HUNDREDS OF mourners gathered in Liverpool today for the funeral of the comedian, Sir Ken Dodd, who died last month, aged 90. Fans lined the streets outside his home in Knotty Ash as his funeral cortege, led by a horse-drawn carriage, left and travelled to Liverpool Cathedral.
WHEN I was seven years old I went to see a pantomime in what felt like the biggest and grandest theatre in the world. It was The Palace in Manchester, and to me it was beyond anything I’d ever imagined, all plush red velvet and shining brass, and I was electrified with excitement. I was wearing a red tartan kilt and new shoes and it was probably the most exhilarating moment of my life so far. But what would come during the setting up of the stage for the finale would go on to ignite a passion and set the course for a large part of my life.
Even boarding the coach to Manchester from our village, I had been very much looking forward to seeing Ken Dodd – I knew him and his simple humour from the TV variety shows of the day, and my nana and granddad had even brought me a ‘tickling stick’ from one of his notoriously long stand-up gigs. And then there he was, on stage in all his shiny polyester panto glory. It was marvellous.
During the change of scenery for the panto’s finale, Doddy came out on stage in front of the closed curtains and asked for a boy and a girl to come up and sing a song. Cast members came into the audience to find willing children. A little girl three rows in front of me was pressing herself into her seat, refusing to budge for the chorus girl attempting to coax her up. I almost stood on my seat, making myself as tall as I could with my hand in the air and shouting “me, me, me!” I think I remember my mum asking me if I was sure, but if she did I paid no heed as I darted into the aisle at the slightest hint of a nod from the cast member and careened down to the front rows.
I remember the distinct coldness of her hand as she led me down the aisle, to the side of the stage and up the steps. The lights were so warm and bright and I could barely see past them to the audience. And then I was face to face with Doddy, his tousled nest of hair and protruding teeth all the more ridiculous close up. I was fascinated by the orange pancake makeup on his face and the bright red dots in the corners of his eyes, a stage illusion invisible from the seats. And then the act began. He did a little interview with each of us kids, and was so friendly and genuinely sweet.
“What’s your name?”“Rachel.”“And where are you from?”“Helsby.” (Entire coach from Helsby roars in approval)“Oh I know, that’s on the Wirral isn’t it!”“Yeah!”
I actually had no idea, but his smile and enthusiasm was just contagious. Then it was time to sing – a cappella, the orchestra sat this one out. Doddy would sing a line, then the boy, then Doddy, then me. The tune was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” began Doddy in his signature warble. Come the boy’s line, he bottled it, barely squeaking a word. Doddy sang again. “And if you ever saw it,” Then it was my turn. The spirit of Dean Martin possessed me and I crooned as loudly into the mic as I could. “You would even say it glooooows…”
Years of sitting on my granddad’s knee in the kitchen and singing everything from swing to show tunes and music hall finally paid off. My style was naturally blue, low and syncopated from a then-lifetime of exposure to ‘Ol Blue Eyes, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey and I was giving it everything I had. Doddy was visibly delighted and eventually just handed the mic to me to finish the song.
When it was all over I gleefully clutched the goodie bag that was handed to me and I was led back off stage. The cast member gripped me by the shoulders this time, squeezing me excitedly and saying well done over and over. I saw the poor girl who had refused to get up getting a good finger-wagging from her mother. My own mum was elated but somewhat dumbfounded – my parents hadn’t known that I had a voice until this point. I remained oblivious to the rest of the panto. I’d tasted the stage. It set me on a course to music becoming an ever-bigger part of my life. National songwriting competition at Earl’s Court at 10 years old, wedding band singer at 15, funk band frontwoman in Dubai at 21, freelance musician in Shanghai at 26. But that first performance always stayed with me, as did the kindness and comfort that Ken Dodd exuded for a little girl on stage for the first time.
For a working-class family from the North West – as mine was – Ken Dodd was a real treasure. Simple, friendly and a true performer, he never forgot his roots – in fact, he based his entire act around them. I met him once again, years later, in a hotel lobby in Liverpool. I blurted out how we had first met and he was gracious enough to pretend that he remembered. Tatty bye Doddy, we really won’t see one like you again.
FIVE OF DODDY’S BEST:
SHE WAS a big girl – she could stir fry a leg of lamb. She tried the “speak your weight” machine. It said: “To be continued.” I HAVE kleptomania. But when it gets bad, I take something for it. I USED to think I was marvellous in bed – until I discovered all my girlfriends suffered from asthma. THE MAN who invented Cats’ Eyes got the idea when he saw the eyes of a cat in his headlights. If the cat had been going the other way, he would have invented the pencil sharpener. DO I believe in safe sex? Of course I do. I have a handrail around the bed.