Documentary about the life and work of comedian Tommy Cooper, whose bumbling persona hid a real talent as a magician and whose private life was complicated and often difficult.
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Dying on stage is an occupational hazard for every comedian.
But Tommy Cooper brought a whole new meaning to the phrase
when he had a heart attack at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1984.
The man literally died to the sound of laughter.
-What's that you've got on your head?
-That's not a bucket, it's a saucepan.
I've got the wrong hat!
He was a brand, with the trademark red fez and the catchphrase,
so familiar it has been exploited by advertisers, impressionists,
and even Margaret Thatcher in her final conference speech.
Just like that!
But who was he, this giant with size 13 feet,
whose mere entrance on stage had audiences erupting with laughter?
There are comedians and entertainers that you like, people you love.
Tommy Cooper, you want to do that to.
That was a head-start. He could do anything he wanted.
He was an icon, respected by his peers.
And yet, despite the plaudits and trappings of success
he was privately plagued by self-doubt.
He said, "Thanks, Vic. You made me look good. Thank you."
I was knocked out because he was just brilliant.
He didn't think he was funny. He wondered why people laughed.
Now, I place one egg there,
one there and one there.
Now the trick is this -
with my right hand, I hit the tray like that...
And tray goes over there, and the eggs...
..they are supposed to go into the glasses.
It hasn't worked yet. I want to know the reason why.
Tommy Cooper was born at 19 Llwynon Street Caerphilly 85 years ago.
Tommy's father, also Tommy, was a collier's son
who spent time underground before serving in the First World War.
Although Tommy Senior had endured tragedy in his life,
he was renowned as a man with a gift for making people laugh.
I'm positive the talent comes from his dad
cos it was in the Cooper family, you know.
He was a character.
If you had a party or a wedding, you never stopped laughing.
His uncle, Jimmy Cooper, was a moon-face regular clown.
He developed an act for the halls and miners clubs.
A comic more than a magician, but he did master one trick -
the egg trick.
Years later, it would make its way straight into Tommy's routine.
Tommy was like this big kid, shambling about,
trying to do magic.
And as we know, he was a brilliant magician.
If you ever see him do bottle glass, glass bottle, bottle glass,
the table finishes up filled with glasses and bottles.
Anybody would look at that and say, "That man is brilliant."
For Tommy and his mother, the damp polluted air of the mining valleys
posed a constant health threat.
At the age of three, the family was moved to Devon
to breathe the clean air of Exeter.
But the Welsh influence was to leave its mark,
and perhaps the single most significant act
came from his Auntie Lucy in Cardiff.
On Christmas Day 1929, she gave him a box of magic tricks
and the means for a complex, reclusive boy
to become the centre of attention.
Tommy started young.
I guess, if I'm honest, it's almost an ego thing
where you are the centre of attention,
you're doing something that none of your friends can do,
you're making them laugh, you're becoming the class clown.
But it becomes addictive.
It's often said that there are three rules to magic.
The first one is to practise, the second one is to practise,
and the third one is to practise.
We do practise literally thousands of hours.
'From the gorgeous to the ungainly, Tommy Cooper.'
At 6ft 4 and 16 stone, the sheer size of the man
was in direct contrast to the childlike quality of his gags.
They just told me to go out and warm them up.
Thank you very much. I'm wearing my tails tonight.
Do you like them?
Be honest, how do you like the show so far?
I can always tell whether an audience is going to be good or bad.
He used to sulk if he wasn't the centre of attention.
If you were all talking about sex or football or politics
and Tom was there, he'd be sitting very quietly
and then some cards would come out of his pocket
and he'd start doing a trick. There's the kid in him.
"They're looking at me now. I'm doing this card trick."
Like most boys of that generation, he left school at 14.
After a short unproductive spell as a shipwright's apprentice,
he signed for the structure and discipline
of the Household Cavalry.
It's hard to imagine you on a horse. How did you manage?
They're big horses.
17 hands. No feet, just hands!
No, it was very good. But this is a true story...
You see, when you get on a horse, as a recruit I didn't know this,
but when you put the girth around the horse, like that,
the horse blows himself out because it doesn't want it to be tight.
So you've got to wait. I didn't know this.
You're supposed to wait for a while,
cos he still looks at you like that, really.
He's a little bit suspicious, you know what I mean?
But then, all of a sudden, you've got to go quick
and he goes, "Ooh!"
But I didn't know this, so as a recruit I went like that,
he went out with his stomach and I thought, "That's tight."
So we're on parade and they say, "In front of your horses.
"Prepare them out."
You put your foot in the stirrup and they said, "Mount!"
I put my foot in and the saddle went underneath.
Everybody's on top and I'm underneath!
It was during the war in Egypt that Tommy was to shape everything.
