Books you have to read over Christmas

James Walton

A gripping technological thriller, a cosy Christmas romance, and a biography excerpt about Ken Dodd—this month our top reads couldn’t be more different

The Assistant by S K Tremayne

(HarperCollins, £12.99)

However rational we like to imagine we are, most of us, I suspect, can’t help thinking of our electronic personal assistants as people (certainly in our house Alexa is always “her” rather than “it”). But what if they began to behave like malevolent people? That’s the intriguing starting point for S K Tremayne’s brilliant new thriller.

Main character Jo is a 30-something journalist living in a friend’s posh north London flat—when one night an assistant called Electra tells her, “I know your secret. I know what you did to that boy.” It/she’s not bluffing either: Jo has an incident in her past that would ruin her if it was ever revealed. So is she going mad, like her schizophrenic father who believed the TV was talking to him? Or is someone trying to make her think she is?

This is clearly a good idea for a novel. But what makes The Assistant so great is how thoroughly Tremayne carries it through, and how horribly plausible he makes it all seem. The book has you in its grip by about page 20—and, almost sadistically, just keeps on tightening that grip from there.

 

Snowdrops on Rosemary Lane by Ellen Berry

snowdrops on rosemary lane

(Avon, £7.99)

It’s not unknown in women’s commercial fiction for the heroine to relocate from the city to follow her rural dream. In this case the dreamer is 43-year-old Lucy, who as a girl regularly visited the Yorkshire village of Burley Bridge that featured in Ellen Berry’s two previous books. Back then, she fantasised about one day living in the picturesque Rosemary Cottage. Now she moves from Manchester to open a B&B there. Yet, while this warming winter read definitely knows how to give readers what they want and expect, Berry also adds to the mix a powerful depiction of grief (no spoilers) and some bittersweet observations about the uneasy relationship between middle-aged children and their parents.

Even by relocating-heroine standards, Lucy is perhaps a bit slow to realise that her feelings for a handsome, kindly and single male neighbour mightn’t be wholly platonic. Luckily, though, as we wait for the penny to drop, Berry supplies plenty of other things to enjoy—piling up the subplots with aplomb and deftly handling a large cast of characters who between them provide a highly appealing portrait of village life through the seasons.

 

RD's recommended read

Happiness and Tears: the Ken Dodd Story by Louis Barfe is published by Head of Zeus at £20

A biography of one of Britain’s best-loved comedians

In 2018, Michael Billington, the Guardian’s long-serving drama critic, said that the “two theatrical geniuses of the British stage” in his lifetime were Laurence Olivier and Ken Dodd. And, as Louis Barfe’s absorbing biography makes clear, it was always on stage—rather than TV—that Dodd was at his best, and his happiest. Even in his late eighties, he toured constantly and his live shows famously ran for four or five hours.

Indeed, Dodd was part of British life for so long that it’s easy to forget what a peculiar performer he was—not only in his appearance and distinctive tattyfilarious vocabulary, but also in his mix of straight one-liners with the creation of a whole alternative world of jam-butty mines and Diddymen.

Barfe takes us through Dodd’s fascinating life and career with great clarity, some impressive sleuthing and obvious affection. He also reminds us how seriously Dodd took the business of laughter. As a boy, he holed himself up in Liverpool’s Picton library to research the history of comedy. As an adult, he compiled a study of which gags went down best in which parts of the country (although this, too, was turned into a gag: “You can tell a joke in Manchester and it won’t get a laugh in London. They can’t hear you.”) Dodd’s driven side was reflected as well in an unashamed love of money, which led to his 1989 trial for tax evasion: the subject of a bravura chapter in the book, which leaves us in no doubt that he was pretty lucky to be acquitted.

But let’s return to Dodd’s earliest showbiz days for this extract, which takes place in Knotty Ash—to some people’s surprise, a real Liverpool suburb—where he lived throughout his life…

 

Despite being ‘a shy youngster’, Dodd developed the urge to be a performer very early on and found his parents to be full of encouragement. For his seventh birthday, he received a Punch-and-Judy set from his father and began inviting his school friends around for concerts in the backyard.

The next step of his stagecraft development came in the post. Every week, he’d buy all of the boys’ story papers and devour the tales of derring-do, but the advertisements were just as appealing. ‘I used to read this wonderful intellectual magazine, this paper called The Wizard,’ he told Sue Lawley [on Desert Island Discs] in 1990. ‘I used to write away for these itching powders and things like a seebackroscope… a thing you put in your eye and you can see if an assassin is creeping up behind you, which is very important when you’re eight. I read this advertisement one day, it said “Fool your teachers, amaze your friends, send sixpence in stamps, become a ventriloquist… and learn how to throw your voice.” So this tickled me no end. I sent away for this little booklet and I became a ventriloquist.’

Dodd told this story in just about every interview he gave. There is often a disparity between show business anecdotes and the truth, with stories becoming ‘improved’ beyond recognition. However, apart from a little polishing over the years, including a slight tightening up of the wording of the advertisement, a search through the back issues of The Wizard proves this one to be accurate.

Over several weeks in October and November 1937, Ellisdon and Son of 246 High Holborn, London, WC1, advertised their range of novelties, culminating in a full-page advertisement in the week of Dodd’s tenth birthday. Alongside the Magic Nose Flute (‘Produces very sweet music that somewhat resembles a flute’), Professor Goubert’s course in hypnotism and the aforementioned Seebackroscope, there it is:

BOYS! Learn to throw your voice. This book by Prof Foxton tells you how. Lots of fun fooling teacher, policeman or friends. THE VENTRILO. A little instrument fits in the mouth out of sight used with above for Bird Calls, etc. Anyone can use it. Never fails. A full course book on Ventriloquism, together with the Ventrilo. Price 6d. Postage 1½d.

Soon after the book arrived, Arthur Dodd was satisfied that his son was following Professor Foxton’s advice sufficiently to warrant the acquisition of a dummy, or as Dodd called it ‘a ventriloquial figure’. The arrival of Charlie Brown* inspired Dodd to practise the craft and he ‘mastered the technique in a year’. 

*A name later made famous in ventriloquism by Arthur Worsley, while at the same time being very hard to say when throwing your voice. Dodd would later ask [his Diddyman dummy] Dickie Mint if he wanted ‘a big bottle of brown beer or a shandy’. Mint always went for shandy, Dodd’s response being a very knowing ‘Good’.


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