Ken Dodd has reached that time in a celebrity’s life when, if their name crops up in conversation, the most likely question is: Is he still alive?
Dodd’s legion of fans would point out indignantly that at the age of 89, he is not only with us, but still in full swing.
To illustrate the point, they will tell you that on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the comedian was on stage performing his Ken Dodd Happiness Show.
Dodd is famous – or notorious, depending on how funny you find his Diddy Men and that tickling stick – for staying on stage for hours on end
Comedian Ken Dodd, who has been knighted, during his tax evasion trial in 1989
Dodd is famous – or notorious, depending on how funny you find his Diddy Men and that tickling stick – for staying on stage for hours on end. And in his 90th year, the shows are as long as ever.
Never mind being knighted for services to entertainment and charity, he surely deserves a ‘K’ just for stamina alone.
The hair is even wilder and scarier these days, and a new set of straight front teeth to replace the famous protruding ones has had the curious effect of making him look even more startling.
But he remains instantly recognisable as ‘King of the Diddy Men’.
The late barrister, George Carman QC, defended Dodd in his trial on tax fraud charges back in 1989, and at the time was rather worried about his client’s health. But he need not have worried.
Ken Dodd has been awarded a knighthood in the honours list
At the start of the trial – which some still regard as the most extraordinary celebrity trial for decades – Mr Carman revealed to the court that the star, then 61, had a potentially fatal heart condition.
If doctors’ fears were confirmed, he said, Dodd might never be fit enough to face court, or even appear on stage again.
The case was adjourned, but it resumed two weeks later.
It was a highly entertaining trial which dominated the news agenda, with the Diddy Men and Jam Butty Mines (which we’ll come to later) forming part of Mr Carman’s defence.
It had been a mysterious and cryptic letter sent to Dodd from his accountant which set a team of tax investigators on Dodd’s trail.
The comedian said: ‘I’m very proud, I’m very, very happy and full of plumptiousness’
It said: ‘You will notice that once again the Ken Dodd Enterprise balance sheet omits its greatest asset, i.e. The Great Drum – better known in Stock Exchange circles as the Aladdin’s Cave of Knotty Ash.’
Naturally, tax investigators were interested to know what precisely was kept in this ‘Aladdin’s Cave’.
The court heard that Dodd had £336,000 in notes scattered about in wardrobes, cupboards and under the stairs at homes he owned in Knotty Ash, near Liverpool – dubbed Knotty Cash during the trial.
Dodd had allegedly told tax investigators he stashed the money away because he ‘liked having a lot of cash’ and was worried about the economy.
The court also heard that he had secretly accumulated £777,000 in six bank accounts in Jersey and the Isle of Man.
Dodd’s legion of fans would point out indignantly that at the age of 89, he is not only with us, but still in full swing
However, he told the court: ‘I’m a comedian, not a book-keeper.’
Mr Carman drily quipped: ‘Some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants.’
The barrister also told the court that accountancy was a mysterious and fanciful science to Dodd – as fanciful indeed as the Diddy Men and Jam Butty Mines.
Diddy Men are miniature people played either by children or puppets in Dodd’s shows; Jam Butty Mines are, of course, the mines where the Diddy Men work. Famously, the prosecuting barrister in the case was Brian Leveson, now Lord Justice Leveson, whose name is now associated with his inquiry into the Press. He had to contend with Ken Dodd’s urge to entertain the courtroom.
When the judge asked the comedian what £100,000 in a suitcase felt like, Dodd replied: ‘The notes are very light, M’lud.’
At his trial, Dodd said: ‘When I was about 12 or 14, something very wonderful happened. I found that I had been given – blessed with – a magical gift, the gift of making people laugh. I take no credit for it’
But even though Dodd was acquitted, the verdict was marred by the estimated £2million tax bill he faced, made up of legal fees and around £825,000 in tax he promised to pay back whatever the trial’s outcome.
Today, despite Mr Carman’s grave misgivings, Dodd is full of vigour 27 years later – though many will wonder why is has taken this long for him to be knighted. Presumably the trial has much to do with it.
Dates are lined up for the continuing Happiness Show tour next year. He loves his job and has no intention of retiring.
His mum and dad would be proud of the soon-to-be Sir Kenneth Dodd. He grew up in a working-class household in Knotty Ash.
His father, Arthur, was a coal merchant and Ken and his brother, Billy, used to help deliver it.
Dodd’s interest in showbusiness was ignited when his father and his mother, Sarah, bought him a Punch and Judy show and he started putting on shows with his sister, June, in the back garden.
At his trial, Dodd said: ‘When I was about 12 or 14, something very wonderful happened. I found that I had been given – blessed with – a magical gift, the gift of making people laugh. I take no credit for it.’
In the early days, as he was trying to make it as a comedian, Dodd bought a van and drove around Liverpool’s housing estates selling household goods. Then, in 1954, he made his professional debut at the Empire Theatre, Nottingham.
He invented eccentric-sounding characters such as ‘Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty – Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter’.
Then along came the Diddy Men, who include Dicky Mint, Mick The Marmaliser and The Hon Nigel Ponsonby-Smallpiece.
The mere mention of such names prompts very different reactions in people: some individuals convulse and keel over in uncontrolled laughter, while others listen, mystified as to what might be so funny.But the former type seem to be in the majority, as Dodd’s six decades in comedy demonstrate. Indeed, a look at his long career reveals the man to be a phenomenon.
Dodd has hero status in Liverpool, and for many years there have been campaigns and petitions to have him knighted
In 1965, he got himself a regular gig at the London Palladium, earning £3,000 a week, enjoying an unprecedented 42-week season.Over the years, he has been a regular on television and radio.
And anyone under the age of 60 will probably have no idea that in the Sixties, Dodd was a big singing star.
He had massive hits with lovely, melodious tunes including Tears and Love Is Like A Violin as well as Happiness – which remains his signature tune today.
Dodd has never married but has had two ‘fiancees’.
His first, Anita Boutin, died of a brain tumour in 1977 aged 45, after the couple had been together for 22 years.
His second ‘fiancee’ of many years is Anne Jones, a 75-year-old former dancer. It has been reported that Miss Jones once went through IVF to try to conceive a child, and that its failure is a source of abiding sadness to them. Sad or not, under the make-up, all Dodd wants to do is make people laugh – though he has admitted his memory doesn’t have the clarity it once did.
Speaking after he picked up the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award in Bristol last January, he said: ‘My memory … well I was in Leamington Spa the other night and I just came to some lines and it was like, “Whoosh, it has gone”.
‘But as a comic you can get out of it with a line like, “I have had amnesia ever since I can remember”, or “I have just bought this book on how to develop a super memory but I can’t remember where I put it”.’ Nowadays he carries a script to help him along.
His fans certainly don’t hold it against him. Dodd has hero status in Liverpool, and for many years there have been campaigns and petitions to have him knighted.
But with the announcement that he will finally be so honoured, there is no need for any more petitions.
The Squire of Knotty Ash has been elevated to Sir Ken.
He and those Diddy Men must be tickled pink.