Kenneth Reginald Stephen Hanks always knew he wanted to be somebody. It’s the reason he changed his name by deed-poll to ‘Dancing Ken Hanks’. It’s why he’s been dancing 5 nights week for as long as he can remember, despite being nearly 80. It’s what’s seen him transform his whole house into an elaborate shrine to America, a place he’s never even visited. But there’s a cost that comes with being a small-town somebody - and it’s not the £1 million Ken has raised for charity over the years. He’s had bricks thrown through his window. His car trashed. Last year he was refused entry to a local pub for fear that he made the customers feel ‘uncomfortable’. Finally, the internet went wild in his area with rumours that Dancing Ken was dead.
But Dancing Ken is not dead. Underneath the cowboy hat and hoop earrings, there’s a man who’s more alive than anyone we've ever met. For a start, he's exactly 80 years old and goes out dancing 5 nights a week, plus he's engaged. We chat to Ken about his stuff and, in turn, what all this stuff says about him.
Most of the stuff in Ken's house is super old. There are old poison bottles with grooves around them to stop people from accidentally taking the wrong medicine in the middle of the night. There are records, clocks, gramophones - you name it. We asked Ken why these aged items are important to him.
"In those day things were made with the labour of love, they had to eat as well, but they took pride in what they done and it was done with the skills of a mans hand. It's like this house was built in 1970 and even now I sometimes walk up the stairs and, when I touch the rail, it makes me think of the men that built this house. What conditions they worked under. Where did they live. How many hours did they have to work. So that's why when they ring me up and say - 'would you like double glazing?' I say 'NO!' - I want to keep the house as original as I possibly can. It's like one day I danced with a lady. 100 years old. 100 years old! And it's like magic - isn't it?”
Ken owns a lot of things from America. First, there's the Abraham Lincoln picture. Then there are the countless flags and record sleeves from New Orleans musicians. Ken finds it hard to say what has drawn him to America other than the music - which he is incredibly passionate about. We asked Ken why he felt connected to America and whether he'd ever visited.
"No, I have never been to America. I am a Cotswold person. My dad was born up in the hills, and I am a Cotswold man. In the fifties, when I was 15, we still had the Americans in town. GI's we used to call them. They were everywhere. Even in those days, 15 years old, I was on fire. I never had a girlfriend. I had a dance partner but never a girlfriend. I used to go to the town hall and they used to do Jitter Bug and Jive - yet there used to be a notice on the stage 'NO JITTERBUG OR JIVE ALLOWED'. What we used to do was we used to take on the Americans! We used to do our bit in the middle and a crowd would gather round us, then one of the doormen would come and someone would say ' THE DOORMAN'S COMING!' And we would go back to normal dancing, so we never got caught. I remember taking the Americans on and I tell ya, they were some good dancers - but we done alright. I suppose really we learnt a lot about the americans in those days."
The Abraham Lincoln hanging on his wall tells the story of new information that suggested that Ken was, in fact, officially related to Lincoln through distant blood. It's a rumour that Ken welcomes, but takes with a pinch of salt.
"At the time when it all came to light the press were onto it straight away and they dressed me up like Abraham Lincoln! It went on for a couple of weeks and we had letters coming from all over the country, they said to me in the end 'Ken - do you REALLY think you're related to Abraham Lincoln?'. It would be that much blood wouldn't it? [Ken gestures his hand to indicate a tiny amount] but what a nice story."
Ken's idea of collecting is not subtle. There are no cabinets or secret draws hiding away his stuff. Instead, his house is overwhelmed by his collections - not a scrap of wall is left uncovered - the same goes for his ceilings. This is in stark contrast to his fiance, Carol, who likes everything to be kept away uncluttered. Ken tells us more.
"I collect too much stuff. In fact, my lady Carol - ohhh she can't be doing with any of it. Ohhh she's spic and span! We're engaged. Actually, I've been married twice and engaged three times. The reason for that is, basically, because I have a passion for music - and it hasn't always worked out with the other ones I mean. I mean my first wife is still alive and when I married her I said she was one in a million, and I've never altered my mind. Ever. But she was a country lady and my passion for music took over and she couldn't keep up with me. It's sad, but life is ups and downs. "
Around the rows of cowboy hats and American memorabilia, Ken has countless framed pictures of newspaper clippings and certificates from both his political ventures with The Monster Raving Loony Party and the fundraising events he lives for. Ken fundraises for charity on a weekly basis; we asked him why helping those in need has become such a huge driving force in life.
"My favourite saying is 'nobody can choose where they are born. Nobody. Not even the queen on England. Not The Pope. Nobody can choose how they're born and that's why I think I empathise with disabled people because they didn't ask for that did they? And even people that get disabilities through life they don't even ask for that do they? I had a mother who was a semi-invalid so that was my grounding to begin with. I started to work with this chap called Fred Cooper and this one day he went into an epileptic fit. Frightening. The whole body - shaking. He was able to give me instructions to put a spoon in his mouth to stop him from biting his tongue. That was my first hands on experience with disabled people. I voluntarily drove the wheelchair ambulance for 25 years....I used to go to Boots corner and I used to sing carols to raise money for the Cheltenham animal shelter. I done that for 20 years. Last year was the first year i didn't do it. As you get older you have to curtail your activities. I used to go out 7 nights a week when I was in my hay day. Go to work at 8 o'clock, get home at 6 o'clock, have a meal and a 20 minute siesta, do my DIY and half past 8 I was out! Get back at 3 in the morning and get up again at 8 O'clock. I couldn't do it now. It's surprising."
Most of us would look at Ken and his things and see an eccentric, funny character. But when you talk to him about what all this means, a new character emerges. Dancing Ken is not just an ex Monster Raving Loony Party candidate who dances most nights whilst dressed in a customised cowboy outfit. He is a man who is so moved by the american music he loves that he has filled his house with souvenirs from a place he's never been. He's a man who fundraises every day of his life because he can see that people don't have equal opportunities and he wants to make that right. He's a man who has fallen in love and fucked it up. A man who's touched the rails and imagined who might have touched them before him. He is 80 years old and he still listening to that music and falling in love and fundraising and touching those rails. And It's like magic - isn't it?
See the Ken doll and accessories we designed and made to tell Ken's story here...
UPDATE: I was totally gutted to hear yesterday of the tragic passing of Ken. Since hearing the news, me and Freya have published the letter we wrote to him after interviewing him last year. You can read the letter here...