The Ken Dodd Happiness Show, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, December 27th 2007 — A Survivor’s Diary.
19:06. Brandishing his trademark tickling sticks, Ken Dodd comes bounding onto the stage, greeting us with a cheery “Ey-up!” This week marks his fiftieth anniversary in show business, we are soon told. This is a little strange, as Dodd’s first ever professional engagement was actually in 1954 — at the old Empire Theatre, where the Royal Concert Hall now stands. But this is no time to sweat the details.
19.13. Ken has long been known for his marathon shows, and he wastes no time in taunting us with the prospect of being stuck in our seats until the small hours. “Don’t worry about the buses and taxis — there’s always the milk floats!”, he quips, milking our unease for maximum laughs.
19.25. Noting the average age of his audience (which is somewhere well in advance of sixty, despite a sprinkling of younger faces), Ken promises us two intervals: “One for lager, and one for Complan”. We should be so lucky…
19:47. The keyboardist has yet to arrive, having been held up on the A50. (“Don’t worry, we’ll add it on to the end of the show.”) The drummer is holding his own, though — even prompting his boss on a couple of occasions, when the odd word slips his memory. Unable to take his scheduled musical breaks, Dodd is having to busk it a bit, making the show up as he goes along — and although he’s mostly doing OK, the strain is starting to show. Last month, Dodd turned eighty. Is the onset of old age finally starting to get to him?
20:05. Finally the keyboardist arrives, the stage hands setting up the equipment around him. With music on the agenda at last, Dodd leaves the stage, and a group of children perform a selection of Christmas carols.
20:14. After a very short burst of comedy, Dodd departs once more, leaving the same children to perform a singalong “wartime” medley. Without much in the way of audience participation, it all falls rather flat — and with the appearance of his long-term partner Anne Jones, who performs a seemingly endless series of well-worn chestnuts, the evening sinks further still. So Ken gets a twenty-five minute break, even if we don’t? You can feel the restlessness building in the aisles.
20:45. He’s back, and things aren’t going too well. “It’s an educational show. When you get out of here tonight, you’ll go: well, that’s taught me a lesson.” My companion rolls his eyes knowingly.
20:53. “There’s a special name for what I’m doing now: struggling.” You said it, Ken. His delivery is faltering — not helped by a troublesome and rather fruity cough — and the laughs simply aren’t coming. He’s trying to win us back, but it’s an uphill struggle. When’s the interval, anyway?
21:10. Ken is swapping banter with a poker-faced French maid of advanced years, who speaks with a local accent. The skit goes well enough, but there are still an awful lot of ad-libbed cracks about how quiet we all are. He even starts to take his frustrations out on the venue, “a Portakabin with a hint of mock-Wimpey”.
21:19. Ye Gods, it’s the Diddymen! We grin and bear it. Spirit of the Blitz, and all that.
21:32. Ken is threatening to cancel the interval and lock the gents’ toilets. Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him. There’s madness in those eyes tonight.
21:39. A musical tribute to the old masters of 20th century comedy — Cooper, Chaplin, Askey, Groucho Marx, Max Wall and all the rest of them — is marred by fluffed lines and ragged delivery. All around the auditorium, legs are being crossed just that little bit more tightly.
22:00. Nearly three hours in, the long awaited interval arrives. We stumble around the surprisingly uncrowded bar area, un-numbing our backsides and generally feeling a little shell-shocked. The beers might not be shifting, but the coffee stand is doing a brisk trade.
22:20. We’re back in our seats, along with around 90% of the audience from the first half. The house lights go down, and on comes… a magic act! My companion and I look at each other aghast. Is this how they reward our loyalty? There is a routine with a disappearing lady, which I can’t work out — and a routine with swords and a cabinet, which I work out in seconds.
22:37. The great man is back — and this time, he’s brought a Thermos flask and sandwiches. “Most of you have been reported missing by now”, he cries, before engaging various members of the front two rows in conversation.
22:45. “How many children have you got, missus?” It turns out that the lady in question has eight of them. He wasn’t expecting this, and seems to dither for a while — before coming back quite brilliantly. (“It’s a good job you sewed that hole up in your husband’s pyjamas. Well, you know what they say: a stitch in time saves nine!”) The gag brings the house down. Hey, this is more like it.
22:54. There is something of a mini-exodus, as people rush off to catch their last buses, or get out of the car parks before closing time. Undeterred, Dodd is in the middle of a bizarre operatic routine about haddock. It’s fast and wordy, and requires split-second timing. To our delight, the old boy pulls it off without a single hitch, to sustained applause. That interval seems to have done all of us the power of good…
23:10. The material is rather more “adult” in nature by now — but it’s merely risqué, and far from smutty. As the subject matter shifts from love-making to hospitals, so the material gets ever more considered and clever, playing to our intellects rather than going for endless quick-fire gags. We’re into late night, after-hours territory, and the belly laughs are rolling around the room. Behind me, one lady has almost completely lost it, roaring hysterically at every other word. Next to me, my companion is dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. Four hours in, and the octogenarian comedy legend is in peak form at last. Perhaps the people who left during the interval had got things the wrong way around — instead of leaving early, they should have arrived late.
23:25. Dickie Mint, the ever-popular ventriloquist’s doll, is sporting a guardsman’s uniform tonight. Some of his routine is still fresh in our memories from BBC2’s Christmas Eve “Ken Dodd Night” — but plenty of the gags are new, and no-one really minds. With all the quick-fire word-play between Dodd and his cheeky dummy, the famous “no bad language” rule comes very close to being broken — but in the end, our blushes are spared.
23:40. In between quips (“You know you’re entitled to an attendance allowance for staying here?”) Ken is reading out dedications from members of the audience. (“We’re one step away from turning into sheltered accommodation!”) The banter is flowing freely between the performer and the front two rows. The laughs are still rolling, and strange as it might sound, we feel like we could happily stay here all night. Two hours earlier, we couldn’t wait for the interval. Now we don’t want to leave.
23:55. Looking and sounding twenty years younger than the man who first stepped onto the stage, Dodd is working his way through some of his old hits — Love Is Like A Violin, Tears — and working in the odd Johnny Cash impersonation along the way. A final semi-operatic skit sees him in fine voice, every inch the ageless master of his craft, the last member of the music hall generation still standing. We shall never see his like again.
00:06. Bang on the five hour mark, an unashamedly sentimental Absent Friends brings the night to a close. Suddenly, Ken sounds older and frailer again, as he reluctantly ekes out his final moments on stage, not yet quite ready to step back into the shadows.
00:09. A quick burst of his signature tune Happiness, and it is all over. We feel as if we have just scaled the comedy equivalent of the North Face of the Eiger. He’ll probably be back this time next year, just as he has been almost every year since 1954. Good old Ken. For many of his ever-loyal audience, the holday season just wouldn’t be the same without him.