Doddy Worth a Million DollarsDate: 28 February 2011
I went to Stockport on Friday. As Ken Dodd might say, I hadn't done anything, I just went there. And you can travel to and from Stockport far quicker than it takes you to sit through a Ken Dodd show. Which is why I went there.
It was a New Year's Day resolution fulfilled. Over lunch, I had said I was having withdrawal symptoms, having not seen the great Squire of Knotty Ash for too long. And two of our guests, the writer Mark Law and his life partner Joan Macdonald, said they had been meaning to see Dodd for the past ten years and would go with me to the ends of the earth to find him. So we went to Stockport.
"Three tourists came to Stockport," said the indefatigable Doddy (83 years old and no sign of wilting), and the audience erupted..."No, that's not a joke," he said. He was talking about us, though he didn't know it.
We were sitting in the remarkable art deco Stockport Plaza, a 1932 cinema which has been rescued from decay and oblivion by an army of dedicated volunteers: 1300 seats, all filled, beautiful glass decorations, an organist who rises from the pit, seated at his mighty Wurlitzer before the show and during the interval, and the most beautiful front curtain I've ever seen, stitched with butterflies and hollyhocks.
One of the reasons Dodd keeps going is his insatiable curiosity about people and places. He loves to travel. So do I. Mark and Joan have visited the more obscure regions of Eastern Europe, the furthest waters of the Hellespont and the secret caves of Malabar and Katmandu. But they'd never been to Stockport.
We spent a fruitful couple of hours inspecting the beautiful glass and steel Victorian market, the side streets, the Victorian arches, the impressive shopping mall, the splendid Arden Arms (whose first hostess, Elizabeth Raffald, wrote a cook book before Mrs Beaton got round to it), the medieval merchant's house that forms part of the tourist information centre, and the imposing exterior of St Mary's Church.
By the time I got home, and after five hours of Ken Dodd, I felt I'd been away for a fortnight. I had to turn myself round for a preview performance of Million Dollar Quartet at the Noel Coward.
The show officially opens tonight, but this has been one of those infuriating instances of producers delaying the bad news for as long as possible by staggering the reviewers' tickets over three performances and keeping the actual opening night all to themselves.
It's a New York habit, as I've said before, that is doomed to failure, as the Press diary is far too full to allow the luxury of this system. It creates confusion and pile-ups, especially if you have to turn up for a show on a Saturday night with an audience that is in no mood to take anything lying down.
This is the "real" audience that producers always say we should sit with for our own benefit and that of the show. Well, I hope I never again have to endure the torture of my "real" companions in Row J of the stalls on Saturday: the two bottle blondes were fall-over drunk, talked and checked Blackberries throughout, told Elvis loudly to sing his hits (while the others were singimg theirs), exposed their backside tattoos every time they got up to go out to the loo and generally carried on as if having a hen party in Billericay.
It became impossible to concentrate on any of the dialogue (no great loss, to be truthful), and customers all around us were turning round, throwing black looks, hush-hushing and muttering throughout the performance. Worst of all, not one single usher was in the auditorium to intervene or even suggest the girls keep a lid on it for a few minutes at least.
The fact of the matter, of course, is that Million Dollar Quartet has no place in a theatre, any more than do Sharon and Tracy, who want to be in a noisy pub with a tribute show band and a raucous mob of their Essex and Estuary peers.
I was already longing to be back in Stockport, basking in the warm glow of Doddy's shafts of wit ("Have you been tickled, missus?") and life-enhancing, joy-spreading paeans to "happiness" and sexual liberation for the over-sixties. "What do people laugh at?" he asks at one point..."I wish I knew," giving us a look of pity and dismay, like that of a rogue headmaster surveying his class of dunderheads.
There's nothing like live theatre, he said. He was live. And we were almost live. And we all stuck it out until fifteen minutes past midnight. Then it was time for the next challenge of the night: finding a taxi in a monsoon downpour in the wee small hours. And the final test was still to come: surviving Million Dollar Quartet with Sharon and Tracy.