The Ashcroft Theatre staged one of the great performers of the last 50 years last week. It was just that he seemed to include a half-century’s material in his act, as our veteran showbiz correspondent BELLA BARTOCK reports
They were not so much jokes, more like old friends with whom Ken Dodd was getting us re-acquainted.
In the foyer of the Fairfield Halls last Saturday, there appeared to have been a run on local supplies of feather dusters. At 86, Dodd, probably the last of the old-school comics – and one who’s not been arrested, he reminded us during the course of the evening – had attracted not so much an audience as an adoration.
Five hours his show would last. FIVE. HOURS.
Doddy was on stage for all but an hour and 15 minutes – a phenomenal performance of endurance. And that was just for the audience. The demands that Dodd’s show put on his audience also highlighted that maybe Croydon Councillor Dudley Mead has a point: the 50-year-old seats in the auditorium are long overdue some serious re-upholstering.
Thing was, none of the seats in the Ashcroft Theatre were as old as the majority of Doddy’s jokes.
“Why did the blonde stare at the bottle of orange juice for two hours? Because the label said concentrate.”
But that was never really the point.
This was a piece of cultural history in our midst, a museum exhibit of a by-gone age of variety and Music Hall. Viewed on that basis, it was a delight and a treasure.
There are some modern stand-ups who owe much of their schtick to the likes of Ken Dodd – Lee Mack, for one, at times appears to be the 2014 embodiment of what Eric Morecambe might be doing were he alive. But the 21st century comedians who play sold-out nights to thousands at the O2 won’t resort to the sort of Seaside Special musical acts that Dodd has to break up his routines (a bass recorder? Seriously?). And for that, we should all be very grateful.
By the time the curtain came down for a final time, just after midnight, the poor old man on stage had given his all and looked utterly spent. Or maybe the green tinge on his stage-pale face was just the Ashcroft’s lighting misbehaving again?
“Fellas, why don’t you go home tonight, grab a handful of ice, throw it down the missus’s top and say ‘How about that for a new chest freezer?’ “
It is, to all extents, a one-man show, ably backed up by a two-man musical band on electric organ and drums that has an uncanny resemblance to Raw Sex, Rowland Rivron’s early stage act. That Rivron and Simon Brint were sending-up this very style of performance and performer means that the comparison is not necessarily a good one.
Yet Dodd’s entire life in what the luvvies delight in calling “show business” has depended on music, and while now it is used only as a comic interlude in his routine(s), it remains a essential and very funny part of his act. It is fair to say that while he never extends his distinctive voice, for an octagenarian, he still sings very well.
It is worth remembering that when the Beatles had four of the best-selling singles of the 1960s, it was Ken Dodd, the son of a coal merchant from Knotty Ash, who had the other top-five selling song of the decade.
“I’ve seen a topless lady ventriloquist. No one has ever seen her lips move.”
But “Tears”, Dodd’s million-selling song, was one of the few parts of his repertoire that did not get an airing. This was the Happiness Show – after one of his other better-known songs. There was no place for “Tears.” Perhaps there ought to have been.
Throughout the show, Dodd teased the audience with the length of time he would be on stage. “Murderers get less time than you will.”
There was probably too much badinage with the front two rows, some of it repeated, but you sense that this is how Dodd paces himself through the evening. The occasional pauses, the apparent forgotten lines, are probably also all part of the act – the “Raw Sex” duo was able to drift on and off stage without missing a beat, suggesting that it was all quite routine.
Here was the old comic who just did not want to take his bow and leave the stage. He loves being there so much.
It was noticeable how few contemporary references there were in the whole act. After five hours, including the Great Drum of Knotty Ash, the funny outfits, the vent act with the Diddyman (though, perhaps in a nod to the current climate regarding the sex lives of 1960s telly superstars, he no longer sings, “Climb Upon My Knee, Sonny Boy”), it is hard to recall with any certainty any of the one-liners or the other gags. But there’s a very strong chance that the most recent Hollywood movie referred to in the piece by Dodd was Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic.
This was less about the actual comedy, and more about witnessing a stage legend. Some of the audience gave up early on, with gaps appearing in the stalls after the first interval, while others slipped away so as not to miss the last train or bus.
If they really did leave early because Dodd wasn’t as funny as they’d hoped, then as well as risking missing the bus, they missed the point.
I was once in New York and tickets to see Aretha Franklin at the Carnegie Hall were available. “We should go,” I suggested to m’colleague.
“Nah,” said he after a hard day slaving over a warm laptop, “let’s go downtown and have a quiet meal.”
I will probably never get to see Aretha play Carnegie Hall. I will regret it ever more.
But I was delighted to get the chance to see Ken Dodd play the Fairfield Halls.
* And the punchline to the first Dodd joke? Eileen.
See what I mean?
Coming to Croydon
- David Lean Cinema: Basically Johnny Moped, Mar 27-28
- Crystal Palace Question Time, Mar 27
- Croydon Half-marathon, Mar 30
- David Lean Cinema: 12 Years a Slave, Apr 3
- David Lean Cinema: The Great Beauty, Apr 10
- Norwood Society Talk: Crystal Palace, Apr 17
- David Lean Cinema: Inside Llewyn Davis, Apr 17
- Opening of Marlpit Lane bowling and putting greens, Apr 17
- Lives Not Knives Music at the Unit, Apr 19
- Arts and Crafts Market, Exchange Square, Apr 19
- David Lean Cinema: Short Term, Apr 24
- Norwood Society Talk: West Norwood – a place of change, May 15
- Croydon RFC charity memorial day, May 17
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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