into spontaneous laughter.  For Knotty Ash is both the home and focal point of the humour of the city's most famous comedian, Ken Dodd – "the face that launched a thousand quips" as his website informs us.

Born on 8 November 1927 in Knotty Ash, Ken Dodd is an interesting phenomenon in the history of British popular entertainment.  Starting out as a traditional end-of-the-pier variety entertainer he seized the opportunity provided by television.  His career flourished and still appears to be flourishing as he approaches 80.  He has even appeared at the Hay on Wye Festival of Literature.  He took off as a professional performer in the mid-1950s and6, topping the bill there in 1958 at the Central Pier.  This led to appearances at the London Palladium and on television.  He had his own TV series such as The Ken Dodd Show and Doddy's Music Box and in the 1960s he developed an additional career as a singer of romantic ballads.  The titles of some of his recordings say it all: Love is Like A Violin (1960), Happiness (1964) I Can't Seem to Say Goodbye to You (1966).  This was the sort of stuff that the explosion of the Merseybeat and the whole Beatles phenomenon was supposed to have relegated to the dustbin of light entertainment but Doddy wowed them throughout the sixties with these schmaltzy ballads.  His 1965 single Tears spent four weeks at the top of the Hit Parade which could not be matched at the time by the Beatles, The Hollies or the Rolling Stones.  Moreover he kept it up for ten years.

But it is the comedy that counts.  Dodd represents the softer side of Liverpool comic surrealism.  He is no Alexei Sayle. His repertoire of comic characters from Knotty Ash is drawn from the tribe of Diddymen which he invented originally to appeal to children in the audience. ‘Diddy’ is Scouse for ‘little’. Dicky Mint, Mick the Marmaliser, Evan, Hamish McDiddy, and Nigel Ponsonby Smallpiece (check the familiar ethnic and class stereotypes) worked at the Jam Butty Mines in Knotty Ash. In panto the Diddy Men are played by children in costume but for his stage act Dodd used just a puppet of Dicky Mint with whom he did a ventriloquist routine.  Another of his properties is the tickling stick which looks a bit like a feather duster.  The jokes are Liverpool jokes.  At the Liverpool Empire he looks up at the people in the Gods and announces: "It's a privilege to be asked to play here tonight on what is a very special anniversary.  It’s a hundred years to the night since that balcony collapsed."  The asides to the audience, the women addressed always as "Missus", the daft routines, the puns, the old jokes (he famously keeps copious notebooks of jokes classified according to what will work where) the cracks about the Inland Revenue with whom he had a famous confrontation and court case ("Self-assessement - they stole the idea from me."), add up to a style of comedy that is almost certainly on its way out and that is utterly removed from the patter you hear in the comedy clubs listed in Time Out.  There's a common quip you hear in Liverpool after some possibly less than Wildean witticism: "Well it made me laugh."  This is impossible to translate but means something like: "This may not be regarded as funny by anyone applying strict canons of criticism, especially people who live south of Watford, but I have decided it's funny and that's all that matters as far as I am concerned. Don't think you or anyone else can lecture me about what is or is not funny. You's be wasting your breath.  It's my freedom to laugh at whatever I like."

Ken Dodd has occasionally made me laugh.