Tommy Cooper

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Tommy Cooper
Cooper, c.1982
Thomas Frederick Cooper

(1921-03-19)19 March 1921
Died15 April 1984(1984-04-15) (aged 63)
OccupationProp comedian, magician
Years active1947–1984
Gwen Henty(m. 1947)
ChildrenVictoria Cooper (b. 1953)
Thomas Henty
(b.1956 d. 1988)

Thomas Frederick Cooper (19 March 1921 – 15 April 1984) was a Welsh prop comedian and magician. He was a member of The Magic Circle, and was respected by traditional magicians. He habitually wore a red fez, and his appearance was large and lumbering, at 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) [1] and more than 15 stone (210 lb; 95 kg) in weight. [2] On 15 April 1984, Cooper collapsed with a heart attack on live national television, and died soon afterwards.

Magic (illusion) entertainment constructed around tricks and illusions

Magic, along with its subgenres of, and sometimes referred to as illusion, stage magic or close up magic is a performing art in which audiences are entertained by staged tricks or illusions of seemingly impossible feats using natural means. It is to be distinguished from paranormal magic which are effects claimed to be created through supernatural means. It is one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

The Magic Circle (organisation) organization

For other uses, see Magic Circle (disambiguation).

Fez cone-shaped cap with a flat crown, of Turkish origin

The fez is a felt headdress in the shape of a short cylindrical peakless hat, usually red, and sometimes with a tassel attached to the top. It is named after the city of its origins, the Moroccan city Fez, the capital of the Kingdom of Morocco until 1927. The modern fez owes much of its popularity to the Ottoman era.


Early life

Thomas Frederick Cooper was born on 19 March 1921 at 19 Llwyn-On Street in Caerphilly, Glamorgan. [3] 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. [3] [4]

Caerphilly town in the county borough of Caerphilly, Wales

Caerphilly is a town and community in South Wales, at the southern end of the Rhymney Valley. It is the largest town in Caerphilly County Borough, within the historic borders of Glamorgan, on the border with Monmouthshire. At the 2001 Census, the town had a population of 30,388. It is a commuter town for Cardiff and Newport, 7.5 miles (12 km) and 12 miles (19 km) away respectively, and is separated from the Cardiff suburbs of Lisvane and Rhiwbina by Caerphilly mountain and gives its name to Caerphilly cheese.

Welsh people nation and ethnic group native to Wales

The Welsh are a Celtic nation and ethnic group native to, or otherwise associated with, Wales, Welsh culture, Welsh history and the Welsh language. Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom, and the majority of people living in Wales are British citizens.

British Army land warfare branch of the British Armed Forces of the United Kingdom

The British Army is the principal land warfare force of the United Kingdom, a part of British Armed Forces. As of 2018, the British Army comprises just over 81,500 trained regular (full-time) personnel and just over 27,000 trained reserve (part-time) personnel.

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. [5] When he was eight, an aunt bought him a magic set and he spent hours perfecting the tricks. [6] In the 1960s, his brother David (born 1930) [7] opened a magic shop called D. & Z. Cooper's Magic Shop on the high street in Slough, Berkshire. [8]

Exeter City in the south west of England

Exeter is a cathedral city in Devon, England, with a population of 129,800. The city is located on the River Exe approximately 36 miles (58 km) northeast of Plymouth and 65 miles (105 km) southwest of Bristol. It is the county town of Devon, and the base of Devon County Council. Also situated in Exeter, are two campuses of the University of Exeter, Streatham Campus and St Luke's Campus.

West Country English Variety of the English language

West Country English is a group of English language varieties and accents used by much of the native population of South West England, the area sometimes popularly known as the West Country.

Slough Place in England

Slough is a large town in Berkshire, England, within the Greater London Urban Area, 20 miles (32 km) west of Charing Cross, central London and 17 miles (27 km) north-east of the county town of Reading. It is between the Thames Valley and London and at the intersection of the M4, M40 and M25 motorways.

After school, Cooper became a shipwright in Southampton. 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 fez from a passing waiter, which got huge laughs. [9] He wore a fez whenever performing after that, the prop later being described as "an icon of 20th-century comedy". [10]

Southampton City and unitary authority area in England

Southampton is the largest city in the ceremonial county of Hampshire, England. It is 70 miles (110 km) south-west of London and 15 miles (24 km) west north-west of Portsmouth. Southampton is a major port and the closest city to the New Forest. It lies at the northernmost point of Southampton Water at the confluence of the Rivers Test and Itchen, with the River Hamble joining to the south of the urban area. The city, which is a unitary authority, has an estimated population of 253,651. The city's name is sometimes abbreviated in writing to "So'ton" or "Soton", and a resident of Southampton is called a Sotonian.

Trooper from the French "troupier" is the equivalent rank to private in a regiment with a cavalry tradition in the British Army and many other Commonwealth armies, including those of Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand; it is also used by the Irish Army.

Royal Horse Guards cavalry regiment of the British Army

The Royal Regiment of Horse Guards (RHG) was a cavalry regiment of the British Army, part of the Household Cavalry.

