Essays: So much for Stradivarius |
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So much for Stradivarius

‘ON a clear day...’ sang Tommy Cooper as the chorus girls pranced and the smoke coiled. The Tommy Cooper Hour (Thames) was off to a racing start. It isn’t a bad week when you can get your episode of Thick as Thieves (LWT) and something as funny as this as well.

‘Jar spoon jar spoon jar spoon,’ Cooper explains manically, looking from one nominated household item to the other, apparently nonplussed to find himself holding them. ‘Spoon spoon jar spoon spoon? His smile is the only part of his face not sweating with mental effort. It is also the only part of his face which has not been worked over by the Heavy Mob in a vain attempt to extract information. With the other stand-up comedians — all of whom, I think, Cooper at his best out-classes — it is always possible to hazard a guess at their background. Cooper is a mutant, begot by a heavyweight boxer on a car-crash victim in Baghdad.

Cooper’s breathless speed with a story has by now, after years of practice, reached the limit of the intelligible. ‘I was there at the seaside late at night looking for digs and I pushed the bell and nothing happened so I pushed the bell again and the upstairs window opened and the landlady said whaddya wan and I said I wanna stay here and she said well stay there, and she shut the window.’ One comma. Cooper does the opposite of milking a gag. He puts milk back in. In an alternative style, running simultaneously with the high-speed one as a loping counterpoint, he extends his mastery of the creative pause, but the Cooper pause is something more insanely ambitious than hanging around to double a laugh. He wants the audience to figure out what’s coming so that he can either (a) not give it to them, or (b) give it to them, only get it wrong.

On he wanders holding a violin and what appears to be a Rembrandt self-portrait. He looks from one to the other dazedly in a silent version of spoon spoon jar spoon spoon. The audience is laughing already. ‘I took this violin and this painting to a dealer and he said what you’ve got there is a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately...’ His face denotes disappointment: i.e., suddenly resembles a tea-chest full of old clothes. The quicker members of the audience are already on to it and their hysteria fires the others while Cooper’s unhinged glance wanders: painting painting violin painting painting. ‘...Stradivarius...’ The whole audience is giggling helplessly. ‘...was a lousy painter...’ Yelps and shrieks from the bleachers: your mother just caught on. ‘And Rembrandt...’ Panic. ‘...made rotten violins.’ Uproar. And then, while the laughter is still rolling like surf, he shoves the violin through the painting.

This week there was a new variation on his famous split-man routine, in which he wears one costume down the left side of his body and another down the right. He did a two-man version of ‘Colditz,’ with an SS officer meeting a British brigadier. ‘Tso, Brickadier, you are vundering vy I sent for you?’ (Faces the other way) ‘No.’ The German side of his face has a monocle in its eye and the British side has half a moustache. Swapping profiles frantically as the sketch progresses, he finally gets it wrong. ‘And ven zey are caught, zey vill be shot!’ His glance wanders down and realisation dawns that the wrong man is speaking. While the audience is in fits, he manifests his Thinking Quickly look, then swaps profiles. ‘Vy are you imitating me?’ Johnny Mortimer and Brian Cooke do Cooper’s script, which in its quiet way is an excellent job.

‘Situation’ is the vogue word In the World Cup commentaries. It isn’t a free kick, it’s a free kick situation. Wimbledon got started and promptly caught the vogue word too. ‘Tie-break situation.’ The vogue word on the news programmes is ‘operation.’ If anything happens anywhere according to a plan, it’s an operation. Watch out for ‘situation operation’ and possibly ‘operation situation.’ (It of course, unquestionably an operation getting a comment out of Sir Alf Ramsey: a dynamiting operation to cure a clam of lock-jaw situation.)

Working together with mesmerising efficiency, Wimbledon and the World Cup threatened to blow the rest of television away, yet there was a surprising amount of good stuff about. The Couch (ATV) was an interesting play by Derek Monsey. Francesca Annis, a classically modelled beauty made vulnerable by intelligence, gave unnerving life to a role in which she was a poor little rich girl in thrall partly to her bullying fiancé, Max, and partly to her suave shrink. You couldn’t tell whether or not the doctor was in love with her. If he was, he was abusing his responsibilities by advising her not to get married. If he was not, his assessment of Max’s potential was objective. Or what if he was in love with her, but his advice was still right? Blame was hard to place, as in life. We were told too much about Max — he really was a bastard — to keep things appropriately unresolved, but this was still an exceptionally subtle play. Miss Annis is a wonder: the lens loves her to distraction.

On BBC1, Panorama’s grammar gets worse. This week they were on about Nixon. ‘The son of an aggressive father and a stoic mother, it was not often a carefree childhood.’ Thank you very bloody much. Apart from atrocities like that, the show was a caress. Nixon was found to be mildly lacking in principles. On the other hand, there were plenty of admirers on tap to provide this stunning judgment with a corrective. Stephen Hess found Nixon a miracle of integrity. Helene Drown, a close friend of the Nixons, thought the Nixons were marvellous. But there were cracks in the dyke: Hugh Sidey of Time magazine has belatedly discovered Nixon’s old excesses. All it took was 20 years. So now Time knows, and ‘Panorama’ knows. That means practically everybody knows.

A fine Horizon (BBC2) on vanishing skills. Skilled welders pushed buttons which did the same job faster, with equal skill. All this we knew, but the programme boldly broke new ground by hinting that some of the old skills weren’t all that hard.

Dudley Moore’s commercials for Tom Thumb cigars are a delight. The Courage Tavern commercial is good too: characters in the pub doing their household chores by remote control. Any desire to consume either product remained dormant, in my case. Cigar cigar beer cigar cigar.

The Observer, 30th June 1974