What a treat it was to encounter Ken Dodd again last week, at the Hippodrome Theatre in Birmingham. As youthful revellers frolicked in the city's bars and clubs, getting high on booze and pills, more than 1.500 people said 'tattybye' to the comedian in a high old state themselves, intoxicated by nothing stronger than the wizardry of this incomparable performer.
It takes some believing that Dodd is 76. He played four nights in Birmingham, occupied the stage for almost four of the show's five hours, and was as funny at the end of the evening (give in?') as he was at the start, when he improvised for a full hour without drawing breath. There is nobody like this man, and anybody who lives near a theatre where he is performing should not pass up the chance of catching him because even he can't go on for ever. But, while he is still with us, the city fathers of Liverpool should erect a statue to their greatest son, Four hours! A thousand laughs! And 76, to boot. I saw Karajan at that age, and he couldn't reach the podium unaided. (The struggle was worth it, though). I heard Sinatra in New York towards the end of his eighth decade and, though he sang better than anybody had a right to expect, he read his notes from an idiot board (and kept on getting things wrong). Yet here was Dodd in full flood, reducing a full house to tears of joy. Those civic cranks who like to waste our money sending crack-addled teenage burglars to Caribbean islands to put them on the straight and narrow should dispatch them instead for an evening in Dodd's company. They would soon realise that life is worth living.
Midway through the show, while some French magician was making dogs appear and disappear, the thought occurred that Dodd belongs to a select group in British life who are indisputably first-rate, Their eminence owes nothing to trends or fashions — only outstanding ability, demonstrated over many years. On this list, alongside the man with the tickling stick, one might find Alistair Cooke (yes, I know he's an adopted American), David Attenborough, Bill Deedes, Peter Hall, Ian McKellen, Cohn Davis, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, P.D. James, Graham •Swift, John Tusa, Michael Parkinson, Jeremy Paxman and Keith Waterhouse. In their different ways they have all contributed much to our lives. (Perhaps room should also be found for that clear-headed chronicler of urban disintegration and 'multicultural' claptrap, Anthony Daniels, who will surely be invited to give the Reith Lecture in the next year or so).
Perhaps the only sports personalities who come close are Paula Radcliffe, who is still active, and Steve Redgrave, who is not. The thing with sport is that once a performer leaves the stage, the spotlight follows another, younger figure. Ian Botham retains his lustre, on account of his extraordinary efforts on behalf of Leukaemia Research and his generosity of spirit. There is only one Botham, and we should be glad. But George Best, a true star of yore, has become a sad bore. You have to go back to the generation before, to the BannisterChataway-Brasher axis, to find athletes who contributed to the common weal, The day after I caught Dodd, England 'rested' Jonny Wilkinson, their star outsidehalf, to keep his powder dry for the latter stages of the World Cup. The king of comedy wouldn't dream of sitting in the stands when he could be on the field. Admission to his shows should be available on the NHS.