Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Just Like That—the Tommy Cooper Show

Various scriptwriters
Hambledon Productions
The Exchange, North Shields

Watching John Hewer’s tribute to Tommy Cooper, I realised just how similar two of Britain greatest recent comedians were. What united Tommy Cooper and Frankie Howerd—and what few of our current crop of stand-ups possess—is that ability to have us falling about merely through walking on stage.

Put several of Cooper’s quips in cold print and they hardly represent the pinnacle of comic genius. "Mine’s a one-man dog," he says. "He only bites me."

Or again: "I went to see Ben Hur. Loved Ben. Hated Hur." (How many under-50s will even remember the film?)

And to make up the trio: "this trick starts slowly, then peters out."

Corny, at times almost Christmas crackerlike in their humour, the gags were irresistible when delivered by Cooper, followed by that huge square laugh, shoulders convulsed in a quick shake of mirth, great rubbery face showing delight, disbelief, confusion, then more delight in rapid succession.

Cooper was a true iconoclast. No-one before him had conceived of building a show round failed magic. He tapped into a secret desire in all of us to see skilled entertainers fall flat on their faces. Except Cooper never did. However disastrous the trick, after a brief show of shock horror he clicked back into his default position—that of enjoying himself immensely. And of course, his footnote was often to give us a flash of the trick performed correctly, a gentle reminder that despite all the clowning he knew his stuff. What was totally absent was even the slightest whiff of cynicism or sarcasm. Cooper’s was a childlike talent—he, Howerd and Ken Dodd were the last of that line.

How many other entertainers can boast a 12ft bronzed statue in their home town? Cooper can, in Caerphilly (though he moved to Exeter at the age of three, hence the slight West Country accent).

And all that chaos and anarchy on stage was scrupulously worked on. Only the truly dedicated and meticulous can make it all look easy.

Everyone wanted to write for Tommy Cooper. No fewer than 23 scriptwriters are credited here, including the likes of Barry Cryer and Dick Vosburgh.

John Hewer’s tribute is as infectious as Cooper himself. Physically similar, with a face given to the same comic contortions and a body jerking with indecisions, Hewer stumbles his way (deliberately!) through well-worn magic routines, chortling at every mishap, meantime firing off a whole succession of hoary old jokes, each one followed by the kind of laughter to suggest that he, Cooper, were hearing it for the first time.

Only occasionally does it misfire, such as when he takes off the hallmark fez and dons a titfer to adopt the persona of an East End cockney trader. Or his case full of hats which he changes rapidly to denote different characters in a comic poem. Both these, in a slighty weaker second half, lack the seemingly effortless appeal.

Otherwise, he had the audience at The Exchange eating out of his hand. Do the smallish numbers in the auditorium suggest Cooper does not register with recent generations? The show is at the start of a 24-venue national tour, suggesting the demand is still there. Maybe a hot and sunny Bank Holiday weekend played its part in keeping the good folk of North Shields out of a dark theatre. They missed a treat.

The evening also features singer-musician Christopher Peters who from the keyboard gives us polished and occasionally comic interpretations of songs by Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern. Peters also acts as the occasional fall guy and assists in the routine Cooper was doing when he died on stage—pulling increasingly bulky items (chair, table etc) from between the folds of his magician’s cloak. Poignant.

Peter Mortimer