PERFORMERS: TOMMY COOPER

Born:   March 19 1921
Died:   April 15 1984

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2011)

If ever there was a “comedian’s comedian” it was Tommy Cooper … just about all his topline contemporaries loved to be in the audience when he was performing. British comedy greats like Morecambe, Sykes, Barker, Tarbuck and dozens of others were unashamed fans of the legendary magician/funnyman whose greatest trick was to turn timeworn one-liners and physical gags into forty years of uproarious laughter.

Standing over 6’3” Tommy was not only larger than life in stature … he created a comedy persona that was almost cartoonlike, a figure whose movements and facial expressions were almost surreal. Though imitated by many, as a funster he was inimitable.

Born in Wales in 1921, Tommy’s family moved to Devon when he was an infant and by his teenage years he’d become infatuated with performing magic. The hobby made him lots of friends but the disruptive effect of his constant trickery didn’t prove as popular with teachers and later employers (when he got his first job at a factory). Eventually Cooper joined the Guards and soon found his way to makeshift stages entertaining troops during the Second World War. When an illusion went haywire during one of these concerts the resulting laughter struck a chord with the novice performer and paved the way for a lifelong career path.

It was while stationed in Egypt that Tommy not only met his future wife (of forty years), but also the prop that would be forever associated with him … his trademark fez.

After the war, Cooper worked up a cabaret act and obtained bookings at London’s lesser known nightclubs. He was also signed to make occasional appearances on the infant world of British television (in the late-1940s, just a lone BBC channel with not a lot of viewers).

His first taste of the West End stage came in April 1950 in Sauce Piquante at the Cambridge Theatre, followed three months later at the London Hippodrome in Folies Bergere and its sequel Encore des Folies.

A year later BBC Television gave Tommy his own series of fortnightly variety shows It’s Magic, and with the coming of commercial television he starred in Cooper (or Life with Tommy) for Associated-Rediffusion in 1957 and Cooper’s Capers for ATV the following year. But it would take another decade for the medium to fully embrace his talents.

So for most of the 1950s Tommy was a regular on the stages of the London Palladium, the Adelphi and the Prince of Wales, with productions titled London Laughs, Paris by Night, (the pantomime) Robinson Crusoe and Blue Magic.

In 1953 Cooper had appeared at his first (of five) Royal Variety Performances and later was featured as a support act for the Vera Lynn show Piccadilly Revels at the Flamingo casino inLas Vegas.

Back home, Tommy was soon proving popular with numerous appearances on the top rated Sunday Night at the London Palladium. These guest spots and a well received performance on the 1964 Royal Variety show finally paved the way for a triumphant return to television with A.B.C. signing him for the series Cooper’s Capers, and its follow-ups Cooperama and Life with Cooper. By the end of the 60s, Tommy Cooper had become a firm favourite with millions of viewers throughout the British Isles.

Despite his success, Cooper never embraced radio or (to any large degree) movies, though he appeared in the 1959 comedy And the Same to You and made a cameo in The Cool Mikado three years later. It was only in his friend Eric Sykes’ featurette The Plank that he would find a role that suited his talents.

In 1969, David Frost’s Paradine company decided to present Tommy to American audiences with a TV special (similar ventures for Frankie Howerd and John Cleese were also produced) and followed it up with a series in Britain for London Weekend Television. Weekly guests included Ted Ray, Arthur Lowe, Vincent Price, Michael Bentine, Eric Sykes and (separately) Ronnies Barker and Corbett.

Cooper’s burgeoning popularity was also making him highly sought after for live appearances at nightclubs across the country and he headlined To See Such Fun for a healthy run at the London Palladium in 1971.

By 1973, Tommy was headed for the greatest television success of his career. A new contract with Thames (which had taken over the old ABC company in 1968) saw him in an ongoing series of specials, scheduled in similar fashion to those of comedy stablemate Benny Hill.

Along the way, Cooper could also be seen in half hour series titled Cooper, Cooper – Just Like That and Cooper’s Half Hour.

Now in his late fifties, health problems meant he was no longer able to take on the burden of a regular series, but he continued to make guest appearances (notably with Eric Sykes in the all-star silent comedy It’s Your Move) and on a number of variety and interview shows.

It was while performing on Jimmy Tarbuck’s Live from Her Majesty’s in April 1984 that Tommy suffered a fatal heart attack and died in front of a stunned audience in the theatre and on television screens across the country.

Happily a legacy remained of many hours from his TV heyday in the 1970s and in the quarter of a century since his passing numerous tributes and highlight specials have appeared to the delight of countless fans.

