06 Sep 2013
Put Princess Diana on the front of a magazine and it is said that you will triple the sales. The same could almost be said about Tommy Cooper. The man needs no introduction and always generates laughter at the very mention of his name. We all have our favourite quips and quote and we can all make a stab at his famous line –“just like that….. not like that…….like that!” in a poor imitation of his deep voice. It’s almost unbelievable that he died 25 years ago, 15th April 1984.
But just how good a magician was he. A couple of weeks ago Radio 4 presented a half hour documentary in sound about just that subject. You may have heard it. For the benefit of those who didn’t I now hand over to the Mail on Sunday’s Radio critic, Simon Garfield, who did a better review of the show that I ever could.
They used to say he was a dodgy magician and an average comedian but, 25 years after his death, the verdict is unanimous: Tommy Cooper was a genius. Even on radio, his tired gags are still hilarious and the memory of his bungled tricks create the warmest of nostalgic glows. Rob Brydon's tribute to Cooper, Spoon Jar, Jar Spoon (Radio 4, Tuesday, 14th April 2009) revelled in his shambling mastery, but also revealed his dedication and uncovered a world that the young will not recognise.
At the height of his fame in the Sixties and Seventies, Cooper was continually on the prowl for new gags and props, and he was a regular at London's magic shops, most of which have since disappeared in a puff of smoke. (Ken Brook’s shop was a particular favourite of his) Brydon described a den of hidden wonders behind third-floor doors in Oxford Street, a dozen places where professionals could learn and buy new tricks and relax on sofas with cocktails. Cooper bought his multiplying bottles and card-selecting ducks here, dreaming up new ways to foul up their execution.
He then established The Magic and Fun Shop and installed his wife as book-keeper. 'Gwen, big woman, prone to picture hats,' explained the shop's manager Alan Alan, once a famous escapologist. 'How she managed to keep Tommy under control ... after a few drinks he must have been a hell of a handful.'
We heard more about Cooper's alcoholism and his infidelity (in the understatement of the year, Brydon said “Cooper's marriage was 'tested' when he used to take his mistress on tour with Gwen's knowledge”) but the best revelations were about his work. After Cooper died, Paul Daniels obtained some of his scripts. They said: 'Look left, pause, look at the audience, pause, look right, pause ...' (Thus allegedly revealing that his humour was not as spontaneous as some people believe)
Barry Cryer, who wrote for Cooper's TV shows, emphasised that the chaos had a rhythm: `Three tricks wrong, one right.' Cooper once told him: 'There's a hundred brilliant magicians in this country - I'll be the idiot.'
His fatal heart attack on stage in front of a theatre audience and millions of TV viewers is well documented, but I had never heard Cryer's story of what happened next. ITN called Cryer and asked him for Eric Morecambe's phone number. Cryer lied and said he didn't have it, but then called Morecambe `to compare notes'.
Morecambe had also seen Cooper's demise and said: `Everyone's saying, "What a wonderful way to go ..." But there's no wonderful way to go.' Eric Morecambe then told Cryer he would never go that way himself, as if Cooper had actually arranged his own final, sad disappearing act.
It was a really interesting programme to listen to. Many of his contempories were asked if they thought that Cooper was a good magician. Paul Daniels thought for a while and said he thought that Cooper was a mediocre magician. I say does it really matter what sort of magician he was? Rumours abound whether he was a skilled magician or not but one thing is for sure, he was a genius at entertaining the public and lets face it that’s what magic is all about. Cooper may have had a standing order from Supreme for them to send him all their new tricks so he could pick out ones that could go wrong but he never revealed a secret that would put a dealer out of business.
We have Tommy Cooper’s biography in the Circle’s library for those who would like to read his very interesting life story. Also plenty of joke books for any that would dare to use the sort of puerile humour that Tommy used to make us roll in the aisles. That’s about all from me this month. See you next time.