Ken Dodd is to be the subject of a major new documentary celebrating his life and legacy, with hopes that the film will help realise his dream for a national comedy museum, British Comedy Guide can exclusively reveal.
Premiering at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds on 9th June, when the performing space in the Victorian theatre is renamed The Sir Ken Dodd Auditorium in honour of his many appearances at the venue, including on the BBC's variety staple The Good Old Days, The Real Ken Dodd: The Man I Loved is an appropriately lengthy feature about the one-of-a-kind act, who died in 2018 aged 90, with the three-hour film recalling his marathon shows that would routinely continue past midnight.
Narrated by Miriam Margolyes and featuring Lee Mack, Harry Hill, Johnny Vegas, Tim Vine, Les Dennis, Ricky Tomlinson, Stephen K Amos, Shaparak Khorsandi, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Stephanie Cole, Nichola McAuliffe, Ian McKellen and the late Paul O'Grady, the film will screen in cinemas and is expected to be broadcast on television at a later date.
It traces Dodd's career, from his roots in the music hall tradition to still appearing on stage in his ninth decade; his commitment and intellectual passion for comedy; his beneficence in helping to keep some much-loved UK theatres from going bust and his personal and professional relationship with his widow Anne, who effectively served as his tour manager, driver, personal assistant and publicist and is now dedicatedly keeping his memory alive.
During his lifetime, Dodd fundraised to save several venues from closure, including the Royal Court Theatre in his native Liverpool, the Manchester Palace, the Blackpool Grand and The Stockport Plaza, on occasion hosting marathon joke-telling sessions that were recognised by the Guinness Book Of Records.
Since his death, Anne has overseen the Ken Dodd Charitable Foundation, which built The Sir Ken Dodd Performance Garden at the Shakespeare North Playhouse; a training and education centre at the Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital and The Sir Ken Dodd Happiness Hall for Church and Community in Knotty Ash, on the site of the comic's former junior school, amongst various other construction projects.
As BCG reported last month, plans are also now underway to build The Sir Ken Dodd Happiness Centre at the Royal Court, a £15 million national comedy museum, or "old jokes home ... his biggest dream", The Real Ken Dodd's producer Lorna Dickinson told this website.
Dickinson, who made An Audience With Ken Dodd for ITV in 1994 and appeared in the posthumous BBC Two tribute documentary Ken Dodd: How Tickled We Were the year that he died, said that "Lee Mack, Harry Hill, Stephen K Amos, they were all saying that they thought the idea of a national comedy museum was bloody brilliant, that there isn't a comedian in the country who wouldn't support the idea."
The Museum of Comedy in London already showcases a number of artefacts from British comedy history and houses a performance space. But at four storeys, the proposed addition to the Royal Court would be substantially bigger. In the documentary, the filmmakers take Anne to The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum & The National Comedy Center [sic] in Jamestown, New York, to get an impression of America's curation of its humorous heritage.
"Like Lucille Ball, Ken wanted people to celebrate comedy as an artform" says Dickinson. "One that should be held up like ballet or opera but isn't given as much support because it's commercial and because it came from the Victorian music hall, a popular artform for the masses." Just last week it was announced that Happiness!, the Museum of Liverpool's current exhibition dedicated to Dodd, will be extending its run through to 7th July because of demand.
Describing Dodd as "the last link to variety, his father took him to all those old shows when Liverpool was a huge entertainment hub because of all those travelling to America", Dickinson nevertheless calls him pioneering too, organising his own tours from the 1970s and striving to perform at every theatre in the UK.
Directed by Eric Harwood (Meet The Izzards, The Toilet: An Unspoken History), who grew up in Dodd's neighbourhood of Knotty Ash and as a child played football behind the comedian's house, for his production company Heart & Soul Films, the documentary has been five years in development. It features O'Grady speaking in 2022, the year before he died, about his fellow Scouser's influence on his drag queen alter-ago Lily Savage.
"He was a huge fan who collected all the Diddy Men [toys] and said that 'Ken Dodd was Christmas in our house'" Dickinson recalls. "All of his aunties loved Ken. And he said that the imaginative world he created with the Diddy Men in Knotty Ash, it was so surreal, a fantasy, like when he called Lily's world 'the lovely little fishing village of Birkenhead'.
Left-wing O'Grady and Conservative-voting Dodd "couldn't have been more different people" she adds. "But Ken was an inspiration for Lily Savage's world, that storytelling of fantasy convinced him that he could do it too."
The film also presents more direct insights into Dodd's creative process, sharing extracts from his many notebooks.
Dodd instructed Anne to burn these after his death and she has agonised about respecting his wishes Dickinson says. But Mack, McKellen and Margolyes, who appeared in Dodd's 1975 Radio 2 series They Can't Touch You For It, are among those calling for them to be preserved for posterity in the proposed museum.
"Ken used to talk about being like a conductor but I don't think there are many comedians who retained such total control of a room like he could" the producer reflects. "It took genius to do that. But he also spent a huge amount of time in the Picton Reading Room at Liverpool Library, he loved it there, reading everything he could about comedy and philosophy."
The Guardian's former theatre critic Michael Billington is a huge admirer and is also interviewed in the film. When he first met Dodd, he'd read Freud, Schopenhauer, Aristotle and all the great Greek philosophers on comedy and was delighted to learn that Dodd revered them too, yet wore his learning "in a very light-hearted way" Dickinson reports.
"There was this seaside sauciness to his humour but the notebooks reveal his very private thoughts, his intellectual side, how deeply he thought about how he could manipulate the audience."
"It's a story about grief and overcoming grief" Dickinson explains. "She's living with Ken every day through his legacy. It's about being positive, how his influence is still here even if he isn't. She's trying to make this comedy museum happen."