The day the comedy died

Anthony Harvison on Tommy Cooper's death, 25 years on

When the plane carrying rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper crashed on February 3, 1959, it would come to be remembered as the 'day the music died'.

What is less well-known is that there is a similar date in the world of comedy. April 15, 1984: The day that Tommy Cooper unknowingly gave his final performance to the world, suffering a fatal heart attack while performing live on TV.

By the start of Eighties Cooper was a star in rapid decline. Though the sight of him in his trademark fez, bumbling along, botching magic tricks and telling awful puns no-one else could get away with still had audiences in stitches, years of heavy drinking had sadly taken its toll.

Ironically, alcohol may have been a deciding factor in establishing Cooper as a household name - as a means early on his career as a way of overcoming crippling stage fright.

‘People say I’ve only got to walk out on stage and they laugh,’ Cooper once told close friend Eric Sykes. ‘If only they knew what it takes to walk out on stage in the first place. One of these days I’ll just walk out and do nothing. Then they'll know the difference.’

But what had once given, was, by the mid-Seventies, taking away. His act started to suffer noticeably as a drunken Cooper rushed through the set, omitting gags here and repeating others there. His timing seemed, at times, as shot as his bleary red eyes.

Tired of his increasing unreliability, TV executives decided to pull the plug on one of their most popular stars. Cooper's Half Hour, broadcast on ITV in 1980, would be the last of his regular series – hugely popular light entertainment shows that had been a mainstay of the schedules since the Sixties.

Though he continued to guest on other programmes, such as The Eric Sykes 1990 Show in 1982, the giant of comedy - literally at 6ft 4in - looked in poor shape.

In 1977 Cooper had suffered a heart attack on stage in Rome and though he bounced back, returning to TV just three months later on ITV's Night Out at the London Casino, his drinking combined with a 40-a-day smoking habit had left him in shocking bad health.

But no one could have expected that years of abuse would finally catch up with Cooper live on TV. And no one who witnessed his last, unscripted bow would ever be able to forget it.

Arriving in London's West End for an edition of ITV variety show Live From Her Majesty's on April 15th 1984, Cooper had looked frail. So frail in fact that a makeshift dressing room was hastily erected in the wings for him so he wouldn't have to climb the stairs.

When he fell to the ground during his act, no one realised that he had just suffered a massive heart attack live on stage.

‘God, that was the saddest night of my entire career,’ show compère Jimmy Tarbuck recently told the Wales on Sunday newspaper – speaking out about what happened for the first time. ‘I was watching on a monitor backstage and we all thought he’d just stuck another physical gag into his set; he was a real terror for introducing new bits and pieces without warning. But, as time ticked on, we realised something terrible had happened and I called for a quick commercial break.’

Watching the footage of what happened is painful viewing. The audience, both at the theatre and at home, continued to laugh, unaware that a comedy legend was dying before their eyes.

The curtain dropped and frantic efforts were made to revive him, but tragically Cooper never regained consciousness. He was declared dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital, aged 63.

The death of Tommy Cooper is TV history of the grimmest kind, yet, in a strange kind of way, poetic.

He died as he had lived, making people laugh. The comedian's comedian – loved by millions – passed away with everyone cheering for him.

Sad, undoubtedly, but also, it could be argued, the perfect tribute to his genius.

Published: 20 Apr 2009

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