It was November 8 1927 and all was well in the Dodd household, even with all the ups and downs going on around the globe.
The British Broadcasting Company had become a Corporation and been granted a royal charter, and the first sports commentaries had begun with the England v Wales rugby international.
The first telephone call from New York to London had taken place, and mighty winds had battered Britain and killed 23 people. Sir Malcolm Campbell had claimed a new land speed record at the wheel of Blue Bird, and Joe Davis had won the very first World Snooker Championship.
There was the usual political upheaval, with Britain and Russia seriously at odds, and British troops arriving in China.
Yet everything paled into insignificance for the Dodds when they welcomed a bouncing baby boy.
They already had a son, Billy, and when their daughter, June, arrived too, Knotty Ash, Liverpool, was filled with happiness!
The house in which Doddy lived on Thomas Lane was built in 1782, so Ken was born into both humour and tradition. The portents were good.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Doddy was smaller than a tickling stick, but as he explained himself, it was clear from the start that he was going to be a funnyman.
“Dad knew I’d be a comedian,” he said once. “When I was a baby, he said: ‘Is this a joke?’”
All too soon, Doddy was walking and talking… and talking and talking from then on!
There was not much of an age difference between Ken and his older brother and younger sister so they grew up together. Mum and Dad were doting parents.
Ken described his mum, Sarah, as a “Mini-Mum” as she was quite short, but a dynamo who took great care of her family. His dad, Arthur, a coal merchant, was a part-time singer who could play the saxophone and clarinet.
“My grandmother was a shrewd lady and loved music,” Doddy said. “She urged Dad and his many brothers and sisters to play at least two instruments. They could have started an orchestra!”
Ken’s elder brother Billy went into the family coal business as soon as he left school, and did not consider becoming a performer, even though the whole family loved entertainment. June, on the other hand, did attend dance classes and guess who went with her? Yes, of course, little Ken!
“I had a very happy childhood,” he recalled. “I got on well with my mum and dad, as well as my brother and sister, and we lived in an old farmhouse. As Dad was a coal merchant, we were never cold.
“I was described as ‘shy and modest’. I have been shy and modest ever since… I have!
“As a boy, I liked digging holes, lighting fires and falling out of trees. I also loved to read, especially the Just William books. They were full of adventures and naughtiness and made me laugh.
“I also remember reading The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne when I was six. It’s about three boys shipwrecked on an island, and it took me to another world. I craved adventure and wanted to be heroic like those boys.
“My dad was my rock, always encouraging and never too busy for us. If we were ill, he’d say that he’d send for Doctor Chuckabutty. I loved the name and used it later as a character.
“Dad was very funny. He’d repeat songs and jokes from variety shows, and make us laugh so much.
“My mother was always great to talk to. We used to chat away for hours about everything, and sometimes nothing in particular.
“She was also quite practical. She’d say: ‘I don’t care what you get up to, as long as you wear a clean shirt.’ I’ve never forgotten that – I always have a clean shirt!”
As he himself had been encouraged to do, Arthur urged Ken to learn to play music.
“I learned the accordion – never try playing that when you are wearing a tie!” laughed Ken. “In fact, never try playing an accordion if you are entertaining at a nudist camp either…
“I also learned to play the cornet. I started with a wafer and worked my way up! There was also the piano, which gets easier if you think of it as running your fingers over a zebra crossing.
“I didn’t play well but I could make a noise. I still can – but without the instruments!”
So Doddy’s childhood was a happy one.
“I know comedians are supposed to be people who make others laugh while they are hurting on the inside,” he once said.
“Of course, you have your moments of sadness and upset, but I could never tell a tale of an unhappy childhood or things like: ‘We were so poor we used to send the dog out to sell the Big Issue.’ Our childhood was great. I had the most wonderful of parents.
“It was a big blow when they went. They gave me so much good advice and support. But my faith helped me through.”
Doddy’s parents made sure Ken and his siblings had a good start in church. They were Church of England and encouraged their children to learn and have a belief in God, a faith that stayed with Doddy throughout his life.
Ken went to Knotty Ash Primary, then the Junior School, before attending Holt High School.
During the early war years, he was evacuated for a short time to Shrewsbury in Shropshire.
“Lots of kids from Liverpool and other major cities were evacuated at the same time so it was quite a big thing,” he once recalled. “It was terrible for lots of mums, who didn’t know what kind of home their kids were being sent to.
