Another Audience With Ken Dodd

Saturday, February 9, 2002 by

Quite a few years ago now I saw Ken Dodd’s Laughter Show at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow and enjoyed it immensely. Then in 1995 I saw An Audience With Ken Doddon ITV and enjoyed that hugely too. So as I settled down to watch Another Audience With Ken Dodd last Saturday night I had high hopes. Happiness was on its way and a pleasant diversion from the incessant fixed grins of Gareth and Will and their pop pap. Unfortunately ’twas not to be.

It’s easy to see why ITV1 wanted to make this show. The first Audience With … was a huge success and has been repeated several times. It was the affirmation in the nation’s affections of a truly great comic who had been absent from our television screens for too long. So what could make more sense than doing another one? Since the essence of stand-up comedy is rather given away in the name and therefore perfectly suited to the Audience With … format, and since Doddy is still touring, then surely seven years later it would simply be a case of standing the old boy in front of a camera and audience and letting him get on with it. That, I suppose, must have been the theory. I don’t suppose it occurred to those amongst the wise at ITV1 that our Ken might not have much new material. Perhaps they hadn’t thought to check? What we got then was much the same as the original (very much the same) with only a change amongst the personnel in the celebrity audience very different from the first.

Personally I always find the celebrities in the audience at least – if not more – interesting than the act on show. The calibre of rent-a-face on offer varies wildly depending on who is starring and provides a great guide to the standing of said star. For example, Peter Ustinov had Ted Heath in his crowd; Spike Milligan had Peter O’Toole; Kenneth Williams had the likes of Peter Nichols, Roy Kinnear, Barry Took and Joan Sims and Victoria Wood had Julie Walters – natch. The execrable Freddie Starr edition however featured the glitterati that are Vanessa Feltz and Patsy Palmer. For himself first time round Doddy had questions from, amongst others, Frank Carson and Dame Hilda Bracket. An interesting selection and suitably eclectic, I think. This time there were similarly unusual (nowadays) appearances from the likes of Dora Bryan, and Ricky Tomlinson was present and alluded to once or twice although never called upon.

The questioning itself has evolved from the early glory days of Kenneth Williams’ show when he clearly had no idea who many of those piping up were (“Oh it’s Matthew [Kelly] … Game for a Laugh! It is Matthew isn’t it?”) and used as both a way of introducing the more interesting members of the audience and a roundabout uber-showbiz cue for the next bit of shtick. Nowadays this is their sole purpose as any pretence that these are genuinely spontaneous questions has been dropped. For instance, Dora Bryan asked for a song and (sadly) got one. And that was about it for the input of the audience, their only other involvement being frequent shots showing them rolling in the aisles hysterical with laughter. In fact, a few of them were so good at it that the director used the same clip of them (Denise the agony aunt from This Morning especially, mopping her eyes with mirth) over and over again.

The problem with this show was that it was always going to stand and fall by the material Dodd had to use. This sounds a bit obvious I’ll admit but Kenneth Williams, Peter Ustinov and Spike Milligan, for example, could repeat a screed of their famous anecdotes and mingle them with reminiscence which they could wander off on if it occurred to them. This however is something Dodd has never seemed comfortable doing. On his Face to Face interview with Jeremy Isaacs some years ago, for instance, it took the questioner some time before he was able to break through his subject’s stock “comedy” answers. So one would have imagined that Dodd would have made sure he had some new stuff. Unfortunately he seems to have not watched his first show seven years ago or had maybe hoped that everybody would have forgotten it.

He sang the Floral Dance, which he did last time. This time though he sang it all. An improvement? Hmmmm … Then he sang There Was an Old Farmer who had an Old Sow, which he started last time but which we got more of this time. He followed precisely the same format as before even down to the costumes (part one: regular suit, part two: comedy outfit, part three: evening dress) although whereas in the last show he had a prop basket on stage this time he opened a segment with him in a mock-up dressing room for no adequately explained reason: it was certainly never referred to in the ensuing patter. He produced the Great Drum of Notty Ash and did precisely the same business with it as before (banging on it shouting, “Softly, softly,” and so on). He brought out a diddy man and did almost the same act as before again with just a different song. Although this proved to be one of the more entertaining parts of the programme it couldn’t help but seem repetitious. Most notably were the incessant references to tax, accountants, addition and so forth with obvious echoes of his celebrated evasion of tax and even more celebrated avoidance of going to jail for it. This seems now to take up much of his act. New (or different) material consisted mostly of a routine about the Germans singing a song wearing a pointy helmet. Hilarious.

All in all, the most disappointing thing about this show was that it seemed unnecessary and actually diminished his formidable reputation. It made it seem like the old boy had nothing new to say even despite some “topical” material (are jokes about Posh and Becks being thick still topical?) To drum up business for the programme several listings magazines noted that Dodd once appeared in the Guinness Book of Records for telling 2,000 jokes in record time. But were they funny? This is very much in keeping with the apparent supposition the show made of the viewer: Dodd went through the routine but it just seemed like a man retreading old ground and we were supposed to laugh simply because he was there doing it, because he was Ken Dodd and he is funny – no questions asked. We laughed at the first one, so now laugh at the second one.

Although the Audience With … format has been rather debased in recent years (it had been considered at one point a significant accolade) by using substandard subjects – particularly the current pop music flash in the pan (Ricky Martin) or dreary warhorse (Cliff Richard) – it can still provide a great showcase for great talent to be appreciated in a way that few other shows can. The first Audience With Ken Dodd was a case in point. Another Audience With Ken Dodd was just a disappointment.


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