Development of the act

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. [11]


Demobilization or demobilisation is the process of standing down a nation's armed forces from combat-ready status. This may be as a result of victory in war, or because a crisis has been peacefully resolved and military force will not be necessary. The opposite of demobilization is mobilization. Forceful demobilization of a defeated enemy is called demilitarization.

Monologue speech presented by a single character

In theatre, a monologue is a speech presented by a single character, most often to express their mental thoughts aloud, though sometimes also to directly address another character or the audience. Monologues are common across the range of dramatic media, as well as in non-dramatic media such as poetry. Monologues share much in common with several other literary devices including soliloquies, apostrophes, and asides. There are, however, distinctions between each of these devices.

Cooper had developed his conjuring skills and was a member of The Magic Circle, but there are various stories about how and when he developed his delivery of "failed" magic tricks: [9]

To keep the audience on their toes Cooper threw in an occasional trick that worked when it was least expected.


Cooper was influenced by Laurel and Hardy, [12] Will Hay, [13] Max Miller, [12] Bob Hope, [12] and Robert Orben. [14]

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. [15]

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. [16]

Cooper was a heavy smoker as well as an excessive drinker; as a result, he experienced a decline in health during the late 1970s, suffering a heart attack in 1977 while performing a show in Rome. 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.

Death on live television

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. [17]

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. [17] The assistant smiled at him as he slumped down, believing that it was a part of the act. [18] Likewise, the audience gave "uproarious" laughter as he fell backwards, gasping for air. [17]

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) [17] 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 any easier by the darkness. It was not until a second commercial break that the paramedics 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. [19] [20]

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." [18] 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.[ citation needed ]

Personal life

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). [21] His widow, Gwen Henty, whom he married in Nicosia, Cyprus on 24 February 1947, but never divorced, died in 2002. [22] One of their two children, actor Thomas Henty, was born in 1956 and died in 1988. Cooper's will was proved via probate, on 29 August 1984, at £327,272. [23]

On Christmas Day 2018, the documentary Tommy Cooper: In His Own Words was broadcast on Channel 5. The programme featured Cooper's daughter Vicky who gave her first television interview following years of abstaining, "because of the grief". [24]

Legacy and honours

Statue of Cooper near Caerphilly Castle Tommy Cooper by Aberdare Blog.jpg
Statue of Cooper near Caerphilly Castle

A statue of Cooper was unveiled in his birthplace of Caerphilly, Wales, in 2008 by fellow Welsh entertainer Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is patron of the Tommy Cooper Society. [25] The statue, which cost £45,000, was sculpted by James Done. [26] In 2009 for Red Nose Day, a charity Red Nose was put on the statue, but the nose was stolen. [27] 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 .[ citation needed ]

Cooper was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats. [28]

In a 2005 poll The Comedians' Comedian, Cooper was voted the sixth greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. [29] He has been cited as an influence by Jason Manford [30] and John Lydon. [31] 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. [32] Harries described Cooper's death as "extraordinary" in that the whole thing was broadcast live on national television. [33] 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. [34]

Clive Mantle as Tommy Cooper Clive Mantle as Tommy Cooper.jpg
Clive Mantle as Tommy Cooper

In 2010 Cooper was portrayed by Clive Mantle in the successful stage entertainment show Jus' Like That! A Night Out with Tommy Cooper , which appeared at the Edinburgh Festival. To train for the role, Mantle mastered many of Cooper's magic tricks, studying under Geoffrey Durham for several months. [35] Mantle was thrilled to take on the role as Cooper is his ultimate comic hero, saying "It's such a big privilege playing Tommy – I genuinely love the man. He is one of the funniest comedians this country has ever produced. So this whole tour for me is just an immense thrill." [36] [37] [35] Mantle considered the role highly challenging, given that he had to combine several aspects of skill, from the magic tricks to the joke-telling, the physical comedy, and emulating the distinctive voice. [38] Some people initially questioned the suitability of Mantle for the character, given that he was well known for playing a solemn doctor in Casualty , [39] but he and the play were warmly received by critics. South Wales Echo called it a "compelling, funny and moving play" and said "Clive, best known for his role as Dr Mike Barratt in Casualty, has had to get used to wearing a fez and conjuring up some magic for his title role of Jus' Like That! A Night Out With Tommy Cooper." [35]

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. [40] 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. [41] [42] 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. [43] [44]

In May 2016, a blue plaque in his memory was unveiled at Cooper's former home in Barrowgate Road, Chiswick, London. In August 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 the museum said he had used a system to store his jokes alphabetically "with the meticulousness of an archivist". [45]


UK VHS/DVD releases

VHS TitleRelease Date
A Tribute to Tommy Cooper (TV9936)1986
The Best of Tommy Cooper (TV8141)19 August 1991
Tommy Cooper - Solid Gold (TV8169)5 October 1992
The Magic Lives of Tommy Cooper (TV8182)11 October 1993
The Very Best of Tommy Cooper (TV83 July 1995
The Feztastic Tommy Cooper6 May 1996
Tommy Cooper - The Golden Years (TV8261)3 November 1997
A Feztival Of Fun With Tommy Cooper (B00005M1YE)16 September 2002

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