Some comedic talents are relatively simple to define. Some are much more difficult to encapsulate. Some, well, some are just pure...magic. That latter definition might as well have been created solely for one particular talent. A giant talent housed within a body every bit as big as its ability. That man was Tommy Cooper. And he was the magic of comedy personified.
Tommy Cooper was born in Caerphilly, South Wales on 19th March 1921. He was two months premature, possibly the last time in his life that he was early.
When he was eight years old his aunt Lucy bought him a magic set and Tommy spent hours playing with it and perfecting the tricks. At the age of sixteen he got a job on board a boat as an apprentice shipwright and it was here that he gave his first public performance. In typical Cooper style each trick he performed went disastrously wrong. "I got stage fright." He would recall years later. "That's why it all went wrong. But then I thought to myself, well, it might have all gone wrong but I got a laugh. Perhaps I should concentrate on that."
In 1940 Tommy got his call-up papers and went into the Horse Guards. Six foot four with size thirteen boots Tommy must have looked an impressive sight. "On the first day there I put my foot in the stirrup but the saddle slipped and I ended up underneath the horses belly. Everyone was sitting on their horse except me." His unit were eventually dispatched to the Middle East where Tom was wounded in the right arm. Following this he joined the concert party entertaining the troops. It was here that he began perfecting his act of the magician whose tricks go wrong.
One night Tommy was performing his act to a group of soldiers in Cairo. The act involved a routine with a pith helmet and on this particular night he reached up to his head to grab his hat only to find that he'd forgotten to wear it. As chance would have it a local waiter was walking past the stage carrying a tray of drinks. Tommy reached out and swiped the hat off of the waiter’s head and used that instead. He got a bigger laugh wearing that fez than he ever did for the pith helmet, so it stayed, becoming his instantly recognisable trademark.
By 1957 Tommy Cooper was a well-known star. He already had a successful debut at the Hotel Flamingo in Las Vegas and had to turn down a season at the Radio City Music Hall because he was already booked solid for the next two years in England. His first TV series was for Associated-Rediffusion, one of the new independent ITV stations. His show Life With Cooper was so successful that even before the end of it's run he was being offered another series.
His humour knew no class barriers, even The Queen wasn't safe from Tom's wit. Tommy was introduced to Her Majesty after a Royal Command Performance.
"Do you think I was funny?" he asked her.
"Yes, Tommy." replied The Queen.
"You really thought I was funny?"
"Yes, of course I thought you were funny."
"Did your mother think I was funny?"
"Yes, Tommy. We both thought you were funny."
"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"No, but I might not be able to give you a full answer."
"Do you like football?"
"Well, not really."
"Can I have your Cup Final tickets?"
On 15th April 1984, Tommy Cooper collapsed during a live television broadcast at Her Majesty's Theatre. The people in the audience were still laughing as Tommy, lying on the stage, had the curtain brought down on him and the show cut to a commercial break. Ten minutes later Tommy Cooper died on the way to hospital.
That rarest of things, a performer equally as loved and respected by his peers as by his fans, Tommy Cooper's child-like vulnerability and deceptively simple brand of humour made him the most loved and impersonated of comedians. From a child in the school playground to actors of the stature of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Tommy is the ideal source of affectionate impersonation. So ideal in fact, that for many years he held the distinction of being the most impersonated man in the country.
Tommy Cooper's secret for success, like all truly great comedy, should never be exposed to close scrutiny. That it was real and that he possessed something, which elevated his comedy to the heights of genuine art, should just be accepted and cherished.
Tommy Cooper Society - www.thetommycoopersociety.org
Unofficial Tommy Cooper website - justlikethat.homestead.com
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