Entertainment's National Service Association, ENSA,
proved to be fertile ground for a generation of entertainers.
He met his wife, Gwen, or "Dove" as he called her in a touring show,
and crucially, he could develop his unique brand of comedy magic.
When I got the fez... I got it when I was in Egypt. I was in the army.
We did a show a show at the YMCA.
I used to wear a pith helmet.
Anyway I used to wear this pith, and one day, I forgot to bring it,
so these waiters used to walk about with a fez on.
So I took one off their head and I've worn it ever since.
Tommy Cooper was one of a post-war group of ex-servicemen
who decided to try comedy as a profession.
The War had brought about radical change. They were anarchic.
I think the post-war generation - Peter Sellers, Frankie Howard,
Harry Secombe, Dick Emery and Tommy Cooper,
they'd come through a war and not got killed.
They'd been abominably treated when they came out of the services.
They were all, obviously by nature,
doing jokes about officers and the ruling class.
So there was a sense of rebellion about them.
They thought - to hell with the rules, hence the Goons,
and everything that happened around that time.
-1941, any advance on '41?
There was no advance in '41. The War was a veritable stalemate.
-Was it, mate?
The impact of this group on British comedy is without parallel
and set the tone for the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Add to this Cooper's natural gift for making people laugh,
talent, the time and place was perfect.
We had a flat in Chelsea and Tommy was staying with us.
I got a phone call from the police.
"Is Mr Cooper staying with you?
"Will you get him off the King's Road? He's stopping the traffic."
I said, "What's he doing?" He said, "Nothing."
Tommy was buying stuff in shops and walking up to this car, a Cortina,
and putting the stuff in the boot and walking back.
But buses were stopped and people were doubled up.
"How can I stop him doing that? He's just Christmas shopping."
All great performers hone their acts through thousands of shows.
The variety circuit was thriving.
Tommy was a regular, and like any true original
he spotted a gap in the market.
Most of Tommy's material was very corny,
but somehow Tommy had a knack of making the lines very funny.
I think this is an example of that.
It's a bath tap on the end of a piece of rope.
This is the actual prop that Tommy used.
All he did was...
..bounce it on the stage, like that, and said, "Tap dance,"
and the audience would fall about laughing.
He once said to me, "There are 100 brilliant magicians in this country.
"I'm going to be the idiot."
He'd thought it through.
"There isn't a fool about at the moment," he thought.
"I'm going to be the fool."
He could have done the act straight and been brilliant, but no.
Variety for years had been full of people who can do virtually anything
at the drop of a hat, even at 85 they can still do their act.
Tommy had to learn to be special.
If you look in the history of musichall variety,
there hasn't been another Tommy Cooper.
As a reprieve from touring, the Windmill Theatre in Soho,
famous for its semi-naked chorus girls
was a magnet for aspiring comedians.
Tommy Cooper auditioned five times before joining the cast
of a legendary list of entertainers who cut their teeth there.
I was at the Windmill in 1957.
I met a guy there called Bruce Forsyth.
I never found out what happened to him.
But it was a great school, it turned out these comics.
I was at the bottom of the bill and you learned to die gracefully.
You did six shows a day, six days a week - 36 a week.
You learned to cope with silence.
You weren't heckled. There was no aggression.
They hadn't come to see you. They'd come for the strippers!
They would just open newspapers when you came on. It was a great school.
Now, with a regular West End gig,
he wasted no time in writing to every theatre in town.
But not before considering the fledgling medium of television.
On June 2, 1947, he wrote to the BBC, asking for an audition.
He was summoned, but the feedback was less than flattering.
He had, however, secured the services of a dapper wee Scotsman,
the agent, Miff Ferrie.
The only thing I know about Tommy's relationship with his agent
was that Tommy did do what he was told, up to a point.
He would never take money. "No, send it to Mr Ferrie. I don't do that. "
He made out that his agent was a fellow with a big stick
and he was petrified of him. I'm sure he wasn't.
Miff Ferrie. Yes, three Fs. Two in Miff and one in Ferrie.
He was a legendary figure. He was barred from rehearsals
because he was always sticking his oar in.
Ferrie signed him on a sole agency agreement
at the unheard of percentage of 15% of all future earnings.
Miff Ferrie, using contacts from his own days as a performer,
relentlessly pushed Tommy at the BBC,
securing him a spot on a Christmas variety show.
The BBC Head of Light Entertainment
recognised Tommy was a potentially big star.
In 1952, after looking for the right vehicle,
they eventually commissioned Tommy in his own TV series.
William G. Stewart, the TV presenter and very fine director, said to me,
"The genius of the man is, he's big, he's ugly and he's clumsy,
"but when he moves, he glides."
And if you watched Cooper, he's a skater.
Although it was all this, and the plodding about,
underneath, he was on rollerskates, the man.
