His fez is his fortune 

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From the TVTimes published 3 February 1956

Think of any popular comedian and the chances are that the man you have in mind is less than average size.

He wins his laughs by symbolising all the little men of the world — trying to become more important than they are, constantly being buffeted by life, and nearly submerged by trouble.

That is where Tommy Cooper, who made the first of three appearances as guest star in Saturday Showtime last week, differs from the rest.

It would take a major catastrophe to submerge him. He stands 6 ft. 4 in. in his size 12 shoes and looks capable of protecting himself against all-comers.

Cooper is the antithesis of the Wisdoms and Askeys. He is the large man, bigger than life, who gets his laughs by constantly being cut down to average size. He tries a trick, confident and swaggering, and dissolves in a nervous giggle of alarm when it fails. And the harder he tries the more he deflates.

Yet like the Wisdoms and Askeys he has the great quality of a clown that makes you want to laugh before he says a word.

When he strides before the cameras, red fez set firmly on his dark hair — which splays out either side of his head — and fixes you with his penetrating eyes, you start to chuckle at once.

From that moment he has you. Might as well sit back and laugh outright, because his crazy comedy is almost irresistible.

Tommy Cooper was born 34 years ago in South Wales, son of a poultry farmer. He moved first to Exeter and then to Southampton, where he became an apprentice shipwright.

“I took up magic as a hobby when I was nine,” he told me in his dressing-room at a West End theatre. “An aunt gave me some tricks for a present.”

Off-stage he is not much different from his professional self. The maniacal laugh, nervous mannerisms and sense of humour are still there.

His apprentice days explain what he is like. “I used to show the other boys tricks and make them laugh,” he recalls. “If you got into trouble you were sent home. I was always being sent home.”

The war interrupted his training and the first few weeks of September 1939 found him learning to ride a horse as a trooper in the Horse Guards.

One of his chores was sentry duty in Whitehall. “I’ve done that many times,” he says. “Khaki uniform though — nothing fancy.”

You might also have seen him riding, Army fashion, in Rotten Row at 6.30 a.m. – that is riding one horse and leading two others.

He served for seven years. Four were spent in the Middle East where he was promoted sergeant and developed a passion for hot climates.

How did Sergeant Cooper drift into the entertainment world? He did it like so many others in uniform. He began by making his pals laugh at small concerts, was asked to appear at bigger shows and was switched to Army welfare.

Through these amateur concert parties he met his wife, Gwen, when she was playing the piano for a combined services entertainment unit.

With his knowledge of Egypt it is easy to see how the fez got into the act. But what of the tricks-which-fail gimmick ?

“An accident,” he told me.

“I was so nervous doing one show that I muffed them. The audience thought it funny and I began doing it deliberately.

“I can do them right if I want to. I belong to the Magic Circle. In fact, I am a member of the Inner Circle — one of the Secret Six. That’s so secret I don’t know who the other five are.”

Since leaving the Army, Tommy Cooper has had a solid professional career in show business.

In the last eight years he has risen from bottom-of-the-bill at small variety theatres to the West End and a TV contract for one of the peak-viewing programmes.

He has toured variety halls, appeared in every cabaret spot, fooled in pantomime, starred in the biggest theatres, won a large following on TV and performed before the Royal Family.

Yet, as one of his friends remarks, despite his successes he does not realise how high he has risen in his profession. Or how much further he can go.

This conversation gives a guide to that part of his make-up. “Associated TeleVision asked me to do a series of six Saturday Showtime programmes,” he says.

“You accepted?”

“No. I asked if they would change it to three shows to take place once a fortnight. I don’t want the viewers to get sick of seeing me.”

So there is a gap of a fortnight between his ITV shows.

He took care not to outstay his welcome in America. Last year he went with a British company to the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

The American Press described him as “the highspot of the show” and other offers arrived. They were turned down because of prior commitments in England.

He would like to cross the Atlantic again to do some TV work. That will have to wait. His current stage show has run since April and his wife wants to know when they are going on a long-promised holiday.

The last one they had by accident. Tommy went into hospital to have his tonsils removed and was told to take five weeks’ rest.

He and Mrs. Cooper decided to go to Spain and were waiting at London Airport for the plane when he learned that a visa was required.

They had to go back home and start their holiday later.

“He’s always doing something crazy,” says Gwen Cooper. “That was typical.”

But it wasn’t his fault that he was not presented to the Queen after the Royal Variety Performance in 1953.

The presentation lists were wrong and as his name had been omitted he stayed in the dressing-room when the curtain fell.

“I never touch alcohol before I do a programme,” he says. “I dare not take the risk. Supposing I went out and did all my tricks right —where should I be then ? ”

This winter he has moved into a new house in Chiswick. “Like most professional entertainers I do not see a lot of TV,” he admits. “To be honest we haven’t a set. However, we are getting one. We must do. It hardly seems decent without one.”

 

James Green

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3 responses to His fez is his fortune

Paul Mason 6 Mar 2017 at 8:54 pm

I can’t remember 1956 but Tommy Cooper’s shows were not a common occurrence particularly in the 1970s. According to John Fisher’s. biography he had a long feud with LWT and David Frost in particular. However he worked for Thames TV and I remember a trailer for his 1974 series where he did the “spoon-jar-jar-spoon” trick. There was one show where the musical guests were ABBA. In a house move I lost the ITV Silver anniversary TV Times from September 1980 where there was an article about what was to be his last TV series, which contained an interview with Miff Ferrie his long suffering manager. And of course I saw the last TC appearance on Live From Her Majesty’s 15/04/1984.
Another reason his shows became few and far between was his act was limited but absence didn’t mean they were less funny. TCs health failed him due to his alcohol and cigar addiction.
Luckily there was no social media to record his stumbling appearances in night clubs in the
70s. Anyway I didn’t see that side of him.

Just funny, just like that.

Russ J Graham 6 Mar 2017 at 9:26 pm

Many comedians of the early television period had frightening periods where they were out of fashion and couldn’t get work on television. Tommy Cooper during the 1970s and Frankie Howerd in the 1980s spring to mind. Kenneth Williams writes in his diaries repeatedly of his fears that tomorrow someone will say “we don’t like your stuff any more, we want a new style” and it would be all over for him. Certainly he had some scrapes with theatre, television and radio falling out of love with him… but never all at the same time.

Paul Mason 31 Mar 2017 at 1:48 pm

Can I point out that Tommy Cooper did very little radio, His act was visual and by happy accident he came to fame in the early 1950s when mass TV was in its infancy. Needless to say the John Fisher book provided me with the info as it was before my birth

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