Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — In Praise of Tommy Cooper |
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In Praise of Tommy Cooper

‘Through the generosity of my grandmother in her will,’ mumbled Tommy Cooper, ‘I am holding in my hands a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately the violin is by Rembrandt ... and the painting is by Stradivarius.’ His trademark red fez still firmly in place, Cooper climaxed this front-of-curtain routine by shoving the violin through the painting.

Even with a full measure of his long, Pinteresque pausing, the whole number took about thirty seconds. I may have misremembered the bit about his grandmother, through having laughed so hard that I caused lesions to my memory. Superficially, Cooper was a throwback. He rigged the TV studio to look like a theatre, which was the exact opposite of what was going on in the theatres. But he was out ahead of everybody in the way he combined daring of concept with economy of execution. A typical Cooper brainwave was so good that even his fellow professionals would laugh just to be told about it, but the way he carried the idea out would make them whistle as well. Everything was set up and timed so that he barely had to roll his eyes to clinch the effect.

In one of Harold Lloyd’s movies, Lloyd is running wild on a motorcycle that won’t stop. We see the bike descend at full throttle into a trench beside the road. Behind his glassless spectacle frames Lloyd’s eyes pop at what he can see in the trench that we can’t. In the next shot, the camera is panning at high speed beside the trench while workers come jumping out of it one after the other. Lloyd and the motorcycle aren’t on the screen, and he might not even have turned up for work that day. Cooper’s stage routines affected me like that: he was present, but often he wasn’t doing anything. He established the conditions for the gag and you could feel the collective psyche of the helpless audience rushing towards him to do the rest. The audience was already hysterical at the idea of the Rembrandt violin and the Stradivarius painting before he did the sight-gag. He could have done it later in the show. He could have done it out in the street afterwards, while the audience was waiting for the bus. These displacements of cause and effect were so much a part of his act that when he actually died on stage — one of the few headline performers ever to do so, although Houdini and Caruso both came close — the audience was slow to catch on. It could have been a number.

I met Cooper only once, in a canteen queue at London Weekend Television on the South Bank. I introduced myself, overdid the effusive gratitude, and spilled my newly purchased cup of tea, luckily not all over him. He was very good at pretending that I had staged a comic number for his benefit. Eric Morecambe was another idol of mine among the comedians. When I met him for the first time at the BAFTA awards in Grosvenor House, he had already suffered the first version of the heart attack that eventually killed him. He was working again by then, but he was very frail. His enjoyment seemed unimpaired, however, when he told me that the first thing he heard when he woke up on the stretcher was one of the ambulance men asking him for an autograph, ‘for my daughter’. Even the best-behaved citizens will usually find a reason for expressing their admiration if it is sufficiently intense, and that was certainly the way I felt about Tommy Cooper. In retrospect, however, I’m very glad that it was my tea I spilled and not his, and not over his shoes but over mine. Otherwise he might have found it harder to make a joke of it, and I might have remembered the moment in a different way.

I might even have remembered him in a different way, which is always the risk, and the best reason never to inflict your personal enthusiasm on celebrities, no matter how much you admire them. It is a form of conceit, after all, to think that their lives will be improved by hearing from you that yours was improved by them; and you might not catch them in the right mood. Some of them are never in the right mood. Just as, in war, there are men who can go on being brave for battle after battle and then suddenly find that they can do no more, there are performing artists who can be miracles of amiability for years on end and then suddenly find that one more unsolicited conversation will break their nerve. You don’t want to be the next punter who comes along. It is better to adore from afar.

It helps, of course, to have had some experience of being in the public eye yourself, because the experience will tell you that the capacity for reciprocating an outburst of familiarity from a stranger is essentially artificial. There is no natural well of fellow feeling to draw upon. Our normal instinct, when accosted by strangers, is at least as protective as welcoming; few performers in any field are even as normal as that; and among comic performers paranoia is not only endemic, it is almost always justified, because the natural impulse of the nervous fan is to entertain the entertainer, invariably with dire results. Tommy Cooper might well have believed, for the first few seconds, that my tea-spilling act was rehearsed, until I dropped the saucer while catching the cup. No amount of rehearsal could have made me look as ridiculous as that: it was overdone.

On stage, he himself never overdid anything. What W. C. Fields had to learn from years in vaudeville, Cooper had from the jump: the gift of making the audience come to him. He never tried to astonish them. He made them astonish themselves. His elliptical mastery made his work very hard to analyse, and thus almost impossible to copy. Most exponents of the bad conjuring routine can conjure quite well. That was how they got into comedy, when they realised that there were too many good conjurers. But what most of the intentionally bad conjurers can’t manage is the audience contact while things are going wrong. In the re-runs of Cooper’s television specials, you can watch him watching you: his eyes are the focal point of his act. In the magic numbers, there is no mistake he can’t make. In the juggling numbers there will be stuff bouncing all over the stage. But don’t study the way he hasn’t caught it. Study the way he has caught your eye.

Cooper had perfect pitch for what the audience needed to know so that they could congratulate themselves for guessing how much he wasn’t telling them. He judged exactly, for example, that any audience he met, no matter how unsophisticated, would know that Rembrandt was a painter and Stradivarius made violins. If he had said Botticelli and Guanieri it wouldn’t have worked. Today it probably wouldn’t work even with Rembrandt and Stradivarius. But today he would think of something different. I can still see him, laughing at the way I caught the cup. I had got into his act, which is something the fan always wants to do for the hero. But the wise fan will remember that the last thing his hero needs is to be burdened with an unsolicited audition from some klutz he has never met, in the private time that he has so little of.

(Previously unpublished)