Completely straight faced, he stood backstage and nonchalantly reached into his suitcase, pulling out two large, brightly coloured tickling sticks. “I’m ready to go on,” he said. It was, of course, Ken Dodd….
Richie Smith (I told you he’d be getting mentioned a lot in these articles) knew Ken, and was asked to provide some magicians for his birthday party being held at the Liner Hotel in Liverpool. Bizarrely, it has only just dawned on me that I’ve got absolutely no idea how Richie knew him… I’ve got literally no clue as to how they could have crossed paths. Nevertheless, I’m going to assume it wasn’t just some kind of gatecrashing situation and say he invited me along to perform.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Ken, really. I knew he was a comedian and a bit of a Liverpool legend, but that was about it. Having said that, before the event I was also told that it was best to avoid mentioning anything to do with, or even in close relation to, income tax. This was somewhat disappointing, because as with most 13-year-old boys, the Inland Revenue was always my go-to topic of conversation - but on this occasion I found it best to make an exception.
The night came and even now I can remember how genuinely friendly and approachable he was when I first met him. The hotel was jam-packed with people wanting to talk to him, but he made time to come over and introduce himself - perhaps spending 5 minutes or so watching me perform various pieces of close-up magic.
Speaking to him a few days later, Richie told Ken that I was working on a new classical stage magic act with doves and floating tables. I had no idea about this, but it turns out that he is a huge magic fan and very often has a magician open up the second half of his show - so purely for the purposes of wanting to give a young performer an opportunity, he phoned me personally to ask whether I’d like to perform my 10-minute act in one of his shows, which was taking place at the Southport Floral Hall a few weeks later.
Let me tell you, getting asked to perform in a theatre show at that age absolutely blew my mind - but for my parents, the idea that one of the UK’s most famous comedians was phoning our house was incredible.
I spent weeks tirelessly working on the act, trying to perfect each move and polish each moment before the big night finally came….
Ken, as we came to learn, is notorious for doing mammoth theatre shows which typically last upwards of 4 hours. That would be an impressive amount of time for any performer - but as I write this, he is 88 years old! It’s genuinely staggering.
The truly committed audience members, who I can only assume were the hardcore Dodd-fans, would bring their own sandwiches and a flask of coffee into the theatre. They were prepared; they were dedicated; they were there till the very end and we knew it.
This was Ken’s audience and they loved him from the moment he walked out on stage. Aside from the constant stream of laughter, there was also the unceasing sound of rustling bags, as the theatregoers ravenously dug into their Murray Mints throughout the show. I swear, if I’d have had a stall selling bags of those things at the entrance, I would have made just as much money as doing the actual gig! I’m joking, of course - I definitely would have made more selling the Murray Mints.
Although I was somewhat nervous, my act seemed to go down really well with the audience and Ken seemed to be really pleased with the response. So much so that he invited me back a week later, this time to Bradford, to perform in the show again.
This became somewhat of a running theme, until eventually he was having me open up the second half of the show at almost all of his weekend performances… I did have to go to school during the week, of course.
The problem with opening the second half of the show, naturally, is that my parents and I had to wait until the end before we could pack away the equipment and leave. Now, at first this was great - we were able to watch him perform every night and soak in the atmosphere. That said, when it came to show 42 and we were still there at 1am waiting for him to sing his famous song, the novelty did wear off somewhat.
It really was an amazing experience, though. Being able to learn from a pro such as Ken when I was just the young age of 13 was a real privilege. The way he was able to ‘map out’ an audience was nothing short of incredible.
I toured with him (accompanied by at least one of my parents, due to me being too young to drive), on and off, for around 3 years - each time performing that same 10-minute set. In fact, it was the same act I performed in Atlanta, Georgia for the Society Of American Magicians; the one I toured with Stephen Mulhern; and the one I’d been asked to perform at The Magic Circle with. So although it was still keeping me as busy as ever, I was starting to get the feeling that I wanted to do something new… something different.
I also had the nagging feeling that seeing a spotty 16 year old perform classical magic and making snow appear didn’t have quite the same novelty factor as seeing a bright-eyed, eager-to-please 13 year old. With that in mind, I decided to tell Ken I wasn’t going to be performing the act anymore. I would, of course, carry on with the dates he’d currently booked me for, but after that I was to perform it at The Magic Circle Christmas Shows and would be handing up my tailcoat to work on other things. Overly dramatic, you say? Yes, yes it was.
Although I didn't regret the decision, it was actually quite sad when my final night of touring with Ken came. Although long gigs, they were always really fun, and the excitement of performing in front of a live, proper theatre was something I never quite got over.
Following the final show, I popped into his dressing room to say goodbye. He shook my hand firmly, reached into his suitcase and gave me one of his famous tickling sticks as a memento, smiling warmly. I thanked him for everything and made my way out of the theatre. I played Happiness on the ride home.