I am just about old enough to remember watching Live From Her Majesty’s on TV in April 1984. Tommy Cooper was performing his usual mix of seemingly inept magic and daft jokes. During his act, I remember that he started to sway a little and complain of feeling a bit funny. Believing it was part of his act, the audience roared with laughter, as did we watching at home. He stared as if incredulous at the audience, then he collapsed. And we still laughed, which sounds odd – and a bit heartless – thinking about it now, but Tommy Cooper wasn’t above playing up physical pain for laughs.
The next day, confirmation came that Cooper was pronounced dead at the hospital the previous evening. The country mourned a comic genius. Although there was something that looked incompetent and unpolished about his act, like Les Dawson’s off-key piano playing and Frankie Howerd’s ‘Ooh, no missus’ ad-libs, Cooper was a very accomplished magician; his tricks, timings and sleight of hand rehearsed down to the finest detail.
Thirty years since he passed away in the most show-business way possible, Hambledon Productions and the Museum of Comedy pay an affectionate tribute to the comedy legend. It is a testament to the longevity of Cooper’s reputation as a stellar comic that there was a good mix of ages and nationalities in the audience (I was sure I heard some Americans chatting away during the interval).
Many people have impersonated Tommy Cooper over the years, but it’s not enough to don a fez and say ‘not like that, like that’ with a West Country burr. It’s clear, however, that John Hewer (aka Tommy Cooper) has taken that impression to another level. In both Cooper’s voice and mannerisms, Hewer has more or less nailed it. Having done a run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Hewer has honed his routine beautifully – from Cooper’s exaggerated ‘ahem’, to the arms-out shoulder shuffle (technical terms, of course). There were brief occasions where the magic handiwork was close but not quite right, but it was evident overall that many, many hours had gone into practising the art of being Tommy Cooper.
Anyone familiar with watching Cooper’s act will surely recognise many of the tricks and jokes performed on stage. The audience were treated to tricks involving several plain and spotted handkerchiefs, the magic cloak out of which several unfeasibly large objects appeared, and – my personal favourite – spoon, jar, jar, spoon! Fans will also recognise jokes such as the Stradivarius and Rembrandt, a quite literal performance of Blowin’ In The Wind and a chaotic sketch involving multiple hats. There was witty musical accompaniment courtesy of Christopher Peters, who was also Cooper’s on-stage foil.