Tommy Cooper

Tommy Cooper

Date of birth: 19-03-1921

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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'Tommy Cooper had a sadistic streak'

Barry Cryer shares some favourite anecdotes

Tommy Cooper had a ‘sadistic streak’ which made him relish making people uncomfortable, Barry Cryer has revealed.

But there was usually a strong comedy payoff to his torments, 

The veteran writer, who penned jokes for the fez-wearing comedian in his heyday, today. regaled an audience at the Slapstick festival of vintage comedy in Bristol with several anecdotes about the comic great.

‘He hated not being the centre of attention,’ Cryer said. ‘Whenever he felt he wasn’t, out would come the pack of cards and he’d start doing tricks to regain focus.’

Cryer told one story of Cooper sneaking on to the TV studio where Morecambe and Wise were recording their top-rated show, and interrupting their warm-up, leaning heavy on Ernie Wise and appearing tearful as he could cry on cue.

Then he announced, in reference to the marital problems of a fellow comic that was all over the news: ‘Dick Emery’s left me’ – leaving the double act to try to regain control of their own show.

‘Eric could laugh about that later,’ Cryer said. ‘But not at the time. Like I said, he had a sadistic streak.’

And in another incident, Cooper fan Freddie Starr met his hero in a hotel lobby, and politely introduced himself. On learning Cooper would be having tea with his wife later, he asked to join them. ‘Okay,’ said Cooper, but perhaps wary of Starr’s anarchic reputation added: ‘But behave yourself. I am with my wife.’ Later, as promised Starr bounded up to the couple and said politely to them. ‘Hello, I’m Freddie Starr.’ Whereupon Cooper said: ‘Why don’t you just fuck off.’ 

Cryer also recalled Cooper going to dinner with impressionist Mike Yarwood, who got mash rather than the chips he ordered. Yarwood fretted over whether to bring it up with the waitress, but Cooper egged him on, saying he should get what he’d paid for. The minute he mentioned the mistake to the server, Cooper berated him: ‘Stop making a fuss.’

The audience were also shown an interview with chat show king Michael Parkinson, which Cooper undermined with subtle gestures, and a refusal to answer questions – feigning a breakdown over an alleged gambling loss instead.

Cooper could be even tougher on fans. Cryer recalled a man trying to share a joke with himself and Cooper in a pub, but becoming increasingly agitated as Cooper asked about irrelevant details of every aspect of the set-up, painstakingly writing down trivial notes. And just as the fan was getting to the end of his tether, and his punchline, a cameraman arrived in the bar, and Cooper urged the frustrated joke-teller to start again.

In another incident, a man tried to tell him a joke across a horseshoe-shaped bar. As the man was telling his tale, Cooper surreptitiously dropped his trousers, getting huge laughs from the drinkers on his side, to the complete  bemusement of those across the bar. ‘The man must have thought "this joke’s never gone as well as this,’ Cryer said.

The 81-year-old writer also revealed that despite their close working relationship, Cooper rarely turned off his comic persona.  ‘He never spoke about current affairs or politics, just magic,’ he told interview Robert Ross. ‘He was the opposite of Eric Morecambe, who was a quiet man off stage.


Cryer also retold the oft-repeated, possibly apocryphal, story from Cooper’s Army days, when he was on sentry duty and fell asleep standing up beside of his sentry box. ‘He opened half an eye and saw his commanding officer in front of him,’ Cryer said. ‘Tommy then closed his eyes again, then opened them once again and said, "Amen…"|

Unrelated to Cooper, Cryer also told a anecdote from his time on 1970s panel show Jokers’ Wild

Carry On star Jack Douglas was asked to define ‘eternity’ - and said: ‘The time it takes Les Dawson to buy a round.’

Dawson, who was on the show, promptly stormed off, leaving the recording in chaos. But he returned a few moments later with a full tray of drinks he’d got from the bar, with a pint for everyone – except Douglas.

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Published: 22 Jan 2017

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