With the 100th anniversary of Tommy Cooper's birth set to be celebrated on Friday, writer and actor John Hewer - who impersonates the comedy legend - pays tribute to the amazing talents of the comedian and magician...
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to tonight's performance of Just Like That! Please put your hands together for the man of magic, mystery and mirth - the Sheikh of Araby himself - Mr Tommy Cooper!"
As the star-cloth parts, the large frame of a six-footer (no hands, just feet), dressed in smart, but frequently worn, tailcoat and bow tie, bursts onto the stage. The audience takes him in. A malleable, joyful face packed with expression, switching seamlessly from one of excitement and bravura, to the lugubrious and one of puzzlement, as each trick or shaggy dog story unravels supposedly out of the performer's control...
The main giveaway, apart from the throaty West Country accent, the occasional sniffs and unpronounced coughs, the playful twirl of the already playful jet black hair, is the iconic hat from which the hair protrudes. It's a fez. It's Tommy Cooper. Only, it's not Tommy Cooper. How can it be? This is 2021, and it's a live show. It's merely one of several Tommy Cooper impersonators who are preserving his legacy. It's merely me!
2021 marks the centenary of, arguably, Britain's favourite all-time comedian. 100 years of Tommy Cooper, folks! We've already gone well past the point of simply recognising his talent. Was it fully realised during his lifetime? Perhaps Tommy might have sidestepped into 'straight acting' in his twilight years? Recognised for his acting ability to compel us as he cried tears when telling the slightest, ramshackle joke: there's an astounding performance of Tommy, entering the stage, completely bereft. He bawls with such compassion and credibility as he laments the sudden disappearance of his budgie. Tommy, holding a birdcage, weeps into a handkerchief. Yes, it's burlesqued slightly, but thank goodness, otherwise, on this occasion, we'd actually believe him and feel sorry for him! "I've lost my budgie", he croaks. "Albert!" he exclaims. "He was sat just there, he was... look. There's his little perch. His little swing. And that's where he takes a little bath!" His acting, rarely acknowledged even in documentaries, was powerful; his whole success was based on the idea that he could fool us! The joke, in this example (and there are tonnes of others), is set up at his entrance. The budgie, adorably false, is fixed to Tommy's fez, unbeknown to him. This laugh, arguably the biggest of the sketch, comes as soon as Tommy shuffles onto the stage. That's the power of the man. He could tell stories, tell jokes, and get laughs, before he'd even started.
Most likely, however, Tommy would have shied away from invitations from the RSC or weighty dramas. Rather, he would have continued what he loved to do; he returned, time and time again, to the club circuits, all over the world. It was a huge boost for him, to connect with an audience and have them in fits of laughter. He needed that instant rapport.
It's therefore rather a paradox that the man we frequently put on the top of the pedestal has had so little of his entire act captured for posterity; there exists only a collection of TV performances and the odd dalliance with film. The vast majority of his career actually played out in smoke-filled, beer-fuelled rooms, sometimes with an audience as intimate as a hundred (and I'm not referring to Tom's dressing room!).
We love our comedians more than any other entity of the rich and famous. We genuinely feel that we know them. We feel that we've bonded with them, related with them, on quite a grand scale. They will not be forgotten; but in the modern world where literally everyone is vying for attention and ratings, across a plethora of media channels, voices from the past will understandably become distant. Some are built to last, however, and Tommy Cooper cannot be considered a timepiece. Indeed, he appears charmingly timeless.
He never bothered to satirise the times he found himself in, nor did he lean heavily on overdrawn stereotypes which might appear irksome today (even his wife jokes stand the test of time, perhaps because every joke and routine had to gain the respect of his wife, Gwen, his strictest judge, before they were shared in the first place).
He was also an 'all-rounder'. I've already mentioned his acting ability, but he could also carry a tune (his biggest hit was Don't Jump Off The Roof, Dad, which entered the charts in 1961), and, of course, he was an accomplished magician in his own right. If anything, his love for magic overpowered his natural flair for joke-telling; Tommy would visit magic shops up and down the country, at every given opportunity, to see if anything took his eye that could be adapted for his show (sometimes, the show he was doing that same evening). There's a case to be made that a magic trick is a 'visual joke'; you're hoping to deceive the audience into thinking one way and then, hey-presto!, ba-boom-tsch, the ending is different. Performed with his iconic showmanship, Tommy Cooper mastered both.
As magician and comedian, he not only mastered both, he also subverted both. He told purposely corny jokes, to accompany his purposely cod magic. He let us in on the joke too, of course. We always knew what we were letting ourselves in for. Not only was this the biggest defining thing of his act, and his career, but he still managed to keep us all on tenterhooks throughout. One in every five magic tricks would, indeed, succeed; all of Cooper's punchlines would, indeed, induce laughter. And no one seemed more surprised by these feats than Tommy himself.
So, how is it that it's me coming out of the star-cloth then? For one thing, I'm neither a magician nor a comedian... In 2013, coming up to thirty years since Tommy's infamous, untimely passing on 15th April 1984, when he collapsed from a heart attack during a live broadcast on national television (he was 63), I was gripped in adoration for the man, having just read John Fisher's definitive biography Always Leave Them Laughing. Buoyed up by my newfound respect and carried by the good wishes and support of The Tommy Cooper Estate, the Tommy Cooper Society and, most poignantly, Tommy's daughter, Vicky, I wanted to give an idea, an impression, rather, of what it would've been like to experience seeing Tommy 'live', in his natural element - working an audience, circa 1970. It was to be a glorious celebration, an assortment of the very best of, and the uncaptured gems of this national icon. It was tirelessly researched, in an attempt to win over diehard Cooper fans as well as to introduce younger fans to his work, and thus continue the legacy through a different, and shared, medium. For that, there's nothing better than a live performance.
The tribute show took off in an unimaginable way. In the same year, we made our first appearance on television, had sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, and played a sixteen week residency at London's new Museum of Comedy. We've done a national tour every year ever since, returning to some venues due to popular demand, and played numerous festivals and variety bills.
For 2021, Tommy's centenary, we had another 30+ venue tour planned and we proposed to mark the event with an informal Q&A style chat show after each performance, with audience members getting the opportunity to find out more about 'the funny man in the fez'. The tour is being rescheduled, but we (that is director Rachael Hewer; our musical director and guest artist Christopher Peters; and myself) couldn't let the anniversary itself slip by without some kind of honorary salute. We'd started out as a proclamation to his longevity after thirty years with a show to commemorate Tommy's death. Now, on 19th March, we'll be marking the occasion of 100 years since his birth.
So, we've recorded an hour-long 'best of' version of our acclaimed tribute show Just Like That! It was filmed under government restrictions in relation to the pandemic and will be broadcast, free of charge, at 7.30pm on 19th March on the Hambledon Productions YouTube channel. Directly following it, on our Facebook page, there'll be a live event, hosted by Morris Bright MBE, author and Carry On fan, when he and I engage in an informal interview about the show, and of course, about Tommy. Join us, bring a bottle, as we raise a glass (bottle-glass-bottle) to the one and only Tommy Cooper!