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Cooper, Tommy (1921-1984)


Main image of Cooper, Tommy (1921-1984)

A natural comic, with a large, ungainly body that must have been preordained with comedy in mind, Tommy Cooper (born Thomas Frederick Cooper in Caerphilly, Wales, on 19 March 1921) was one of the most loved of all British comedians. Perfecting an act that mixed magic tricks (which invariably, but not always, went wrong) with the corniest of one and two line gags, Cooper appeared in a state of perpetual bemusement as anarchy reigned around him. This apparent state of chaos disguised the fact that Cooper was a skilled conjuror (he was a member of the Magic Circle) with matchless comic skills and meticulous timing.

Cooper's comedy career began while serving in the Middle East during the war, where he joined a concert party to entertain the troops. It was during this period that he acquired his trademark red fez. Following his demobilisation, he struggled on the variety circuit, developing his comedic magic routines. As bookings began to improve, Cooper, despite the BBC lamenting his "unfortunate appearance", made his television debut in Leslie Henson's Christmas Eve Party in 1947.

Other television work followed, including Comedy Capers (BBC, tx. 8/3/1948) and Gala Variety (BBC, tx. 23/12/1950), the latter a celebration of the opening of the BBC's Lime Grove studios (mute colour film taken on the set of this show was discovered in the late 1990s and is the earliest surviving footage of Cooper).

Cooper was awarded his own BBC series in 1952, It's Magic, described in the Radio Times as a "miscellany of mischief, music and mystery". This was the first and last series Cooper would make for the BBC, being an ITV man for the rest of his career, primarily with Thames Television, for which he worked virtually exclusively from 1968.

His next series, and his first for ITV, Cooper or Life with Tommy (1957), was more akin to situation comedy than his stage act, with each episode a sketch based on mishaps encountered in his everyday life. Further sitcom or sketch-based programmes included Cooper's Capers (ITV, 1958), Life With Cooper (ITV, 1966-69) (both adopting the same format as that first series), and a number scripted by and co-starring Eric Sykes, including The Eric Sykes 1990 Show (ITV, tx. 14/4/1982) and one of Sykes' dialogue-free comedies, It's Your Move (ITV, tx. 18/10/1982), with himself and Cooper as removal men.

It is for his blundering comic magic routines, however, that he is most fondly remembered, and from the 1950s to the 1980s he starred in numerous series and one-off specials built around his stage act, including The Tommy Cooper Hour (ITV, tx. 23/11/1957); Cooper King-Size (ITV, tx. 30/7/1968), his first programme for Thames Television; The Tommy Cooper Show (ITV, tx. 28/8/1978) and his final series Cooper's Half Hour (ITV, 1980) .

Unaccountably dropped by Thames, his television appearances in the early 1980s were limited to a trickle of guest spots. It was during one such appearance, on Live from Her Majesty's (ITV, 1983-85), that Cooper collapsed and died from a heart attack during the live broadcast (tx. 15/4/1984) while performing one of his classic routines. Believing it to be all a part of his act, the audience laughed and applauded.

John Oliver

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