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Tommy Cooper and the Origins of Mass EntertainmentGeoff Tibbs

Tommy Cooper Geoff Tibbs essay image

Still from the television series Cooper, 29 October 1975

There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at. […] Moments of happiness are without laughter […]

Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer1

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, thank you. I wish I was somebody else.

Tommy Cooper, opening line on The Tommy Cooper Hour2

part I

In 1983, the comedian Alexei Sayle gave his verdict on music hall to a live audience in Nottingham: “Great time for variety acts, though, the fifties, and er, actually people are always going on about, erm, the British music hall, you know, and how and why it died out. I’ll tell you why it died out, ’cos it was shite!”3

By that time the death of the music hall was common sense: that it had died, that it should have died, that its remnants belonged to the past. Sayle was one of the main protagonists of Alternative Comedy. He and his contemporaries reacted against the variety tradition, the latest manifestation of which was the ‘trad’ stand-up of social clubs. In some ways, the social club circuit resembled an earlier form of variety, namely the music hall itself. The audience could be boisterous, noisy and inattentive, and drank during acts. Comedy was intermixed with song and drew heavily on stock stereotypes: Irishman, Welshman, mother-in-law, blonde. Racism, sexism and homophobia were casual and unremarkable. The humour was also markedly formulaic. Comics rarely used original material; their jokes were short and formally predictable – often one-liners, always ending on a punch line.

Music hall’s decline had been announced periodically and for varied reasons for almost a century. Its time seemed overdue. Sayle’s remark was a glance over the shoulder, a backhand acknowledgement that a line in the sand had been crossed. He was one of a generation – comedy’s punk generation – who had the right to spit on music hall’s grave.

What was that line? When was it crossed? Perhaps it was not his job to notice. What mattered was that it had been crossed, and for all the obvious reasons. But that point, the point at which an old joke ceases to be funny, when a culture flattens out into a caricature of its worst excesses, is also the point at which its contradictions become narrower, then infinitesimal, then imperceptible.

* * *

It is often said that Tommy Cooper needed only to walk on stage to get a laugh.4 The core of his act, its first fact, is his presence. A towering, lumbering body, a famous face: a nerve-wracking state of affairs. For what if, to the horror of agent and producer, the brand one day went sour and nobody laughed? This heavily capitalised body was a speculative investment. One can appreciate why his success might have seemed to him like a recurrent nightmare: he walks on stage and has no idea why he is there.

But he cannot just stand there. He thinks on his feet. “What a lovely audience. Well I must say you have been a good audience. And I’d like to close now if I may…” Laughter, acknowledgement from beyond the footlights. It seems to be working. “Ooh isn’t it hot,” he says. “It’s the heat that does it.” He sidles over to a table covered in junk, fishes out a brown paper bag and shakes it open. He picks up a glass of water, drinks it, drops it in the paper bag, which he then scrunches up and throws away, all before we can quite work out why we might have assumed he would do anything else – a magic trick for instance. Laughter becomes applause, and he is laughing now, if only out of relief.5

Whilst Tommy Cooper’s magic tricks almost always go wrong, they are really a means to avert a more serious catastrophe: nothing happens, nobody laughs. His whole performance seems to be a matter of recovering ground. He has the guilty look in his eye of a man forced to explain himself. At first the sheer enormity of his body tricks us into thinking he is inherently funny: all he has to do is come on stage. Surely the funniest man in Britain will always have a place in the nation’s heart? But the body’s comic aspect is subjective, little more than a trick of the light. The laughter of the nation balances on a knife-edge.

So the body weaves itself into a patchwork. It casts around for props and lines, as though to stitch itself into being and recover a degree of permanence. Magic provides an endless supply of cheery non sequiturs. But look closely and we see that this patchwork is hurriedly woven, held together in places by a few spare threads. At these weak points, where the act threatens to disintegrate, as a prop collapses or his mumblings turn to pure nonsense, we witness an exquisite chaos. What first appears solid and certain becomes uncertain. Tommy Cooper’s collection of nervous ticks – his short cough, his guilty laugh, his habit of touching his top lip – tells us that he, at least, is hardly comfortable with this way of making a living. What else is at stake?

