Tom Cocklin

Actor of wit and promise
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The Independent Online

Thomas Joseph Cocklin, actor, comedian and writer: born London 5 May 1979; died London 8 November 2004.

Tom Cocklin was on his way to stay with me when the lorry hit his car.

The idea was that we would spend about three days revising the long rough draft of his one-man show, Dracula's Guest, into its final version. He had done all the real work so far; I'd just egged him on with e-mails, phone calls, loans of odd books on vampiric lore and a few beers. I was expecting him to arrive in time for an early lunch. When he didn't show up, I was amused, then mildly irritated, then increasingly anxious. I started to phone around. Meanwhile, it now appears, the surgeons were doing their best to save his life.

Almost exactly three years ago, The Independent had sent me to Dubai to write about the exploits of a feisty young theatre company, British Touring Shakespeare, which was exporting Hamlet and Twelfth Night to the Middle East in those jittery days following the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Some of us were a little apprehensive about the trip but, in the long run, a fine time was had by all. The company, most of them in their mid-twenties, was a talented bunch, and damned nice, too - charmingly generous to the much older stranger who had suddenly been thrown into their lives. I liked them all, but found myself gravitating towards two in particular: Toby Beer and Tom Cocklin.

Beer and Cocklin were fairly new friends themselves. They had originally bonded thanks to their robust scepticism about traditional actorly poncing around - "We must be careful out there, darling . . ." - and to a shared admiration for and encyclopaedic knowledge of the life and works of Tony Hancock. Hearing their word-perfect renditions of, say, the East Cheam Amateur Dramatic Society episode often had me helpless with laughter, and they were every bit as funny improvising their own material. My gosh, I thought, if they could reproduce those anarchic skits on stage, or on television.

At the time of his death, Cocklin was tantalisingly close to the start of what would surely have been an exciting time of recognition and artistic fulfilment. His wit, talent and old-fashioned decency had cheered hundreds of lives; they might easily have cheered millions.

Cocklin was quiet in private life - in vivid contrast to his barnstorming stage presence as a performer. It wasn't a sulky quietness, although he could certainly be impatient enough, even furious, when dealing with the unprofessional or the foolish. It was more the quietness of a deeply private man - dignified, thoughtful, perhaps a shade melancholic: an old soul in a young body, who tended to keep to himself rather than join in the more raucous post-performance frolics.

Born in London in 1979, he had begun performing at the age of eight, at an arts centre (now called the Wilde Theatre) in his home town of Bracknell. In adult life, he returned to the Wilde to play, among other parts, Hook in Peter Pan, Treplev in The Seagull and the Prince from Into the Woods, and gained his Equity membership. When I first met him, he had not long since graduated from Warwick University, where he read English, yet, almost twice his age, I sometimes felt as if he were the real grown-up. When I managed to catch him on his own in more serious moods, he talked with scholarly and sharp-eyed intelligence about some of his other, non-comic heroes - above all about Orson Welles.

Probably (like Welles) a little too much on the hefty side to play a conventional romantic lead, though strikingly handsome in a Byronic way - with a signature mannerism of brushing his long floppy hair back from his face - Cocklin was an excellent classical actor: imposing and charismatic as Claudius, hilarious and humane as Sir Toby Belch. I've seen umpteen productions of that play, and never one in which Sir Toby's savage Act V rounding on Aguecheek was as shocking, yet as sympathetic. A talent to watch, I thought.

When the Dubai trip was done, Cocklin and Beer and I made the vague agreement to stay in touch and occasionally work together. So we did, after a fashion. I wrote a rather poor play called Crawl as a vehicle for them, with Cocklin cast as an idealistic young poet and Beer as a manipulative spiv: we abandoned it when it became apparent, among other shortcomings, that it would need a cast of at least 15.

Meanwhile, they pursued their stage careers, both separately and as a comic duo, the Other Two. Besides performing, Cocklin wrote many plays for children, taught acting and writing in schools and colleges, turned his hand to whatever theatrical chore cropped up. He even wrote an episode of Bob the Builder.

Just a few weeks ago, he had a particularly bizarre gig as Master of the Revels for an event in Jersey, a task which included a marathon public reading, in the rain, of the complete works of the medieval poet Wace. Thanks to Cocklin's highly developed streak of mischief, a lot of the lines sounded like Tony Hancock.

I last saw Tom Cocklin less than 48 hours before his death. We had been working on the script for Dracula's Guest, very freely adapted from a short story by Bram Stoker, and we were in London, checking out possible venues for the final week of the tour, which had already been booked into five regional venues and was due to begin in mid-January.

Over lunch, we talked of possible collaborations ahead: my ruminations about a project on Aleister Crowley, his musings about a play based on Orson Welles's notorious War of the Worlds broadcast. We parted, as it were, in mid-conversation: "See you Monday."

Kevin Jackson