By Rob McGibbon
This is an extended version of my interview published on 17 June 2017
“My unfulfilled ambition? I want to live until I am 120 and then get shot by a jealous husband”
The prized possession you value above all others…I would be lost without my whimsical mind and imagination, so they are incredibly precious. In terms of objects, I love my book collection. I have about 50,000, which includes countless editions on comedy, comedians, clowns and showbusiness. I am a performer at heart and these books feed my mind and soul. We are having an extension built to our house [he shares with his fiancée Anne Jones] in Knotty Ash, outside Liverpool, that will become my library. The books are symbols of my passion for entertainment.
The biggest regret you wish you could amend…I wish I had learnt more about the use of the English language, so I could write coherently like leading authors such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. I was very bright when I was a kid and I did well at school, but to write creatively is a great skill. I am a prolific note taker, but that’s about it. I have notebooks going back 20 years and I find it fascinating to read what I was thinking decades ago.
The temptation you wish you could resist…All kinds of sweets, especially Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. I always have a family-size packet on the go in the car. I’m up and down the motorway like a yoyo, so I eat far too many sweets. I also love ice cream – vanilla or strawberry.
The book that holds an everlasting resonance…The Coral Island by R.M Ballantyne, which I read when I was about six. It’s about three boys shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific and it took me off into another world. Like any boy I craved adventure and I wanted to be heroic like those boys. I was lucky because God blessed me with the ability to read from a very young age. I was four when I started consuming books.
The priority activity if you were the Invisible Man for a day…I’d go to the Office for National Statistics to verify how they work things out. One day they’re saying something is bad for you, then three weeks later they say it’s fine. I never know what to believe.
The pet hate that makes your hackles rise…Bullying driving on the motorways. I do about 30,000 miles a year – it used to be well over 100,000 – and I see some terrible, reckless driving. There’s always some daft Hooray Henry driving too close making you pull over. Motorways should be a safe and speedy way to travel, but some drivers make it dangerous.
The film you can watch time and time again…The Producers with Mel Brooks is beautifully acted and always makes me laugh. Brooks is a truly great humorist and one of the giants of comedy.
The person who has influenced you most…My parents – Arthur and Sarah. My dad was a very funny man who loved variety theatre. He would come home after a show and sing the songs or tell the jokes to me and my brother and sister. He made us laugh so much. My mother was also very special. She always said, “Kenny, I don’t care what you get upto, so long as you wear a clean shirt.” I have never forgotten that – and I always have a clean shirt.
The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint…William Shakespeare. His plays are full of poetry and imagery, with words that are like little miracles. He gives such a wonderful insight into the world and the human spirit. I’d ask him if he really wrote them all.
The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child…Always follow your dream. If you work hard and do everything with enthusiasm, it will come true. The secret of happiness is to plant a seed and watch it grow. Plant the seed of your dream and cultivate it.
The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity…Philosophy. During the past couple of years, I have enjoyed reading the great philosophers. I have been trying to understand what “it” is all about, the meaning of life and such like.
The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again…The ability to swim with confidence. I was terrified of water when I was kid and hated putting my head under water because it was too claustrophobic. I got over it with lessons in the 1980s, but now the fear has come back.
The unending quest that drives you on…To keep breathing and staying alive! I’m 89 now and I want to keep spreading a bit of happiness. My energy is good and I have no intention of slowing down.
The poem that touches your soul…I love the religious quote: ‘However black the clouds may be/In time they’ll pass away/Have faith and trust and you will see/God’s light make bright your day.’ I recited it for my first audition when I was young – before I was a teenager – and I have never forgotten it. I enjoy going to church every week and those words remind me to believe in God, the Lord and creator
The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase…I am very grateful that the British people treat me well and I don’t know of any preconceived ideas they may have that are wrong. I am often mistaken for George Clooney and a woman once came up to me and said, “Hello handsome – can you tell me the way to the opticians.”
The event that altered the course of your life and character…When my dad took all the family to my first show at the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties in Liverpool when I was seven or eight. I sat there wide-eyed and I knew then that I wanted to be a performer. I was totally inspired.
The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it…At my age, any thought of crime does not appeal. I might steal a kiss from a pretty girl, but that’s about it.
The song that means most to you…My song Happiness has become my signature tune and means a lot to me. I sing it at every show and I’ve done it thousands of times, but I still love it. I love life and that song is a celebration of being alive and enjoying all the wonderful things that life can bring.
The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions…I have travelled all over the world in my time, but these days I prefer to be in Britain. East-West, Britain is best is my motto. So I’d be happy having a quiet morning at home. Our house was built in 1782 and I have spent most of my life there, so it’s where I’m happiest. I am a great tea drinker, so I’d have a few cups for breakfast with some Shredded Wheat. I’d then read the paper – Daily Mail, of course! – and try and find something funny to put into my show that night. Later, I’d take my black poodle Rufus for a walk. Britain has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, so I would probably head somewhere in Yorkshire. Rufus is lively and affectionate and is about the seventh black poodle I have had over the years. I’d have soup – pea or oxtail are my favourites – for lunch, then spend a few hours looking through some rare books in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. My life is ruled by my gigging diary and I am happy with that, so then I would get ready for a show. I would pack up the machine – a Mercedes – then head for the motorway. There are so many wonderful theatres across Britain, but my favourite venue is always the one I’m performing at that night. I feel blessed because I spend my life around happy people who are out for a night to have fun. I am completely in love with showbusiness, so I will enjoy myself playing a gig.
The happiest moment you will cherish forever…Being made a knight in the Queen’s Honour List this year was a huge moment. It made me feel special and I am grateful to all the people who helped make it happen. Prince William gave it to me. Now I am getting measured up for some armour and I’m getting a horse.
The saddest time that shook your world…Losing my parents was hard. They were absolutely wonderful people who gave me the most fantastic childhood and so much good advice and support. Bereavement is very personal. It was a lonely time in my life, but my faith in God helped me through.
The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you…I want to live until I am 120 and then get shot by a jealous husband.
The philosophy that underpins your life…The man who never made a mistake, never made anything. I tell this to young people who ask me about going into showbusiness. Never be afraid of making mistakes because that is how you learn. It is called experience.
The order of service at your funeral…You definitely won’t get me answering this one. No. No. No. I am to busy living to think of that.
The way you want to be remembered…He gave us happiness and laughter.
Sir Ken was born in Liverpool on 8th November 1927. Following being hospitalised for a chest infection, he died at his home in West London on 11th March 2018. He was 90.
RM says: Interviewing Ken for something as specific as The Definite Article was like trying to herd cats. He zipped around tangentially, or fenced away sensitive subjects with jokes. But he was fun and a gentleman. He called my mobile on the day it was published some weeks later and left a wonderfully nuts and appreciative voice message. Such manners in showbiz are rare. We spoke later and he invited me to one of his shows. I wish I had gone, but the dates never aligned. What a character, what a legend.