All of what follows is at one level an attempt to answer this question: what is at stake in the performing body? Tommy Cooper is our test case. His act – constantly insisting, like so much variety theatre, on its own triviality and love of appearances – serves as a warning, though it is initially unclear what of. Part of the trouble is that the context of the performing body is hard to construct and always shifting, like a figure set against a deep background. Often, therefore, the context will be left indeterminate and the performer will appear in isolation, as though caught under a spotlight. This is a necessary moment of hesitation, a way of letting the image imprint itself. From there, though, it will be necessary to change tack and navigate between disparate sources – contemporary commentary, memoirs, landmark pieces of criticism, some well-known, others forgotten – disregarding the boundaries between popular culture, critical theory, history and biography.

* * *

Music hall was the first mass entertainment industry in Britain. For the first time a mass audience, consisting largely of the urban working classes, consumed a spectacle produced and disseminated on an industrial scale. The entertainment consisted of a motley of acts including dancing, acrobatics, juggling, mimicry, conjuring and, most characteristically, the comic singer. Emerging as a distinct institution in the 1850s, music hall grew out of local, amateur performance in pubs and song and supper rooms. It was not, therefore, mass entertainment from the beginning. By the late 1880s, though, as it sought a more salubrious image as ‘variety theatre’, it had become a fully capitalised industry dependent on a professionalised labour force of performers and increasingly dominated by national or regional syndicated chains.6 And as music hall began to resemble a modern culture industry, as its audience was transformed from a ‘mob’ into a ‘mass’, it brought with it early suggestions of the mass conformity and manipulation perennially associated with commercial entertainment (what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer thought of as a new kind of barbarism). So too was there an early variation, in music hall’s close-knit strands of vernacular knowledge and sociability, of what Walter Benjamin would characterise as mass ‘expertise’.7

Yet there was a very obvious difference between music hall and the mass cultural forms that would replace it. Music hall was a first-hand, rather than virtual, phenomenon. It was mass entertainment before its mechanical reproduction. To consume music hall was to gather with others in a crowded space. It was to be in the presence of its performers, to interact with them, to sing along to their songs, to jeer at or cheer them. It was to participate: to produce as well as to consume. Physical presence – a distance measured in metres – was its sine qua non. To say this, of course, simply registers music hall’s uncanniness when viewed retrospectively through the lens of cinema, television and radio. But what did this difference imply? What effect did the requirement of mutual presence have on spectatorship? Film is virtual; music hall was real. What to make of these all-too-obvious facts?

Impossible questions once had impossibly categorical answers. In 1922 T. S. Eliot wrote an obituary for one of music hall’s most celebrated artistes, Marie Lloyd:

The working-man who went to the music-hall and saw Marie Lloyd and joined in the chorus was himself performing part of the work of acting; he was engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art. He will now go to the cinema, where his mind is lulled by continuous senseless music and continuous action too rapid for the brain to act upon, and he will receive, without giving, in that same listless apathy with which the middle and upper classes regard any entertainment of the nature of art.8

The obituary was not only for Marie Lloyd. Her death signalled a decline that was at once cultural, moral and civilisational. Music hall provided mass entertainment with a creation myth of original innocence. It was a myth of taste, smell, heat and touch. Unlike cinema and bourgeois aesthetics, both predicated on distance, music hall offered immersion and participation. In Eliot’s view, it gave the lower classes the immense dignity of seeing their better selves physically embodied on stage; and this spectacle was itself a collaboration, enveloping them as it enveloped the senses. In the beginning the audience and the performer were one, and knew a kind of total intimacy.

