Ken Dodd (1927-2018)

Ian McKellen recalls the renowned comedian Ken Dodd

Ken Dodd with his tickling stick

Many of the comedians of my youth were from Liverpool: I heard them on radio. Tommy Handley in war-time ITMA was the most celebrated, though I preferred Ted Ray in Ray's A Laugh: Rob Wilton and his mournful, dithering catch-phrase "The day that wore broke out". Influenced by them all, born in Knotty Ash, Merseyside, Ken Dodd was blessed with a funny birthplace and name - and looks. Wide eyed, buck-toothed, hair all over the place, he was in the tradition of silly-looking comics like the gormless George Formby, Albert Modley in his flat-cap, Eric Morecambe and his glasses -- also northeners as it happened.

A confession: Ken Dodd didn't make me laugh on radio, though the factory audiences at Worker's Playtime hooted. The same on television in decades of shows: the studio audience were helpless.

Then I saw him where he belonged, live, in a theatre. The one-line gags were the same with glee, while I at home wondered why a bit, mingled with his sentimental ballads and daft ventriloquism. But there in front of you he was irresistible: and demanding too.

He would announce at the 7.30pm start that the exit-doors were locked. No-one could leave, even to catch the last bus home, until they had given in to Doddy's onslaught of surreal one-liners. For me there was always a moment half-way through when I started to laugh, not because the jokes were funny but because Doddy thought they were and because his very presence and appearance tickled like a tickle stick and I gave in. His theory, even his raison d'etre,  was to shift the audience's perception of the world, however slightly, so they left the theatre changed inside. They usually left long after midnight!

 I met him first after his summer show at the Coventry Theatre in 1962, when he had only be working for 8 years but was already top of the bill. Backstage over a cup of tea, he showed me how he marked each of the evening's jokes out of ten, so he could cut the two lowest scorers  at the next show. Two new jokes were scribbled as a reminder,  on the starched cuff of his white shirt.

It was the same last year when I went to see him at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. He was in his 90th year, still trying out a bit of new material. The basic formula was the old one. The doors were locked, the show began, the gags flowed. Supported by Lady Dodd and a click track, he mouthed to the to the Diddy doll on his knee and ended by singing Happiness. It was 12.15am. And we were all happy, which is just what he wanted and had made happen. Then the Dodds packed up the car with his props and costumes and drove the 200 miles home to sleep in their own bed at Knotty Ash.

That afternoon we had met up for tea with Chris Smith, the Provost of Pembroke College where I was lodging. We talked about Shakespeare: after all he'd played Malvolio. But mostly he tried to make us, a tame audience of 2, smile and smiled broadly himself when he succeeded. As he always did, right up to the end.

Ian McKellen, London, 12 March 2018