Happiness and Tears: comedy historian Louis Barfe talks about his new biography of Ken Dodd
What springs to mind when you think of Ken Dodd? Possibly it’s mad hair and sticky-out teeth, or tickling sticks, or Diddymen from Knotty Ash. It could be his marathon live shows or his idiosyncratic tax arrangements (he liked to claim that he invented ‘self-assessment’). It might even be some of the 18 UK chart hits that he racked up as a recording artist between 1960 and 1975. Everybody knows something about Doddy, who died last year at the age of 90, but now acclaimed comedy historian Louis Barfe has told the full story of the funnyman’s life and times in a new biography, Happiness and Tears.
It’s by no means a muck-racking exercise, though, because there doesn’t seem to be any muck to rake. Speaking to Northern Soul, Barfe says: “He was one of the entertainers of the past with no dirt. The only thing that could vaguely be qualified as a scandal was addressed in his lifetime, with the tax trial. He was by all accounts just a thoroughly decent bloke who was obsessed with comedy. That was all he lived for.”
Indeed, Barfe’s book tells of a level-headed, decent chap who channelled his love for, and study of, his comedy heroes into a long, successful career. By 1965, Dodd was a major star, with his hit record Tears the best-selling UK single of the year and his comedy show running at the London Palladium running right through from April to December. Barfe says: “What’s quite is sweet is that he said ‘I had to take a flat in London while I was doing the Palladium season and I loved it. It was a great city and a great time to be there. A really great time to be Liverpudlian because it was all happening for us. It was The Beatles, it was the Liverpool football team. I loved Swinging London, really, really loved it.’ And at the end of season, he went back home to Knotty Ash. He never considered moving to London, but it wasn’t ‘ooh, I can’t stand those fancy London ways’. He loved it and he really was the toast of the town for that for the season. But what he didn’t bother about too much was showbiz parties and all that, he didn’t really hang around.”
Dodd remained a homebody for the rest of his life. While on tour, after doing a live show (if it was reasonably practical) he would drive back home to Liverpool at the end of every night. Barfe says: “He had a really happy childhood, unlike a lot of comedians who then mine it and turn it into the comedy of adversity and grinding poverty. His parents were comfortably off. There were three children and they were well-loved. His dad was a funny bloke and he adored his mum. He always said about his mum that ‘she gave her children the most important thing any parent can give a child and that’s time’. Show business is uncertain, but he always knew he could go back home to that. His mother died in 1968, his father in 1979, and at the height of his fame one or both were there. He was going home to mum and dad.”
Some of his contemporaries – Frankie Howerd, say, or Benny Hill – had chequered careers in which they fell in and out of fashion, but Doddy managed to maintain a fairly high profile throughout.
“During the 70s you couldn’t escape him, but he wasn’t on television all the time. I think it comes back to something his dad told him. He said, ‘look son, to succeed in anything you’ve got to be different’. Because of who he was and because of his comic persona and what he created, I think there was always this massive awareness of Ken Dodd and who and what he was, even when he wasn’t on TV. He didn’t have his own show on TV for a few years at one point and this was at the height of his fame, but everyone still knew who he was. He was quite clever at keeping his name in the public eye. He’d do appearances and he’d do his records and appear on Top of the Pops or he’d appear as a guest on other people’s shows.”
“One thing that was constant for most of his career was radio,” Barfe explains. “Whereas some comedians, like Morecambe and Wise, did telly and then did radio shows almost as an afterthought, with Dodd radio always came first. His priorities were live shows first, radio second and telly third. I think he felt, and I would tend to agree with him, that telly diminished him. There’s a lovely Ken Dodd Christmas show which exists as a studio recording. It’s not the finished, edited show, it’s the unedited studio recording. It runs for about two hours and there are moments when he’s told ‘oh, sorry, we’ve got to do this bit again’, and he gets impatient. He goes ‘thanks for nothing, why have I got to do that again?’. And you know that he just wanted to get through it, just do it. He didn’t want the stop/start of television. In radio, apparently, they used to record for hours and poor old Bobby Jaye the producer would have to cut it down to half an hour. The scripts would arrive and they’d look like a telephone directory.”
Later in life Dodd retained his keen devotion to comedy. He declared his admiration for the likes of Vic & Bob and Frasier while continuing to play shows all over the country under the banner of The Happiness Tour. Barfe feels that the title was no accident.
“I think there was sort of an evangelical element about his comedy. He was quite a religious man and I think he thought ‘let’s go to every town and spread this message of laughter, of happiness’. Everyone loves making people laugh and everyone loves being in the pub and getting a good reaction to a joke and I think he was just the extreme form of that. He really did live for those hours on the stage. When he wasn’t on stage, he’d be just sitting at home watching lots of comedy on television, or pottering round Liverpool where he was loved because he never left – not like Cilla, who was despised. Even the fact that he was a massive Tory didn’t bother the Scousers, which is a massive achievement. He was just one of them and he had immense time for people. He would just stand and talk to anyone and at the end of a show he wouldn’t go until the last autograph had been signed.”
“The thing is, I’m not an accountant, I’m a comedy historian and I found it immensely confusing to follow so I’m quite pleased to have managed to make it readable. I had quotes from [Dodd’s one-time TV sidekick] David Hamilton to explain things along the way, but yeah, the trial was very, very hard to follow. I think basically what you’ve got to do is view it as a comedy of errors. Actually, there were a lot of good lines in there, but it was a bad experience for Dodd. Although he joked about it, I think it shook him up to the end of his life.”
Over recent years, Barfe has made his name as a top-flight comedy historian, with a biography of Les Dawson and a history of British Light Entertainment under his belt. He says that the experience of writing his latest book hasn’t diminished his respect for Doddy one bit.
“What matters is the detail, but my assessment of the man hasn’t really changed. No, I liked him immensely. I think I can only write about people I like and respect. I’d have a really hard time if a publisher said to me ‘we want a book on so-and-so and we really want you to stick the boot in’. I’d rather celebrate people. I think the one that would interest me – because although I think he was an awful, awful person, I think he’s really interesting and there’s probably a story there that hasn’t been told – is [Opportunity Knocks mastermind] Hughie Green. I think my thesis on him would be ‘yes, he was awful, but he was a child star, and have you ever met one who wasn’t fucked up?’. He is on my long list, but there are numerous people potentially more marketable ahead of him who I like more.”
Happiness and Tears: The Ken Dodd Story by Louis Barfe is available in hardback and e-book from Apollo.
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