You may not expect a sacred cantata describing the last days of Jesus to be a favourite of a legend of comedy, but Ken Dodd describes Olivet to Calvary by John Henry Maunder as a "beautiful piece". He sang it as a 12-year-old during his years as a chorister at St John's, Knotty Ash where he developed a love of religious music – at least until, he grins, "they found out where the noise was coming from".
Laughter is never far away as Ken recalls the days when his father and mother used to take him to the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties where he saw comedians and decided that in spite of being "terrified" he wanted to be in showbusiness. He fell under the influence of Hilda Fallon, who arranged performances for him as his career developed. He puts Hilda in the same bracket as Bill Shankly as the greatest motivators of people he has ever met.
After leaving school he worked as a coalman and then a door-to-door salesman, which he remembers as "a wonderful way of learning communications skills". Passionately fond of books and humour and a great supporter of libraries, he once got himself a pass for the Bodleian Library while touring in Oxford. He later decided to research laughter and what it is that makes us laugh and developed what he calls the rainbow of laughter. "At the very top is white laughter," he explains, "the laughter of pure joy that you hear when you pass a school playground where little children play and jump up and down with the sheer joy of being alive."
As we go through the spectrum we hear of yellow laughter – traditionally the laughter of clowns – and red and pink, the laughter of love and romance. Finally, we come to the dark colours of sarcasm, irony and cynicism. "I don#t go there because I’m an entertainer and my job is to make people feel good," he adds.
At a time when people are running round buying gifts for Christmas, Ken reflects on other gifts. "We've all had wonderful gifts from day one – for example, the gift of sight and the gift of hearing. I don't know that we really say 'thank you'. I'm not a particularly skilled or imaginative person and I say 'thank you' now that I've realised that I’ve been given such wonderful gifts."
This Christmas, for the 25th year, Ken Dodd will be doing his "fun-filled variety Christmas Show" at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall and, for many reasons, it is a special time of year for him. "Christmas can be a nostalgic and even sad time but seen through the eyes of children it is a wonderful magical time," he reflects. "The one word I put faith in at Christmas is hope. Going to church during Advent and at Christmas is uplifting, it is a thoughtful festival. Yes, it is a time of year to look back but the 'now' is important as are the people who are here with us, the people we love."
Religion plays a big part in Ken's life. He is a regular worshipper at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral and says: "I believe in God and that you are given direction in life. I know that I have been very, very blessed and I say 'thank you' every day." Spirituality is important too, he adds. "I believe there is a wonderful spiritual force that guides us and helps us, one that we must appreciate, to try to be the kind of person that God wants us to be. If we are strong enough and the will is there, I believe we can do it."
Fittingly for someone who had a hit with a song called Happiness, Ken concludes: "If I can help to bring some happiness, then it's all been worthwhile."
• Ken Dodd’s The Happiness Show is at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 December. For tickets, call 0151 709 3789 or visit www.liverpoolphil.com.