The essentialist temptation here was too great: music hall was more participatory, more immediate, more real because it was literally so. Eliot’s nostalgia invoked a kind of formal determinism: music hall could be the embodiment of the popular precisely because it dealt in bodies. It was literally mass embodiment. Hence when he writes that Lloyd gave “expression” to the people, this expression is bodily, behavioural, at the level of manner and gesture:

To appreciate for instance the last turn in which Marie Lloyd appeared, one ought to know already exactly what objects a middle-aged woman of the charwoman class would carry in her bag; exactly how she would go through her bag in search of something; and exactly the tone of voice in which she would enumerate the objects found in it.9

The essay is recognised as one of the key statements on the relationship between modernism and the popular.10 But at one level it simply rehashed a core tenet of music hall ideology: music hall as vox populi, the repository of popular feeling and worth. It followed what Peter Bailey has called the “folk or idealist interpretation of music hall”, which reified the halls as the embodiment of the popular, and the popular as the national. There were countless, less circumspect variations seeking to establish the music hall as “essentially a British institution, and therefore worthy of patriotic encouragement and support”.11 This interpretation was to a large extent projected backwards by middle class critics, commentators and historians from the 1890s onwards, and often, as with Eliot, in the form of a lament. The popular was constructed on the people’s behalf, and only once it had entered a state of decline. Music hall – or to be precise early music hall, before the commercialisation and syndication of variety – became shrouded in nostalgia.12 But Eden was only a way of explaining the Fall. A myth of innocence was a means to diagnose the ills of the incipient mass culture, and to shield against an unrecognisable future. It stood in for a lost intimacy, a lack of belonging, a sense of drift or slide or corruption.

* * *

From time to time, half way through a trick, he is interrupted by someone upstage. A fat, moustached man in a suit, white shirt and bowler hat steps on, gives a cheeky wave, and walks off. “It wasn’t, was it?” says Tommy Cooper. The audience recognises him too: the spitting image of Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy.13

The apparition is more than a distraction. The attention is no longer where it is supposed to be: on the body of the comic. It is dispersed, decentred, somewhere in the wings. For a few moments, Tommy Cooper makes no attempt to reassert himself. The locus of the comedy is strung out. When he turns back towards the audience, he is at a loss. He looks like he’s seen a ghost.

What ghost? The ghost of slapstick. But strangely the ghost is more vivid than the chaos it intrudes upon. The man in the bowler hat – an immediately familiar figure of modernity – is like a Hollywood waxwork: crisp, sparkling, American, filmic. Tommy Cooper by contrast looks frayed and impotent, a confused stereotype. The ghost that haunts him is in better nick than he is. Hardy winks. He looks lucky to be dead.

* * *

What would he have done if he hadn’t been Tommy Cooper? In 1935, when he was fourteen, he left school and began an apprenticeship at the British Power Boat Company in Hythe, one of the main local employers. He seems to have been completely unsuited to the scheme, which provided training in carpentry, electrics, copper work and chromium plating. He was sent home. As well as being distracted by magic tricks, he seems to have been unable to engage with the demands of labour, skilled or otherwise: “I can’t even knock a nail in straight!”14

Tommy Cooper, it seems, could not have been anything other than Tommy Cooper. “What he would have done in life had he not found his niche in show business,” writes his biographer John Fisher, “is the great unanswerable question.”15 It is tempting to think his only option, aside from becoming one of the most famous men in Britain, would have been a life of precariousness and unemployment not unlike his father’s. He was who he was, and needed the world to accept him. Those who knew or admired him tend to agree he was without compare. But in Tommy Cooper’s case the platitude has a specific sense. It points to his sheer singularity. His gift was irreducible, inefable, identical with his very being.16 A tribute in The Telegraph is characteristic:

Some comedians […] are born funny: we say they have funny bones, as though their sheer comedicness infuses their entire body and soul. And one such comedian was the late Tommy Cooper.17

He was as inexplicable as he was unique, in Fisher’s words “his own invention”, a “one-off”: “his very name will endure as a superlative all of its own.”18 The truism that you cannot explain a joke becomes tautologous: he is the joke. Beyond this, only the biggest categories seem capable of holding him. God and creation, perhaps: “Given that the world is not a perfect place, the idea that one day one might meet one’s maker and discover he is wearing a red fez is a consoling one.”19