TELEVISION

IT’S MAGIC
BBC-TV fortnightly March 12 to June 16 1952 (8 x 45 min)

COOPER (or LIFE WITH TOMMY)
ITV/Associated-Rediffusion March 25 to June 17 1957 (12 x 30 min)

THE TOMMY COOPER HOUR
ITV/ATV November 23 1957 (60 min)

COOPER’S CAPERS
ITV/ATV October 31 to December 5 1958

COOPERAMA
ITV/ABC June 18 to August 6 1966 (7 x 35 min)

LIFE WITH COOPER
series 1: ITV/ABC December 31 1966 to February 4 1967 (7 x 30 min)
series 2: ITV/ABC February 24 to April 6 1968 (7 x 30 min)
series 3: ITV/Thames April 8 to May 20 1969 (6 x 30 min)

COOPER KING-SIZE
ITV/Thames July 30 1968 (60 min)

COOPER AT LARGE
ITV/Thames November 6 1968 (60 min)

DAVID FROST PRESENTS: Tommy Cooper
five U.S. Westinghouse stations (Boston,San Francisco, etc.) late-April 1969 (60 min)

TOMMY COOPER
Christmas special: ITV/LWT December 26 1969 (30 min)
series: ITV/LWT February 7 to April 18 1970 (11 x 30 min)
Easter special: ITV/LWT March 27 1971 (30 min)

THE TOMMY COOPER HOUR
ITV/Thames (all 60 min)
October 31 1973
December 25 1973 (titled TOMMY COOPER’S CHRISTMAS)
January 2 1974
April 24 1974
September 11 1974
October 2 1974
November 27 1974
December 25 1974
February 26 1975

COOPER
ITV/Thames October 15 to November 19 1975 (6 x 30 min)

TOMMY COOPER’S GUEST NIGHT
ITV/Thames December 28 1976 (60 min)

THE TOMMY COOPER SHOW
ITV/Thames August 28 1978 (60 min)

COOPER – JUST LIKE THAT
ITV/Thames September 11 to October 16 1978 (6 x 30 min)

COOPER’S HALF HOUR
ITV/Thames September 2 to October 7 1980 (6 x 30 min)

IT’S YOUR MOVE
ITV/Thames October 18 1982 (30 min)

and tributes …

TOMMY COOPER
ITV/Thames June 13 1984 (60 min)

TOMMY COOPER
ITV/Thames September 16 1986 (60 min)

JUST LIKE THAT!
C4 December 28 1989 (60 min)

THE BEST OF TOMMY COOPER
series 1: ITV July 23 to August 27 1991 (6 x 30 min)
series 2: ITV June 26 to August 14 1993 (not Jul 24) (7 x 30 min)
special: TOMMY COOPER – The Magic Touch! (60 min highlights)

HEROES OF COMEDY
C4 October 13 1995 (60 min)

CLASSIC COOPER
ITV/Carlton May 27 and July 29 to August 26 1996 (6 x 30 min)

THE BEST OF TOMMY COOPER
C4 December 30 1999 (60 min)

THE MAGIC OF TOMMY COOPER
C4 December 31 2000 (60 min)

THE UNFORGETTABLE …
ITV September 2 2001 (40 min)

THE REAL TOMMY COOPER
C4 October 30 2001 (60 min)

THE UNTOLD TOMMY COOPER
C4 December 28 2011 (60 min)

DVDs 

FEZTIVAL OF FUN
dvd
reissued as MASTERS OF COMEDY: Tommy Cooper

THE MISSING PIECES
dvd

THE BEST OF THE FEZ
dvd

THE TOMMY COOPER HOUR
Network 3 dvd set
all 9 specials (1973-5)

COOPER
Network dvd
all six episodes from the 1975 series

JUST LIKE THAT
Network dvd
all six episodes from the 1978 series

THE PLANK
dvd

IT’S YOUR MOVE
dvd
also featuring the other Eric Sykes Thames Television silent comedies

FILMS 

And the Same to You (1959)
The Cool Mikado (1962)
The Plank (1968)

RADIO

FLETCHER’S FRIENDS (Series 2)
BBC Radio 2 Wednesday 10-00pm May 31 1989
Tommy Cooper & Jimmy Edwards

TURNS OF THE CENTURY (Series 1)
BBC Radio 3 Friday 4-20pm May 26 1995 (10 min)
Tommy Cooper

JUST LIKE THAT – tribute to Tommy Cooper
BBC Radio 4 Thursday 11-30am October 24 2002
hosted by Milton Jones

RECORDINGS

Don’t Jump Off the Roof, Dad/How Come There’s No Dog Today?
Palette single PG 9019

Happy Tommy/Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son
Pye single 7N 17259

Alice in Wonderland
Music For Pleasure 2LP MFP 1267/8
Tommy was part of this all-star recording

Just Like That/Magic, Magic
E.M.I. single EMI 2295

We’ll Meet Again/The Sheikh of Araby
Pye single 7N 46061

The Very Best of Tommy Cooper – volume 1
Tee Hee CD TEECD 08 (1999)
Highlights from TV soundtracks

The Very Best of Tommy Cooper – volume 2
Tee Hee CD TEECD 09 (1999)
Highlights from TV soundtracks

Masters of Comedy – Tommy Cooper
Sound Entertainment CD SE TLCD 97 (2007)
Highlights from TV soundtracks

BOOKS

TOMMY COOPER’S JUST LIKE THAT! – JOKES AND TRICKS
by Tommy Cooper (Jupiter, London. 1975)

FOR THE LOVE OF TOMMY
by Mary Fieldhouse (Robson, London. 1986)

TOMMY COOPER – JUST LIKE THAT
by Jeremy Novick (Chameleon/Andre Deutsch, London. 1998)

TOMMY COOPER – ALWAYS LEAVE THEM LAUGHING
by John Fisher (Harper Collins Entertainment, London. 2006)

TOMMY COOPER – MIRTH, MAGIC AND MISCHIEF
by John Fisher (Preface, London. 2010)

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