Cooper, c. 1982
|Born||Thomas Frederick Cooper
19 March 1921
Caerphilly, Glamorgan, Wales
|Died||15 April 1984
Westminster, London, England
|Resting place||Mortlake Crematorium|
|Occupation||Prop comedian, magician|
|Children||2, including Thomas Henty|
Thomas Frederick Cooper (19 March 1921 - 15 April 1984) was a British prop comedian and magician. He was a member of The Magic Circle, and was respected by traditional magicians. He was famed for his red tarboosh, and his appearance was large and lumbering, at 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and more than 15 stone (210 lb; 95 kg) in weight. On 15 April 1984, Cooper collapsed with a heart attack on live national television, and died soon afterwards.
Thomas Frederick Cooper was born on 19 March 1921 at 19 Llwyn-On Street in Caerphilly, Glamorgan. He was delivered by the woman who owned the house in which the family were lodging. His parents were Thomas H. Cooper, a Welsh recruiting sergeant in the British Army and later coal miner, and Catherine Gertrude (née Wright), Thomas' English wife from Crediton, Devon.
To escape from the heavily polluted air of Caerphilly, his father accepted the offer of a new job and the family moved to Exeter, Devon, when Cooper was three. It was in Exeter that he acquired the West Country accent that became part of his act. When he was eight, an aunt bought him a magic set and he spent hours perfecting the tricks. In the 1960s, his brother David (born 1930) opened a magic shop called D. & Z. Cooper's Magic Shop on the high street in Slough, Berkshire.
After school, Cooper became a shipwright in Southampton, Hampshire. In 1940, he was called up as a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, serving for seven years. He joined Montgomery's Desert Rats in Egypt. Cooper became a member of a NAAFI entertainment party and developed an act around his magic tricks interspersed with comedy. One evening in Cairo, during a sketch in which he was supposed to be in a costume that required a pith helmet, having forgotten the prop, Cooper reached out and borrowed a tarboosh from a passing waiter, which got huge laughs.
When he was demobbed after seven years of military service Cooper took up show business on Christmas Eve, 1947. He later developed a popular monologue about his military experience as "Cooper the Trooper". He worked in variety theatres around the country and at many of London's top night spots, performing as many as 52 shows in one week.
To keep the audience on their toes Cooper threw in an occasional trick that worked when it was least expected.
In 1947, Cooper got his big break with Miff Ferrie, at that time trombonist in a band called The Jackdaws, who booked him to appear as the second-spot comedian in a show starring the sand dance act Marqueeze and the Dance of the Seven Veils. Cooper then began two years of arduous performing, including a tour of Europe and a stint in pantomime, playing one of Cinderella's ugly sisters. The period culminated in a season-long booking at the Windmill Theatre, where he doubled up doing cabaret. In one week, he performed 52 shows. Ferrie remained Cooper's sole agent for 37 years, until Cooper's death in 1984. Cooper was supported by a variety of acts, including the vocal percussionist Frank Holder.
Cooper rapidly became a top-liner in variety with his turn as the conjurer whose tricks never succeeded, but it was his television work that raised him to national prominence. After his debut on the BBC talent show New to You in March 1948 he started starring in his own shows, and was popular with audiences for nearly 40 years, notably through his work with London Weekend Television from 1968 to 1972 and with Thames Television from 1973 to 1980. Thanks to his many television shows during the mid-1970s, he was one of the most recognisable comedians in the world.
John Fisher writes in his biography of Cooper: "Everyone agrees that he was mean. Quite simply he was acknowledged as the tightest man in show business, with a pathological dread of reaching into his pocket." One of Cooper's stunts was to pay the exact taxi fare and when leaving the cab to slip something into the taxi driver's pocket saying, "Have a drink on me." That something would turn out to be a tea bag.
By the mid-1970s, alcohol had started to erode Cooper's professionalism and club owners complained that he turned up late or rushed through his show in five minutes. In addition he suffered from chronic indigestion, lumbago, sciatica, bronchitis and severe circulation problems in his legs. When Cooper realised the extent of his maladies he cut down on his drinking, and the energy and confidence returned to his act. However, he never stopped drinking and could be fallible: on an otherwise triumphant appearance with Michael Parkinson he forgot to set the safety catch on the guillotine illusion into which he had cajoled Parkinson, and only a last-minute intervention by the floor manager saved Parkinson from serious injury or worse.