When words don’t press on the limits of sense, they tend to fall back onto the surface of the body. At over six foot three, with size thirteen feet and enormous hands, he seemed oversized. His facial features too seemed to have outgrown themselves: his nose bulbous and overhanging, his chin long and broad, his forehead lowering to a dense carapace bearing down on his eye sockets. Fisher likens his body to a conglomeration of vegetables – “a spud for a head […], runner beans for legs, bunches of bananas for hands, turnip nose” – reminiscent of paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.20

The discourse surrounding Tommy Cooper is arranged between these two poles. On one hand the ineffable, the singular, pure essence, and on the other the grossly material, the corporeal. The extremes imply one another. All that can be said is obvious, glaring, on the surface: beyond that there are only exalted abstractions. Between the concrete and the ineffable there is no intermediary. He seems to demand some metaphysics of presence or phenomenology of the body that could reconcile these opposites. The physical and the subliminal, contingency and essence, body and soul.

Only then could you begin to unravel the relationship between the two, which is less than straightforward. For whilst his body is thick and earthly, his spirit is nimble and ethereal. The comedian Tom O’Connor recalls director William G. Stuart’s description: “‘the genius of the man is he’s big, he’s ugly and he’s clumsy, but when he moves, he glides.’ And if you watched Cooper, he’s a skater.”21 Fisher identifies the same paradox, describing him as “a child in the body of a giant, an amateur with the sparkle of the professional, a heavyweight with the light-footedness of Fred Astaire” – as though there is a soul at work in the body, half at odds with it, but flowing through it, dispersed in its pattern of movement.22

But the idea of absolute singularity makes it hard to place Tommy Cooper in any historical frame. One route, following Fisher’s reference to Arcimboldo, would be to locate him in a grotesque tradition dating back at least to the Middle Ages. “[T]he grotesque body,” writes Mikhail Bakhtin, “is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, complete unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.”23 And so we arrive at the most obvious and recurrent explanation of Tommy Cooper’s radicalism: his bodiliness, his laughter, his chaos become signs of a logic of excess.24 This explanation is particularly tempting in light of his over-indulgences. Cigars were a recurrent motif, and he had a line in drinking jokes: “I drink just for medicinal purposes. I’m sick of being sober.”25

However this persona mirrored a protracted, private tragedy. Chronic alcoholism, to the accompaniment of forty cigars a day, wrought havoc in his professional and personal lives through the 1970s. In Fisher’s verdict his bouts of drunken aggression towards his agent Miff Ferrie verged on the criminal. Most seriously by far, though, he repeatedly beat his wife Gwen Cooper in this period, driving her on several occasions to the point of leaving him.26 His violence seems to have subsided later in the decade, and towards the end of his life he gained some control over his drinking. But alcoholism was the main cause of his physical deterioration, which impacted his performances from the late 1960s onwards and led to his early death in April 1984.

The notion of radical excess is, at one level, clearly misplaced. His private excesses were pathological and depressive rather than transgressive or carnivalesque. And a similar insight applies to his performances. Only viewed at a distance, through such a wide historical lens, could he seem truly anarchic or irreverent. The first step is to understand what was self-restricting and conservative about him.

* * *

Although Tommy Cooper became a household name through television, his roots predate its rise. His act, which was fundamentally unchanging throughout his career, was designed for the stage, and its immediate origins were in variety. His first opportunities to see magicians perform were in variety theatres in Southampton and most of his precedents in burlesque and comedy magic were in variety and music hall.

After the war he quickly established a variety niche for himself doing cod magic. Stage performances were routine, television appearances occasional; at that point it would not have been possible for him make a living through television. In time he commanded astronomical fees, but his stage work continued to bring in a dependable income. He was a staple of The Royal Variety Performance, appearing five times between 1953 and 1977, and at two points he took a break from doing television series and focussed on touring: once between 1958 and 1966, and again in the early 1970s, turning to the Northern social club scene as his public recognition was at its peak.

