Cooper's fez fetches five times reserve price at auction - just like that

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He whipped off a waiter's fez instead; the troops loved it and the headgear has been associated ever since with bungled magic tricks and legendary gags. Remember the one about the two aerials who meet on a roof, fall in love and get married (the ceremony was brilliant but the reception was rubbish)? Or the one about what you give a cannibal who's late for dinner (the cold shoulder)?

Tommy Cooper once described the fez as his favourite hat and came to be fiercely protective of those he used in his shows. So there was a certain poignancy to lot 114 at the Kendal Auction Rooms in Cumbria yesterday. Under the hammer was one of Cooper's own fez hats, given to a Blackpool gentlemen's outfitters, Ernest Flowers, in the 1950s or 1960s.

The fez was a gift in return for him measuring Cooper for a suit. Flowers, whose premises were near the Blackpool Hippodrome where Cooper appeared, left it for his widow who has decided to sell up. The hat made a surreal appearance amid pewter candlesticks, fishing rods and a signed Manchester United shirt worn by Ryan Giggs (reserve price £120 to £180).

It was not expected to reap a fortune for Mrs Flowers, coming in at a modest reserve price of £100 to £120. But, said David Brookes, a fine arts valuer, "with such an unusual item the price realised could indeed be much higher". In fact, the fez sold for £620 - five times the reserve price - to an undisclosed buyer. An auction house spokeswoman said: "We were really surprised by the interest that the fez generated. That's reflected in the sale price."

When Cooper suffered a fatal heart attack on stage at Her Majesty's Theatre in London on 15 April 1984, most of the audience thought it was another of his gags. Their confusion said everything about Cooper's brilliant line in apparent incompetence - kidding his audience that he really hadn't a clue what was coming next. He died on the way to hospital, 10 minutes later. Despite his apparent ineptitude, he was also a member of the Magic Circle's inner circle and worked endlessly to perfect the tricks that he used in his shows.

Perched atop the unforgettable Cooper features - the wild uncomprehending eyes and mobile jaw - the fez was as integral to his act as his catchphrase, "Just like that".

Cooper often told of how, on returning to Egypt later in his career, he tried a fez on discreetly in a shop. The proprietor marched up to him and shouted: "Just like that." It was hardly what the Turkish Sultan Mahmud Khan II expected in the 17th century when he ordered his subjects to start wearing the item as formal attire.

The appearance of the fez was the source of considerable excitement yesterday in Caerphilly, south Wales, Cooper's birthplace, where the Tommy Cooper Society is based. "We're aware that a member of his family has a fez that he used but I'm not aware of any others coming on the market," said the society's secretary, Tudor Jones. "You don't see much of Tommy's stuff appearing like this, though there was a suit he once wore which came up for auction a few years ago. We're more in the business of raising money than spending it so we won't be bidding."

The society's current preoccupation is the creation of a 9ft bronze statue of the great man near the town's castle.

A golfing event this week to help the fundraising effort will prompt the appearance of possibly more fez hats than the town has ever seen in one place. Every player will wear one while posing for photographs with a full-size cardboard cut-out of Cooper and the winner will take home a green fez. If he were alive to see them, Cooper would probably have the last laugh. At a Variety Club event to celebrate 30 years in showbusiness, he was about to address 400 guests when they each donned a fez. Right on cue, he pulled a battered fisherman's hat from his pocket and plonked it on his head. It brought the house down.

Comics' props

* Eric Morecambe's glasses: As much a part of his act as the blank looks to camera and the unorthodox dancing. Thick-rimmed and frequently hauled above eye-level for dramatic effect. Unfortunately, when researchers tried to borrow them for an exhibition celebrating the North-west's rich comic heritage a few years ago, it was found they were missing. Other glasses that deserve an honourable mention: Groucho Marx's.

* Ken Dodd's tickling stick: Dodd says his famous tickling stick is a direct descendant of the jester's phallic prop and he also highlights similarities between his Diddy Men and Shakespeare's clowns.

* David Brent's tie: Fiddled with in the wake of failed punchlines, or tightened to pompous effect, it's impossible to imagine Brent without it.

* Dave Allen's glass of whiskey: Allen was often to be found swigging from a glass of whiskey while telling risqué jokes about the Pope. The stool also added to the barroom bonhomie effect. Honourable mentions for drinking on stage: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

* Les Dawson's handbag: Tightly clutched to the waist in a manner suggesting infinite disapproval, the handbag was a key part of the wardrobe of Dawson's Ada character and was the basis of his career in pantomime. Ada first appeared with Cissie (aka Roy Barraclough) in 1974.

* Carrot Top (aka Scott Thompson): The American star has developed much of his material from his red hair. ("Some people even think I wear a wig. Do they think I went into a salon one day and said: 'Can you please screw this up really bad?'")

Dan McKerrell and Ian Herbert