I think that was the same in the brain.
We've got an opinion of Tommy being a big, sloppy, loveable fellow.
But I think inside, there was a serious person.
See, you missed that. You went over there, didn't you?
You've got to watch me all the time, you see.
I must say, I'm delighted to be in the show.
I couldn't afford to be in the audience.
When I went to the house once,
he's a big man, as you know, size 13 shoes,
and every few minutes, he started jumping up and down.
Jumping up and down like this.
I said, "What on earth's the matter, Tommy?"
He looked so funny, this big man jumping up and down.
And he said, "I've just taken my medicine,
"and I forgot to shake the bottle!"
Throughout the early 1950s, he also played lucrative cabaret gigs
at the Savoy and the Dorchester, where he came to the attention
of the country's most influential theatre critic, Ken Tynan.
"Cooper is the hulking preposterous conjuror,
"who's always in a jelly of hysterics
"at the collapse of his own tricks.
"Convulsed by his own incompetence, holding his sides,
"he staggers helplessly from trick to trick.
"No man was ever less surprised by failure.
"Cooper, you see, has a distinct attitude towards life.
"A stoic attitude.
"A gurgling self awareness of the futility of human effort.
"And this is what raises him above the crowd."
It's easy to overlook the scale of Tommy Cooper's success.
Here, in every sense of the word, he was a comedy giant,
and they loved him across the Atlantic.
He played Las Vagas to great acclaim,
was offered a season at the Radio City Music Hall in New York,
which his agent had to turn down because of UK bookings.
And in 1963, a year before the Beatles conquered America,
he twice appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show,
where the host introduced him as,
"The funniest man ever to appear on this stage."
MAKES STRANGE NOISES
He was a constant television presence throughout the 60s and 70s
and was riding high when he played
the Double Diamond Club in Caerphilly.
We all went as a family, well, all the family that wanted to go.
I was a bit worried because, being family,
I thought he was wonderful, naturally,
growing up in that family like that.
But I wondered about the reaction of the people.
Well, it was unbelievable.
He had a standing ovation. I was very proud.
LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE
Oh, I've got a splitting headache.
Look at that.
They always say, take an asprin for a headache.
Who wants a headache?
You saw the joke on the page and you thought, "He's not telling that."
Tom was brilliant. It was a shared joke with the audience.
It was like a conspiracy.
He would do an awful joke, laugh himself,
and the audience would laugh. He implied to the audience,
"I know this joke is terrible, You know this joke is terrible,
"and that's funny."
Comedy's a tricky one because you're being funny when you're told.
You're not being funny today. You're being funny at 9:01pm,
when the chairman says, "Now's your chance. Do 20 minutes."
So it's a hair's breadth between success and failure.
It's very personal if people don't laugh.
You really feel it, when the audience don't laugh,
as if they don't like you.
They don't know you, they've never met you,
but they've decided they don't like you.
Comedians use very fierce words.
They say, "I killed them" if they make the audience laugh.
"I died" if they didn't make the audience laugh.
Very emotive, violent words,
as if it's some gladiatorial... Which it is.
I'm wearing my tails tonight. Do you like them?
His mother instilled in him a sense of diligence and hard work.
He would do as many as 50 shows a week
and was earning a relative fortune.
But story after story tells of a startling lack of generosity.
He used to have a cigarette case with one cigarette in it.
He'd go, "Here you are." And you'd go, "Put them away."
And he'd smoke yours all night. He had a packet of 20 in his pocket!
The legend went round that Tom would take a journey in a taxi
and then he'd pay the exact fare.
But then he'd lean over and pat the driver's breast pocket,
pop something in it and say, "Have a drink with me."
"Oh, thank you Mr Cooper." And he'd go away.
They'd look in the pocket and there was a tea bag.
Three taxi drivers have told me that.
The make up of the man was, he didn't know why he was a genius.
I think the reason for the frugality was, it may not last.
With his talent and our forethought, we'd have sat there saying,
"Hey, just go forever. How can this possibly stop?
"I'm doing nothing and getting paid for it."
I think in the back of the mind, again there was that doubt.
The doubt of the character, the loveable man,
but deep down a serious man saying,
"If this finishes tomorrow, what have I got?"
By the early 80s,
Tommy Cooper had been at the top of his profession for over 30 years.
He was famous, imitated and rich.
But those who knew him best
witnessed him as a melancholic loner.
As a young man, he wouldn't drink a half between shows.
But as his fame grew,
he increasingly needed alcohol before going on.
It's not a good road to go on,
to think, "I'll have a drink, and it will give me a bit of energy."
In fact, alcohol is a depressive. It depresses you.
I can't have a drink and go on stage.
The energy comes from...
Actually, the energy comes from giving it away.
