Previews and advance notices has begun appearing for Tommy Cooper: Not Like This Like That, a two-hour drama based upon the life of the comedian, written by Simon Nye and starring David Threlfall as Cooper, plus Amanda Redman and Helen McCrory, which will be transmitted on ITV at 9.00pm on Bank Holiday Monday (21st April).
From the brief trailers I have seen, Threlfall gives a worthy performance in the title role – I was going to say ‘worthy impression’ there, but impressions are what Alistair McGowan, John Culshaw and (from my day) Mike Yarwood do and what Threlfall attempts isn’t one of those, it’s an impersonation. Hopefully, when the programme goes out, he will be convincing.
That’s the trouble with the arts.
Some critic once made the point that the 20th Century was the first time in history that – thanks to photography and film – exponents of what are called the performing arts could leave a record of their ‘art’ to future generations as it was and intended.
Er, perhaps not quite. If you take sports, for example, how different might our memories of the great cricketing or soccer matches of the 1970s and 1980s be, if they could be ‘re-recorded’ on high-definition digital video, with the greater number of cameras, computer graphics, pre-match interviews and analysis and instant replays that are standard practice in 2014?
What price the possibility that, if we had 2014-style coverage of a Nijinksy dance, we’d find stilted and formulaic a style that – when he first emerged on the ballet scene more than a century ago – was regarded as revolutionary and the work of a charismatic genius?
Performances – and performers – are inevitably restricted to being ‘of their time’. Even though the recording technology then was state-of-the-art, today it reeks of yesteryear … as do the performances.
What I’m getting to is that, as a Tommy Cooper fan, I do hope that my perception of him is not diminished by the broadcast of next Monday’s drama piece.
When I was at Thames Television in the 1980s, I met him ‘to speak to’ on about four ‘work’ occasions and otherwise saw him regularly around the Teddington Studios whenever his ITV television show was in production. A feature of working inside a major television company was that stars like Cooper, who tended to be recognised and approached everywhere they went in public, were here studiously ignored. They were treated as ‘normal’, no different from the rest of us. Which was probably a welcome relief for some of them.
That said, even when he was off-duty – e.g. standing two in front of me in a canteen queue to pay for a tray of lunch – Tommy Cooper is the funniest person I have ever seen in the flesh.
He tells of how Benny walked on stage, violin and bow in hand, and for the first three or four minutes of his act, said absolutely nothing.
He simply stood at the microphone in the centre and – over that period – glanced at the audience, fiddled with his props, looked into the wings … back at the audience … occasionally changing his expression from wonder, puzzlement, blankness, shrug and acceptance, to apparent concentration … and back again. After the welcoming applause, the auditorium had gone silent. Then gradually they succumbed, from an isolated murmur, to a titter, to a collective laugh, guffaw and finally hysteria.
By the end of those three or four minutes, they were putty in Jack Benny’s control. And he had still barely said a word …
Tommy Cooper had a similar effect upon people. His act appeared to consist of a few basic props, being himself and telling simple gags that few others could have got away with … and yet he made a great career out of it.
Maybe he was that rare thing, an inherently funny man. He certainly gave that impression to me. But then again, perhaps his stage act was the product of decades of hard work and bitter experience, of ‘thinking through’ what worked and what didn’t – and his genius was in making all this accumulated knowledge and skill appear totally artless and natural.
I once attended a Royal Variety Club luncheon at the Dorchester in a semi-official capacity, having been invited to join the Thames Television light entertainment department table for the event, the highlight of which was to be a lifetime achievement award to Tommy Cooper.
Cooper sat at the top table, alongside the Chief Barker. There were tens of famous comedians and light entertainment household names sitting at the twenty-odd tables in the room and – if memory serves – eventually Bob Monkhouse gave a very amusing and affectionate speech introducing the main guest and award.
At its conclusion, Cooper rose to receive some award trophy, received a standing ovation, posed for the obligatory photographs and then, as the hubbub died down, remained on his feet as the rest of us resumed our seats.
And did a Jack Benny.
He was on an easy wicket, obviously, as we all there to celebrate him, but he held everyone in the room in the palm of his hand immediately. He just looked around the room – this way and that – for a while, brought his hand up to his mouth and coughed, looked as though he was about to speak, then as if he’d thought better of it … and so on.
Okay, we’d all had a bit to drink as well, but I’ve never heard more abandoned or louder laughter in my life as I did that day. His professional peers were falling over themselves to give back to him their appreciation for all the laughter and good times that he’d given to them.
Even today, when I see some long-distance repeat show on one of the cable channels, I smile immediately at the sight of Cooper walking on the set, or through a pair of curtains to begin another cack-handed routine. You just know you’re going to have a good time …