“We were moved back after a short time so I don’t remember very much about my time as an evacuee, except I stayed with a very nice family and went to Priory School. I’ve liked Shropshire ever since.
“The evacuation was not an unpleasant thing but I was glad to get back to Knotty Ash. There really is no place like home.”
Young Kenneth was always up for a laugh and once walked all the way to school backwards to win a bet. He was not a bad student though.
“I loved learning but I didn’t like the teachers very much – I think they were failed tax inspectors!” he laughed.
He had a thirst for knowledge and won a scholarship at Holt High School.
“I was probably as surprised as anyone!” he said. “I did work hard, but I was easily distracted, often getting into trouble for talking in class. I thought it was OK as the teachers never stopped talking in class and they were supposed to be setting the example!
“Holt High School was quite a step up. Everyone seemed pretty serious. It was a big building too, quite imposing, and the smell of boiled cabbage was masked by buckets of disinfectant, which made you feel you were at school in a hospital.
“Still, what was school anyway? Somewhere you sat down between weekends.”
While Ken had been doing his best to be a good student, it had been discovered that he, like his dad, had a decent voice, and he became a member of the St John’s Church choir. He received the princely sum of 6d per service.
“We looked like little lamb cutlets in our surplices but while we might have seemed angelic, we spent most of the service eyeing the little girls in the congregation and making fun of their mums’ hats,” he revealed.
Those sixpences were put to good use. As well as Just William books, Ken was an avid reader of comics like Wizard, Rover and Hotspur, and was fascinated by the practical jokes – ink blots, itching powder and so on.
He was especially captivated by the advert that read: “Impress Your Friends, Fool Your Teachers – learn how to throw your voice.” He couldn’t resist, and sent away for the lesson on how to become a ventriloquist.
“My dad was very encouraging,” he said. “He loved show business. He regularly took us to the theatre to see the great variety artistes, as well as to circuses and fairgrounds, where we use to visit all the sideshows. I loved it, especially when we went to Blackpool and saw all the great summer shows and attractions.”
Arthur bought Ken a doll, which they named Charlie Brown. He wrote him a script and helped him learn to deliver it. Ken already had a Punch and Judy set and his dad made him a little stage. Ken was moving up a gear, with some advice from his dad ringing in his ears – “You must be original; you must have your own style.”
Kenneth Arthur Dodd made his stage debut at the age of eight, at St Edwards Orphanage. He was a big success and received half a crown for an act that included a song, some tap dancing and, of course, comedy with Charlie Brown.
“I did my first show on Christmas Day, and the audience was amazed,” he recalled. “I don’t think they could believe what they were being subjected to!
“I did my second show at a Knotty Ash School parent-teacher evening. Do you know, I don’t think they have ever asked me back!”
By this time, Ken looked like a smaller version of what we’d to get used to seeing. At the age of seven, his friends had dared him to ride his bike with his eyes closed. He did of course – and fell over the handlebars and gained the trademark teeth stuck out to remind him not to try it again.
It didn’t put Doddy off cycling though. One of his favourite comic book characters was a boy who could take off as he cycled.
“I tried and tried, but it never actually worked, even though my dad attached some wings to my bike!” he once revealed.
Invitations to perform started to come in and when he was 10, Ken appeared at the Scala Theatre, Widnes. When he was 12, he was on stage at the mighty Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
But it was just a bit of fun and, when he was 14, Ken left school to join his dad and brother in delivering coal.
The coal business taught him a great deal about people and how to talk to them. He even drove the truck sometimes – until he reversed it into a huge hole! He was then banned from driving it until he was 17 and had a proper licence.
Meanwhile, his love of theatre and show business had been sealed. Among his idols were Arthur Askey, Tommy Handley and film comedy greats like Will Hay and Laurel and Hardy.
He had also gained an extra showbiz experience by getting a part-time job as a prop boy for Cinderella, the panto in the local theatre, and was dazzled by seeing the show from behind the curtains.
Young Ken also learned how to knock on a door and say: “Hello Missus – fancy some nutty slack?”
So he was not only performing at charity events, but also on the doorsteps of Merseyside even as the bombs of the Second World World began to drop.
Doddy was on the launching pad and the touch paper was about to be lit to send into orbit a rocket of fun that was not just reaching for the stars, but about to become one of the brightest.
Extracts taken from Sir Doddy! by Bernard Bale.
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