Tommy Cooper, 1921 – 1984
Perhaps Britain’s most famous magician and one of the most popular comedians ever amongst both the public and his piers.
Tommy Cooper had that unique talent where he could make someone laugh just by doing nothing. Despite his tricks always appearing to go wrong, he was in fact an accomplished magician and a member of The Magic Circle.
Born Thomas Frederick Cooper on 19th March 1921 at 19 Llwyn Onn Street, Trecenydd. He was delivered by the woman who owned the house in which the family was lodging.
Cooper’s parents were Welsh-born army recruiting sergeant father Thomas H. (Tom) Cooper, and his English-born wife Gertrude (née Gertrude C. Wright) from Crediton, Devon.
The area where Tommy was born was heavily polluted, so when his Father was offered a job elsewhere the family moved to Exeter, Devon. At the time Tommy was three years old.
The family lived in the back of Haven Banks, where Cooper attended Mount Radford School for Boys. At weekends he helped his parents run their ice cream van. At the age of eight an aunt bought Cooper a magic set and he spent hours perfecting the tricks. Magic ran his family as his brother David had a magic shop in Slough High Street in the 1960’s called D &Z Cooper’s Magic Shop.
On leaving school Tommy became a shipwright in Hythe, Hampshire. In 1940 he received his call up papers and served as a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards.
He served initially in Montgomery’s Desert Rats in Egypt. Cooper became part of the NAAFI entertainment party and developed an act around his magic tricks interspersed with comedy. One evening in Cairo, during a sketch in which he was supposed to be in a costume which required a pith helmet, having forgotten the prop, Cooper reached out and borrowed the fez from a passing waiter which got huge laughs. It was from this incident that stemmed two of the attributes that were a hallmark of his later act: the ever-present fez hat and his aptitude for slapstick comedy.
In 1947 he married Gwen Henty.
Demobbed after seven years of military service, Cooper got his first big break in 1947 with Miff Ferrie at that time trombonist in a band called The Jackdaws, who booked him to appear as the second spot comedian in a show starring sand dance act “Marqueeze and the Dance of the Seven Veils”. Cooper then began a two-year period of arduous performing. It included a tour of Europe and a stint in pantomime, playing one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters. The period culminated in a season long booking at the Windmill Theatre where he doubled up doing cabarets; one week performing in 52 shows. Ferrie would remain Cooper’s sole agent for the next 37 years, until Cooper’s death in 1984.
Cooper rapidly became a top-liner in variety with his turn as the conjurer whose tricks never succeeded, but it was his television work which raised him to national prominence. After debuting on the BBC talent show New to You in March 1948, he soon started starring in his own shows and was popular with audiences for four decades, most memorably through his work with London Weekend Television from 1968 to 1972 and with Thames Television from 1973 to 1980. Thanks to his many television shows during the mid 70s, he was one of the biggest and most recognizable comedians in the world.
However Cooper’s career was not all plain sailing, he was a heavy drinker and smoker and as a result suffered a decline in health during the late 1970’s, leading to a heart attack in 1977, whilst performing a show in Rome. Within three months he was back on our screens in Night Out at the London Casino.
By 1980, his heavy drinking lead to Thames Television declining to give him another starring series, Cooper’s Half Hour would be his last. He did continue to guest on other television shows, however, and worked with Eric Sykes on two Thames productions in 1982.
It was in front of a live television audience on Live From Her Majesty’s that Tommy Cooper collapsed from a heart attack in 1984.
Performing a sketch where different props appeared to appear from inside his cloak, he collapsed and fell backwards. Everybody thought it was part of the act until it became clear that he was seriously ill. Attempts were made to revive him backstage, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital. His death was not officially announced until the following morning.