A flawed comic genius – Tommy Cooper

The town of Caerphilly in Wales (Caerffili) is known for three things – the lovely Caerphilly Cheese, the incredible Caerphilly Castle (second largest in Britain) and Thomas (‘Tommy’) Frederick Cooper. Tommy Cooper was larger than life, gifted with almost magical comedic timing, and, seemingly, with almost no magical talent. This was a man beloved by the public yet had, like many clowns and other comedians, serious flaws.

In the center of Caerphilly stands an appropriately larger-than-life bronze statue of its favourite son; sculpted by James R Done, at a cost of £45,000, it is 9 feet tall, which is in keeping as, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, Tommy Cooper stood head and shoulders above most of his generation. It was unveiled on 23rd February, 2008 by Oscar-winner Sir Anthony Hopkins, the Patron of the Tommy Cooper Society; Sir Anthony got into the mood by wearing an Egyptian-style fez (Tommy’s signature headgear) and a daffodil buttonhole (the national flower of Wales).

Tommy was born on 19th March, 1921, to Caerphilly-born Thomas H Cooper and his wife Gertrude C Wright who came from Crediton, Devon; the family did not stay long in the town, however, as better job prospects caused a move to Exeter in Gertrude’s home county. The gift of a magic set when Tommy was 8 began a life-long obsession. When he was 16, he was apprenticed to a firm of shipwrights, and he tried his magic out on his mates one lunchtime. It was a disaster, as all the tricks went wrong, yet everyone laughed hugely, and thought it part of the act! During the Second World War, Tommy served in the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues), which was part of the 1st Household Cavalry Composite Regiment (comprised of units which had a Royal ceremonial role). The Royal Horse Guards was an armoured car unit, and took part in the fighting in North Africa. Tommy Cooper was wounded in action (in his right arm) and began performing in variety shows organized by the NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air Forces Institute). In Egypt, he picked up his trademark fez; one night his act required a hat, and he had forgotten to bring one, so he snatched a fez from the hat of a passing waiter – and it was a huge hit. He also met his future wife, Gwendoline Henty, who was performing as a pianist with the same variety troupe.

Post-war, Tommy Cooper became a giant of comedy, with his impeccable timing; his use of silences, dead-pan humour and the ability to raise a laugh just by standing on stage resembled that of Jack Benny. Unfortunately, there was a dark side to all this. Tommy Cooper drank heavily, sometimes to overcome stage fright, and this lead to unreliability in his work. It also gave rise to domestic violence against Gwen, from time to time. His health was, by the 1980s, severely damaged.

Tommy actually died on stage, on live television. London Weekend Television were broadcasting a live variety show from Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End of London on the evening of 15th April 1984; Tommy was half-way through his act, was handed a prop cloak from the wings, and collapsed with a massive heart attack. He was declared dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital.

Tommy Cooper was a brilliant comedian; flawed, but brilliant. Despite his faults, he was much loved, and the statue in the center of Caerphilly reflects that.

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