I'll give this bit and I'll keep that bit.
No. Give it away and more floods in.
Tommy was a good drinker. He was a steady drinker.
I've seen him do things like...
Once, in a club in Liverpool, which shall be nameless,
he walked in with Dove and he looked at the optics and said,
"I'll have a large one of them and a pint of that."
And he went right along the bar.
Everyone thought, this is a lot of fun.
That night, he never showed. He wasn't in the club.
They rang his hotel in Liverpool and said,
"Tommy, are you coming?" He said, "I don't think so."
"Well, there's 800 people here and they've paid £20 each."
And he said, "Give me the names and addresses
"and I'll go round and apologise!"
During the years of touring,
Tommy's wife Dove stayed at home with the children.
The affectionate term, Dove, could well have been ironic.
She was a powerful woman, who could crack the whip with her husband,
and was known as a prolific drinker in her own right.
His secretary, Mary Kay, they met at a rehearsal in 1967,
soon became an important part of his entourage,
and they enjoyed a deep, loving relationship up until his death.
For almost 20 years, he was in love with two women.
They were the organising force in his life,
but could do nothing to dispel his personal demons.
In most entertainers, myself included,
there's a huge element of self doubt.
I think it's that point where the back of your mind says,
watch the galloping horses.
The galloping horses are the ones that say, "You can do anything now.
"You've made it. You're the man. You can do what you want."
It gets to a point where you think,
"If I go on and do it and it doesn't work, it will shatter me."
So you're now afraid to do anything. You're afraid to do anything new.
And Tommy had that fear. I have it.
I have this feeling sometimes that Tommy didn't like the character.
I'm not an expert on that, but I have this feeling that sometimes,
he disliked the fact that he was the object of the laughter.
White. There, look. There. There.
The real stars, the real great ones like Tommy, think,
"My reputation is on the line again tonight when I go on.
"I know what I'm going to do,
"but maybe this is the night when they don't think it's funny."
Tommy used this very table.
And at one stage, he picked up the table,
he walked to the front of the stage,
and suddenly, all his tricks seemed to go wrong.
What was he going to do? He's on live TV.
He can't put the table down, and then suddenly, he's got his legs!
Tommy's work schedule and his widely acknowledged alcoholism,
inevitably took its toll.
He had been been diagnosed with bronchitis, asthma,
exhaustion and even thrombosis.
He had suffered several heart attacks,
that were either played down or just kept secret.
And on that fateful night, 15th of April 1984,
ironically called Live At Her Majesty's,
he took to the stage for his final performance.
When he went down, I thought, "Oh, God."
A tall, big man, full of booze, slimming pills.
Naturally wondering why this is funny and why this is going to work,
but he'd learnt those things.
A fella said he was on a cruise ship and they docked in Egypt.
In the old days, before the security problems we have now,
they used to have stalls full of the local produce along the quay side.
You know, they'd have stuffed camels and pyramids.
Along the line, there was a stall full of green and red fezes.
Leaning against the stall was this Arab chap in the full gear,
with the very dubious woodbine with the green smoke.
This British chap and his wife are walking towards this stall
and as they got near, the Arab fella said,
"You British?" The bloke said, "Yes."
And he put a red fez on and went, "Aha."
The bloke said, "Did you know him?" He said, "Who?"
He said, "Tommy Cooper." He said, "No".
He said, "Why did you do that?"
He said, "Everyone from Britain puts a fez on and goes, Aha."
What a tribute.
Tommy was highly regarded by the others
because he seemed to break all the rules.
Even the other comedians couldn't quite work out what it was.
That was the joy of Tommy.
You could never in the final analysis work out what it was.
The tricks, the mumbling, the bumbling.
Alright, that's a good formula,
but there's an X-factor in there somewhere
that the great ones have got.
And you never work it out, and neither should you.
We mustn't know what it is really, or the magic will have gone.
Keep it going boys. Keep it going now. That's it. Nice and loud.
# Don't jump off the roof Dad
# You'll make a hole in the yard
# Mother's just planted petunias
# The weeding and seeding was hard
# If you must end it all Dad
# Would you please give us a break
# Just take a walk to the park Dad
# And then you can jump in the lake. #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Tommy Cooper was a national comedy institution whose catchphrases still remain in the language today. This bumbling giant with outsized feet and hands, whose mere entrance on stage had audiences erupting with uncontrollable laughter, was born in Caerphilly in 1921, where a statue is now erected in his honour - unveiled by Sir Anthony Hopkins.
This programme looks at the life and art of the man in the fez, whose clumsy, fumbling stage magic tricks hid a real talent as a magician. His private life was complicated and often difficult, but as far as his audiences were concerned, he was first and foremost a clown whose confusion with the mechanisms of everyday life made for hilarious viewing.