Tommy Cooper

Tommy Cooper

Date of birth: 19-03-1921
Date of death: 15-04-1984

Tommy Cooper was a true original - the trademark Fez, that distinctive laugh, the clumsy, bewildered delivery, and, of course, the catchphrases make him one of the most instantly recognisable of all comedy icons. He didn't have to say anything to make his audience laugh, his appearance alone was enough.

Like many others, Cooper's first foray into showbusiness was with the forces. After serving as an apprentice shipmaker he joined Horse Guards, from where he became part of the entertainments unit.

It was while entertaining the troops, at a Naafi show in Egypt, that the fez became part of his look. Legend has it that he simply lost the pith helmet he had intended to wear, and grabbed the waiter's hat instead.

The tale of how he adopted his maladroit stage act is equally apocryphal . He supposedly botched an audition as a serious magician so badly that everyone thought it was deliberately hilarious.

If the persona came about by accident, Cooper was meticulous in honing it for every last laugh. A notoriously demanding perfectionist, he would be the bane of those working alongside him.

He was a hard worker, too. On demob in 1947 he joined London's Windmill Theatre - the devilishly hard venue where so many comics learned their craft, performing to uninterested punters between the strip shows. Cooper reputedly performed up to 52 shows a week there.

Tours, TV and a role in Eric Syke's film The Plank followed as, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, he cemented his place in the public's affections. In 1969 he was voted ITV's Personality of the Year.

His appetite for work was so voracious that few were surprised that his death came on stage, doing what he loved. And such was his reputation as a relentless joker that when he collapsed during that televised show, most of the audience thought it was just another of his gags.

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True ConFEZsions

Anecdotes from the life of Tommy Cooper

comedyJust a few of the many anecdotes surrounding Tommy Cooper, as we mark what would have been his 100th birthday...

When he was a guardsman, Cooper found sentry duty tedious. And one morning he dozed off, standing beside his sentry box. His sergeant caught him – and it would have led to a court-martial, were it not for Cooper’s quick thinking. Half-opening his eyes and seeing his superior in front of him, Cooper came up with a genius plan. He suddenly opened his eyes fully and said ‘Amen!’ The sergeant said nothing about it. 

When Cooper took a cab, he would hand over the exact fare to the cabbie, then stuff something into his top pocket, saying: ‘Have a drink on me.’ Only later would the driver realise that, rather than a crisp note, the comic had actually tipped him with… a teabag.

Tommy Cooper had been due to meet fellow comic Eric Sykes and a producer in a pub at midday to discuss a TV show they were doing. Both the producer and Sykes arrived on time and waited for Cooper – and waited, and waited, getting angrier all the time as their chance to talk before the pub got busy dwindled with every minute. Then just after 1pm, with the pub in full flow, the door burst open, and Cooper walked in: wearing pyjamas, slippers and a bowler hat. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t get up,’ he explained...

Cooper at 100 logo

After he became famous, Cooper and his wife Glen escaped to Egypt for a break – but couldn’t escape his fame. In a Cairo market he came across a stall selling fezzes so decided to try one on, in case he could add it to his wardrobe.  The stallholder immediately said: ‘Just like that!’ ‘How do you know that?’ asked the incredulous comic. ‘That’s my catchphrase.’ ‘What’s a catchphrase?,’ replied the Egyptian. ‘I know nothing about any catchphrase, but I do know that every time an English person comes up here and tries on one of these fezzes, they turn to their friends and say "Just like that". You’re the first one not to say it.’

Freddie Starr was a big fan of Tommy Cooper, and was thrilled when he found himself on the same bill – especially when Cooper asked him to join him and his wife Gwen for tea. Because of Starr’s reputation for outrageousness, Cooper took great pains to warn him to be on his best behaviour and, especially, not to swear in front of his wife. Starr arrived at the meeting suitably humbled, and keen to make the best impression. ‘Hello, Tom. Hello, Mrs Cooper,’ he said, as politely as he could muster. ‘Fuck off,’ said Cooper.

• The main image is from Tommy Cooper At The BBC, introduced by Lenny Henry and currently available on iPlayer

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Published: 19 Mar 2021

Cooper coup

Previously unseen footage of Tommy Cooper is to be…

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Past Shows


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