Interview: Ken Dodd loves Weston-Super-Mare

Ken Dodd before his show at the Marina theatre.
Photo: Nick Butcher
(01603) 772434

Ken Dodd before his show at the Marina theatre. Photo: Nick Butcher (01603) 772434 - Credit: EDP pics © 2006

When comedian Ken Dodd visits Weston-Super-Mare for a show it’s so much more than a working day for him, as Bernard Bale discovers

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Ken Dodd was at Weston-super-Mare’s Playhouse Theatre in September and all tickets were sold long before his arrival. His many fans love to see him but for Doddy it is much more than just another show – he is a huge fan himself of the theatre of course, but also of Weston which he declares is one of his very favourite seaside resorts.

“I really like the traditional British holiday, a week at the seaside with salt and vinegar on your chips, sand in your shoes and rain in your face,” he says. “They don’t have holidays like that abroad. You don’t get landladies in Spain like you do in Britain, stout-hearted women who can tear a kipper limb from limb at breakfast time to share it among her guests. Who wants to bring back a stuffed donkey from Spain when you can bring back a stick of rock from Weston-super-Mare? I had a waffle in Benidorm once but that’s another story.

“I really like Somerset as a county, it is very beautiful but my favourite place is Weston. I love seaside resorts and I have probably been to all of them. Weston-super- Mare is right up there in my top five. I love everything about it.

“The beaches are brilliant, the burgers are quite a handful, the aquarium is excellent and I love seeing the donkeys on the beach. I stood alongside them once and a child tried to climb on my back – it’s the teeth you see! Weston is a real seaside resort, great for a day out and fantastic for a holiday.

“The pier is very special. Piers are very British and they all have something special about them and I don’t mean just the smell of seaweed wrapped around the pillars. They have played a part in the lives of thousands if not millions of people. Couples have become engaged on piers, some have had cheap holidays by sleeping under the pier – when the tide’s out of course. I should think just about everybody has a pier memory or two.

“Of course, some piers have been more successful than others and have fought against all kinds of adversity to survive until today and are still welcoming people to their timbers and attractions. One such is Weston-super-mare’s Grand Pier which still defiantly spreads itself out over the Bristol Channel even though it has twice been seriously damaged by fire which would have probably put paid to it but for the sheer will-power of its supporters.”

Ken Dodd is quite a seaside and theatre historian and reveals his knowledge of Weston’s pier story.

“It is worth remembering that the Grand Pier is not the only pier in the resort or indeed the oldest,” he says. “ Still standing though closed at present is the even older Birnbeck Pier which opened on 5 June 1867 after three years of construction. It is another example of the design expertise of Eugenius Birch.

“The question arises, is Birnbeck really a pier or actually a bridge? It was designed as a pier, it looks like a pier and had all the trappings of a pier but instead of jutting out into open water it connected with the very small Birnbeck Island which was quite a tourist attraction in its day. Everyone else considers it to be a pier so who am I to argue. Birnbeck Pier it is. It might be rusty and in serious need of some tender, loving care, which will probably require some real funding, but Birnbeck Pier is still there, a sleeping beauty waiting for a prince charming with a big wallet.

“There is also another pier, a relatively small one but quite a modern one. It is the home of Weston-super-Mare’s very popular SeaQuarium and is Britain’s most newly-built pier. It is in an excellent spot overlooking the River Severn and surrounded by three miles of beach. Thus we come to the Grand Pier which was first mooted in 1880 with ambitions that could have made it the longest pier in the world,” he continues.

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“Because low tides reveal huge acres of estuary bed it was contemplated that the pier could be as long as 6,600 feet. The discussions went on for more than 20 years before work actually began. With thoughts of adding more length to the pier at a later date the first 1,080 feet of construction was completed by Mayoh and Haley in early June 1904 and included a 2,000-seat pavilion. It was one of the last traditional iron-piled seaside piers to be built in England and was opened on 11 June amid a blaze of publicity. It had cost £120,000. The pavilion was a multi-purpose venue which staged classic plays, opera, concerts, music hall, boxing and just about anything else that would attract audiences.

“Those who had said they would continue to make the pier grow were as good as their word and in 1906 a low water extension measuring 1,500 feet was added. It had a wooden landing stage to encourage river traffic going to and from Cardiff but it was rarely used because the currents were considered too treacherous. It was such a disappointment that most of the extension was removed during the latter part of World War One.

“Today the pier stills stands proudly despite a massive fire in 2008 and various ownerships. In 2001 the National Piers Society named the Grand, Weston-super-Mare as its Pier of the Year and it is certainly among the contenders every year. With ongoing investment and a determination to be the best, the pier offers visitors some world-class rides and attractions as well as shops, kiosks and cafes. Admission is absolutely free and this is one pier which in the 21st century continues to epitomise the spirit of fun of the 19th century when it was just the germ of an idea.”

Of course Doddy’s favourite part of weston is the Playhouse Theatre.

“There is nothing quite like the magic of the theatre, the velvet seats, the velvet curtains, the velvet tones of a soprano spotlighted on the stage, the roar of laughter when the comic hits the right pitch and sets off a tidal wave of happiness,” he says.

“There is always something different going on. Monday night might be the local sinfonia playing to a contented few rows. Tuesday night a few more rows are filled by the Fishmonger Street Jazz Band. Then it is Wednesday night and the foyer is packed, the Maltesers are selling by the crate, grown men are waving tickling sticks at their surprised spouses who have not seen such athleticism since the milk boiled over. Yes, ladies and gentlemen – Doddy is in town and I love the Playhouse.

“The theatre was built on the site of a once-busy market and opened after the World War Two. It is a thrill to know I have appeared on the same stage as people like Frankie Howerd, Bob Monkhouse, Leslie Crowther, Brian Rix, Dickie Henderson, Terry Scott, Richard Todd, Peter Graves, Cecily Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert to name just a few of the great entertainers who have filled the Playhouse Theatre.

“It is still going strong and still putting on all kinds of shows and productions and I am sure it will continue to do so for many years to come.

“I usually visit during the main holiday season but one of these years I must visit in November to witness the famous Fireworks at Sea event which I believe is the weekend after the spectacular carnival. I am usually in Blackpool at that time of the year but I really must come in November.

“As always I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit to Weston, the local people and the visitors all love their entertainment and it is always good to see the theatre full. I managed to have a look at the long stretch of beaches and tasted one of the best fish and chip meals in the country. The only thing I forgot was to go and hug a donkey – would someone please do that for me?

The Ken Dodd Happiness Show is touring throughout the UK during 2017. Buy tickets here!