“I’ve taken a course of Penicillin. Tablets, injections – every time I sneeze, I cure somebody.”
Tommy Cooper. For those of a certain age, the name alone is enough to bring a smile to the face.
Indeed, for those of much younger ages it’s a name also likely to conjure up feelings of much jollity and mirth; for, despite a distinct – let’s face it, almost total – lack of television repeats of his programmes in the last 20-30 years, his notoriety and comedy legend status has remained undimmed.
And that is testament to the immense talent of this literal towering figure (standing at 6 foot 3 inches) of comedy; the love and esteem with which he was held; and the impact his unique mix of comedy and magic tricks had upon the public.
Despite the myriad of TV channels now at our service, Cooper’s work remains largely overlooked: and it is thanks only to a couple of DVD distributors (particularly Network) that we are once again able to delight in some of his groan-tastic comedy and head-scratching magic. A small handful of series released in 2007/8 – The Tommy Cooper Hour, Cooper, and Just Like That – chart the height of Cooper’s fame across the mid-1970s, and in the last year Network followed up with all surviving episodes of Life With Cooper and Cooperama, dating between 1966 and 1969.
December saw the DVD issue of another: 1969-71’s Tommy Cooper. First airing a special at Christmas 1969, the series proper celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, having debuted on 7th February 1970.
That Saturday teatime, thousands of families tuned in to delight in Cooper’s latest antics, accompanied by regulars Peter Reeves and Clovissa Newcombe, plus guest stars including Ronnie Corbett. The following ten weeks brought with them further star names: Diana Dors, Ronnie Barker, Arthur Lowe, Vincent Price and Joan Greenwood amongst them, in a mix of studio magic and both studio and filmed sketches that had already proved an intoxicating combination.
Cooper’s previous series had become hugely popular TV staples, blending joyful close-up illusions and skilful, effortlessly-confused presentation of tricks going badly awry – or simply out of hand. This self-titled London Weekend Television series – followed by a further special at Easter 1971, totalling thirteen episodes – is no different. There are card tricks, rope tricks, glasses, bottles, rings, and much else besides, all delivered with the star’s trademark gleeful grin or gormless bemusement, depending upon their success.
With scripts by David Nobbs, Barry Cryer, Peter Vincent, Geoff Rowley and others, the sketches also prove a thoroughly entertaining mix: some longer form, some in period settings, some incorporating magic tricks, and others being the visual equivalent of the cheesiest pun your dad has ever shared over Christmas dinner.
But corny or sophisticated, there should be little doubt that Cooper remains one of the greatest comic entertainers Britain produced in the 20th Century. The trade of magical illusions can be learned with enough practice, but the comic talent he possessed was surely much more deeply ingrained into his very being.
Famously dying during a live-broadcast television appearance in April 1984, it’s hard not to revisit his work and wonder what further delights the world may have been robbed of the chance to see. But thanks to releases like Tommy Cooper, we at least have the chance to delight again in this star at his finest.
Aaron Brown is a comedy historian and fan, and Editor of British Comedy Guide (link: https://www.comedy.co.uk/), promoting British comedy of all varieties to audiences across the globe. With a passion for sitcom, he has previously written for the BBC and Gold, and has numerous radio and television credits discussing British comedy.
Use the discount code NETWORKBLOGTOMMYCOOPER50 to receive 25% off Tommy Cooper: The Complete LWT Series until 4pm, Friday 14th February.