Age of innocence

Rude to royalty, loved by everyone, inept magician Tommy Cooper is the subject of the first in a new series on history's greatest funny men, Heroes of Comedy. James Rampton salutes his legacy
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The Independent Culture
Have you heard the one about The Queen and Tommy Cooper? Going down the line-up after the Royal Variety Performance, she stopped to have a chat with the comedian. "Do you like football?" he asked her. "Not particularly," she replied, somewhat puzzled. "Could I have your tickets for the Cup Final, then?"

This sort of outrageous behaviour would have earned others a stretch in the Tower of London, but it succeeded in winning Cooper a special place in the hearts of the nation. What was it about this lanky (6 ft 4in tall), malcoordinated, bungling magician, with a stupid fez and an even stupider grin, that so appealed? Why even now, 11 years after his death during a live broadcast from Her Majesty's Theatre, is he widely impersonated by up-and-coming impressionists hanging their hands out in front of them and parroting "just like that"? A documentary on C4 tonight - the first in a new series of Heroes of Comedy - attempts to find out.

Because it is a tribute, the programme at times comes across like a luvvies' love-in. Jimmy Tarbuck, Bob Monkhouse, Paul Daniels and Eric Sykes are among those who line up to pay homage. (Rarely can such an array of comedy stars have gathered outside the confines of a pro-celebrity golf tournament.) But the gush washes forth many a nugget. "His joy was to amaze and delight people like a child," Monkhouse muses. "I don't think that part of him ever grew up."

What tickled Sir Anthony Hopkins, a long-term fan and not-at-all-bad impersonator, was that Cooper "was so irreverent about the human condition. Everything about the human condition is so laughable and that's where he touched the funny bone in me... The seriousness of actors has always left me cold, but people like Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd have always got to me because they laugh at themselves, they laugh at us. I think what he did was make us laugh at the fool in ourselves".

Hopkins goes on to reveal that he often uses Cooper impersonations to break the tension on film-sets; director James Ivory - an American - was quite mystified to hear that familiar "hur-hur-hur" echoing round the genteel set of Remains of the Day. Hopkins even once tried to incorporate Cooper's famous laugh into his characterisation of a rather different figure: Uncle Vanya.

John Fisher, the writer/producer of the documentary and author of Funny Way to Be A Hero, a well-regarded book about music hall, also went back a long way with Cooper, whom he calls "the greatest instinctive natural clown I've ever seen or met". Fisher remembers "being taken as a kid by my parents to the summer season at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens where Tommy was topping the bill. It was a vast, aircraft hangar of a place. Tommy strolled very nonchalantly across to far stage-right, where he did three minutes of stand-up and got his laughs. Then - as we all knew he was going to - he walked right over to far stage-left. It seemed to take him about five minutes. Then he did the same three minutes of stand-up, and the jokes seemed even funnier. Only Tommy could do that sort of thing".

Too often in comedy, artists become romanticised with the passing of time: I mean, was Charlie Chaplin really that funny? Fisher, however, maintains a quality control worthy of Marks and Spencer. After Cooper in the coming series, he is profiling Joyce Grenfell, Max Miller, Arthur Haynes, Frankie Howerd and Terry-Thomas. He wouldn't do any old comedian just because he was dead and a bit of grainy footage survived of him saying "where's me washboard?". "The best will out," Fisher asserts. "In the heyday of Max Miller, there were a lot of comedians we don't remember now - and quite rightly. We mustn't look back through tinted spectacles."

On the other hand, he contends, some greats have been unjustly neglected. "We're a little remiss in honouring them during their lifetime. In America, they still give Bob Hope a presence on television, and when George Burns reaches his 100th birthday, you know there'll be great celebrations on the American airwaves. Look, for instance, at Arthur Askey. Why did we never give him a tribute? I don't think fashion comes into it; if you're funny, you're funny."

Which brings us back to Tommy Cooper. I have to close with sobering news: the most salient comment in the whole documentary comes from Paul Daniels. He recalls his fellow magician's after-dinner speech at a Water Rats' ball: "He just stood up, and the place was in absolute hysterics - at a man standing up. Now I don't care how much you study comedy, you can't define that."

'Heroes of Comedy: Tommy Cooper', tonight 9pm C4