Review: Tommy Cooper - Always Leave Them Laughing by John Fisher

Kathryn Hughes relishes John Fisher's exhaustive study of Tommy Cooper, Always Leave Them Laughing

Tommy Cooper: Always Leave Them Laughing
by John Fisher
464pp, HarperCollins, £18.99

This is a book written with the kind of desperate care that only a true fan can muster. John Fisher has spent the years since Tommy Cooper's death in 1984 trying to piece together just how the bad magic worked. By what alchemical process did a great bruin of a man in a silly hat manage to make people laugh simply by stumbling on stage? Why did those hoary literalisms so beloved of seven-year-olds - "Doctor, doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains." "Well, pull yourself together" - seem hysterically funny when delivered in Cooper's sloppy West Country burr? And how, finally, did those ham hands manage to move from bungled fumble to skimming effect in a matter of moments?

Fisher, who produced some of Cooper's later television shows and is himself a highly skilled amateur magician, is incapable of any distance from the subject. For nearly 500 pages he wrestles, tussles and chews with the problem of what made Tommy Cooper Tommy Cooper. He trawls through the meticulous day book kept by Cooper's agent, Miff Ferrie, recording 40 years' worth of bad-tempered phone calls between the two. He draws on his own Oxford education to try to place Cooper in the tradition of Commedia dell'arte and concludes that he doesn't quite fit. He talks to Eric Sykes. His narrative is full of longueurs and the kind of detail that makes most readers skip (Cooper's earnings are given for each year from 1950 until his death). And it is all - every last tedious detail - absolutely, crucially, necessary.

For there would be no point in writing a slight book about Tommy Cooper. The only way to come close to understanding what he did and why he mattered is to plunge deep into the texture of a world which increasingly exists only in the memories of old men (Fisher is 61). This is a world where the Delfont organisation still controls the provincial circuits. Where Dennis Main-Wilson at the BBC is the man who can make or break a career. Where magicians at the top of their game rub shoulders every Saturday afternoon at Harry Stanley's magic shop in Brewer Street with old-timers whose hands are beginning to shake. It is a world where Frankie Vaughan battles it out with Bruce Forsyth for top billing, and everyone at Elstree wonders how to reproduce the unlikely phenomenon of Norman Wisdom, a boy-man with a tenor voice so pure that it makes women in the audience sit and watch the programme round again.

It is against this postwar landscape, at once matter-of-fact and fantastical, that Fisher charts Cooper's rise to the top slot in light entertainment, a position he held for nearly two decades (for his money, Cooper comes in a good nose in front of Eric Morecambe). Cooper started muffing magic in the army, found his fez while entertaining the troops in Cairo and made a comparatively smooth transition into a professional career following demob. There were some early problems of taxonomy which bothered the bookers - was he a comedian or a magician or a comedy magician? - but the fact that audiences didn't care exactly why they were hurting with laughter meant that it soon ceased to matter. Gradually, Cooper transcended the paradigm of the "novelty act" and by 1968 was regularly achieving sole star billing, a fact that meant little to him, but which, to the forensically inclined Fisher, represents a significant milestone in the history of light entertainment.

· Kathryn Hughes's biography of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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