Desperately seeking Doddy

Encounters - On the trail of the unmatchable <strong>Ken Dodd</strong>, Michael Coveney finally catc

Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life in High Wycombe on a wet Thursday afternoon to spend nine or ten hours in the company of Ken Dodd. That is a slight exaggeration. Dodd's Happiness show lasts only about five and a half hours, so the rest of the time was my own; I chose to spend it with Doddy anyway.

It was either that or a listless, unrewarding wander around Wycombe. The town is one big car park and isn't even twinned with anywhere, though it does have a suicide pact with Grimsby. Or so Doddy told me as I greeted him backstage at the Swan, one of the newest theatres (only 12 years old) in the country.

I should explain that I have been trying to get Dodd to do a book, with or without my co-operation, for several years now. I regard this mission as a national duty. Dodd is the last surviving link with the heyday of British music hall, and he has great stories about everyone from Arthur Askey and Ted Ray (his fellow Liverpudlian heroes) to Max Miller, Tommy Cooper and Les Dawson.

If he doesn't spill the beans soon, we'll have to rely on Roy Hudd, I tell him, as we settle down in his well-appointed dressing room (well, there is a large mirror and a few chairs). "I was banged up in Torquay once with Roy Hudd," he says. "We were doing a prison show together and I was so good they let me out afterwards. I think he's still there, isn't he?"

The duty house manager knocks on the door to tell us there's a party of 76 pensioners in tonight who have to leave at 11pm precisely. "What, before the interval?" Dodd mutters forlornly. He asks where they are sitting and if they would mind taking off their shoes before they leave.

He then reprimands the young lad for wishing him "good luck". "Never say that in a dressing room. Go outside, walk round in three circles, knock on the door, come back in and say 'Break a leg' if you must say anything." The lad does so. "He'll never make that mistake again, by Jove," chortles the Squire of Knotty Ash.

About three hours later, Dodd will sensationally preview the entire second half for the departing silver-tops, hinting at the lavish display of marionettes and nude tableaux they will be missing (not), along with the special guest star who has just flown in from LA - Luton Airport. This reminds me of the pantomime in which Danny La Rue started with the full-dress walk-down and finale for the benefit of people worried about missing the last bus home. The rest of the show was a post-climax.

Kenneth Arthur Dodd will be 73 next month, and is this year celebrating his 50th anniversary in show business. Is he slowing down? Is he, heck. He and his partner, Anne Jones, live in the Knotty Ash house he was born in, and most nights they drive home to Liverpool in the small hours to save on the hotel bills. The unpaid tax charge of which he was acquitted in 1989 is far behind him - he paid the late George Carman, QC about a million quid for getting him off lightly - but he still has thousands of unused notes. "Well," he shrugs, "I like to collect pictures of the Queen."

The trouble with a book about Dodd is that he really doesn't like anyone but himself to refer to the case. "Did you know," he says, "income tax used to be tuppence in the pound. My trouble is, I thought it still was." Nor does he ever talk about his first "fiancee", Anita Boutin, who died of a brain tumour in 1977. Then there is the sad and nasty business of the stalker who was convicted last year for pushing burning rags through his letter box and posting him a dead rat.

With his stick-up hair, stick-out teeth and face of a crumpled clown, Dodd is unimaginable in any context but the stage. "I'm an entertainer, that's what I am. Once you've tasted the applause, that's it for life." He does not want any memorial or biography that dwells on anything else, really, and is aghast at the revelations about office sex in the recent autobiography by that nice man Michael Buerk. "If that's what you have to do to sell a book, well, bollocks to it."

Dodd is much happier telling me that his favourite current news story is the one about the party of pensioners who went to a cinema in Whitby to see The Ladykillers, fully expecting to rekindle memories of that nice Alec Guinness, only to find that it was the new Tom Hanks version with "145 fucks in it", so they all filed out smart-ish.

This discrepancy between a cosy show for the old folk and the comedy of rude interruption is at the heart of Dodd's act. He is, in the parlance of the Middle Ages, the Lord of Misrule, brandishing his tickle sticks like the proverbial pig's bladder, both embodying and ridiculing the magic of the theatre "creeping over you like moss". He is not only irresistible on stage, he is unstoppable. ("It's not the telly, missus, you can't turn me off.")

It must be those "gee-up" tablets, "half Viagra, half Marmite". If you've seen five hours of Dodd, why would you settle for an hour of Jimmy Carr, Jack Dee or Lenny Henry (and they're the best of the rest)? Of the new guys, only Ross Noble can claim any meaningful comparison in the genius stakes. And even he has never stood on a stage at 12.45am and shouted at the audience: "The sooner you laugh at the jokes, the sooner you can go home."

So we did, and we went. Older - much older, certainly - and wiser, perhaps. I'd had my Doddy fix for another few months and stored a new batch of memories for souvenirs and the book that might never happen. On my way past the stage door, I popped in to find Dodd in his white vest, peeling off his make-up, slugging a pint of lemonade shandy and regaling a couple of actor friends with the story of what Bob Hope said to him when he (Hope) saw him (Dodd) for the first time: "Every laugh was like a sword in my side." Ah, the camaraderie of comedians!

Michael Coveney is hoping to see Ken Dodd north of High Wycombe, even if it means going to Scarborough, quite soon

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, America - God, gays and guns