Cooper was a heavy drinker and smoker, and experienced a decline in health during the late 1970s, suffering a heart attack in 1977 while in Rome, where he was performing a show. Three months later he was back on television in Night Out at the London Casino.
By 1980, however, his drinking meant that Thames Television would not give him another starring series, and Cooper's Half Hour was his last. He did continue to appear as a guest on other television shows, however, and worked with Eric Sykes on two Thames productions in 1982.
On 15 April 1984, Cooper collapsed from a heart attack in front of millions of television viewers, midway through his act on the London Weekend Television variety show Live from Her Majesty's, transmitted live from Her Majesty's Theatre in Westminster, London.
An assistant had helped him put on a cloak for his sketch, while Jimmy Tarbuck, the host, was hiding behind the curtain waiting to pass him different props that he would then appear to pull from inside his gown. The assistant smiled at him as he collapsed, believing that it was a part of the act. Likewise, the audience gave "uproarious" laughter as he fell, gasping for air.
At this point, Alasdair MacMillan, the director of the television production, cued the orchestra to play music for an unscripted commercial break (noticeable because of several seconds of blank screen while LWT's master control contacted regional stations to start transmitting advertisements) and Tarbuck's manager tried to pull Cooper back through the curtains.
It was decided to continue with the show. Dustin Gee and Les Dennis were the act that had to follow Cooper, and other stars proceeded to present their acts in the limited space in front of the stage. While the show continued, efforts were being made backstage to revive Cooper, not made easier by the darkness. It was not until a second commercial break that ambulancemen were able to move his body to Westminster Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. His death was not officially reported until the next morning, although the incident was the leading item on the news programme that followed the show. Cooper was cremated at Mortlake Crematorium in London.
The video of Tommy Cooper suffering the fatal heart attack on stage has been uploaded to numerous video sharing websites. YouTube drew criticism from a number of sources when footage of the incident was posted on the website in May 2009. John Beyer of the pressure group Mediawatch-UK said: "This is very poor taste. That the broadcasters have not repeated the incident shows they have a respect for him and I think that ought to apply also on YouTube." On 28 December 2011 segments of the Live From Her Majesty's clip, including Cooper collapsing on stage, were included in the Channel 4 programme The Untold Tommy Cooper.
From 1967 until his death, Cooper had a relationship with his personal assistant, Mary Fieldhouse. She wrote about it in her book, For the Love of Tommy (1986). His widow, Gwen Henty, whom he married in Cyprus in 1947 but never divorced, died in 2002. One of their two sons, actor Thomas Henty, was born in 1956 and died in 1988. Cooper's will was probated on 29 August 1984 at £327,272.
A statue of Cooper was unveiled in his birthplace of Caerphilly, Wales, in 2008 by fellow entertainer Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is patron of the Tommy Cooper Society. The statue was sculpted by James Done. Hip-hop duo dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip wrote the song "Tommy C", about Cooper's career and death, which appears on their 2008 album, Angles. In 2009 for Red Nose Day, a charity Red Nose was put on the statue, but the nose was stolen.
In a 2005 poll The Comedians' Comedian, Cooper was voted the sixth greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. He has been cited as an influence by Jason Manford and John Lydon.Jerome Flynn has toured with his own tribute show to Cooper called Just Like That.
In February 2007, The Independent reported that Andy Harries, a producer of The Queen, was working on a dramatisation about the last week of Tommy Cooper's life. Harries described Cooper's death as "extraordinary" in that the whole thing was broadcast live on national television. The film subsequently went into production over six years later as a television drama for ITV. From a screenplay by Simon Nye, Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This was directed by Benjamin Caron and the title role was played by David Threlfall; it was broadcast 21 April 2014.
In 2012 the British Heart Foundation ran a series of adverts featuring Tommy Cooper to raise awareness of heart conditions. These included posters bearing his image together with radio adverts featuring classic Cooper jokes.Being Tommy Cooper, a new play written by Tom Green and starring Damian Williams, was produced by Franklin Productions and toured the UK in 2013. In 2014, with the support of The Tommy Cooper Estate and Cooper's daughter Victoria, a new tribute show Just Like That! The Tommy Cooper Show commemorating 30 years since the comedian's death was produced by Hambledon Productions. The production moved to the Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury, London from September 2014 and continues to tour extensively throughout the UK.
In August 2016 it was announced that the Victoria and Albert Museum had acquired 116 boxes of Cooper's papers and props, including his "gag file", in which he had meticulously recorded his jokes. The museum said he had used a system for storing his jokes alphabetically "with the meticulousness of an archivist".