In any case there was no artificial barrier between theatre and television, which was built to a great extent on an existing entertainment economy.27 As well as the countless stage performers who were appropriated for television, variety managers and agents were influential in early ITV. Television production often took place in the same architecture, with productions staged and permanent studios established in theatres. The structure of variety performance, which grew out of earlier music hall, provided a template for television. It made television palpable as material culture, built on and with the forms that preceded it. Tommy Cooper points to this historical overlap whenever he mutters into the wings during a television show, a variety trope calling into play the theatre’s physical space.

Paradoxically though it is Tommy Cooper’s singularity, his one-offness, which binds him most deeply to this tradition. Comedy historian Oliver Double names four pillars of variety performance: novelty, personality, participation, and skill. In respect of the first three, Tommy Cooper was formally conventional. His novelty was burlesque magic. His personality was in the mould of a traditional variety comic: known, loved, for being who he was, for the how rather than the what, communicating directly with the audience over the footlights. No distinction was made between the persona and the person. There was no fourth wall. The whole performance was predicated on the direct address. He depended on neither the strength nor the originality of his material: “The real act of creation was to create the onstage self – to work out an individual style, to develop the self, to trust the personality.”28 The only exception to his formal conservatism seems to have been his apparent lack of skill; but in fact deliberately incompetent displays of juggling, magic, ventriloquism and so on, known as cod acts, were also common.

Furthermore Tommy Cooper’s act, first billed as ‘Six Feet of Fun’, was tied inextricably to his physicality. This was another commonplace in variety, which mercilessly exploited first appearances. ‘Two Ton’ Tessie O’Shea capitalised on her girth; Lowe, Hite and Stanley on their heights; Peg Leg Bates on his disfigurement. Little Tich initially advertised all three, not only short and fat but “The Wonder of the Age, Having Six Fingers and one Thumb on each Hand”.29 Curiously, of the few successful comic or burlesque conjurors in variety and music hall, several, like Tommy Cooper, made a feature of their height. Donald B. Stuart was ‘Variety’s Longest Laugh’ and, in a tall top hat, appeared over seven foot tall. Carlton was billed as ‘The Human Hairpin’. Both topped off the effect with headgear, in Carlton’s case a high-domed bald wig bordering on the obscene.

Tommy Cooper, then, was shaped by an ingrained cultural construct, distinctive of variety, in which the comic persona and their physical appearance are bound together, compacted into one another like the parts of a telescope. He addressed his audience as himself, and the first, most adequate image of his persona was his body. On closer inspection the way in which he was appreciated was of a piece with this tradition. In spite of his singularity, his apartness, he was adopted – loved even – as ‘one of our own’. As Fisher writes: 

Tommy Cooper has quietly entered the folklore of the country. His jokes and mannerisms and catchphrases will live on in the manner of nursery rhymes and playground chants, a vibrant part of the heritage of a nation at play.30

This kind of homage is characteristic of music hall populism. The individual is lifted up out of the crowd and celebrated for their innate gifts, but nonetheless remains one with that crowd, mirroring and reembodying them. Tommy Cooper was granted, like Eliot’s Marie Lloyd, some innate “capacity for expressing the soul of the people”.31 The performer – his person, his body – belonged to the folk, and by extension the nation. He was received as a national treasure, both “the people’s comedian” and “the Queen’s favourite”.32 In his one-offness, his folk genius, he became an everyman.

* * *

If he is funny simply because he is who he is, and if this central, irreducible fact is not open to analysis – if he cannot be explained – then he can only be imitated. His motions and catchphrases are like untranslatable words in a foreign language: you cannot say what they mean, only when and how to use them. “Not like that, like that.” Until you get it: “Just like that.”

This language, though, is not foreign, still less private. It is more like a distillation from the mother tongue. To imitate him is to adopt his mannerisms as your own.

Eventually the habit of Tommy Cooper imitation became such a recognisable trope that in one mid-seventies episode he is preceded on stage by four men in fezzes, all growling and extending their forearms like crudely assembled puppets. 

Tommy Cooper the original comes on last and barely seems to notice the raft of imitators. He has none of their jaunty self-confidence. Instead, he has the impassive look of someone resigned to a paradox: the paradox of being both everyone’s and no one’s – of being constantly open to imitation, constantly available, but at the same time inimitable, inaccessible. Their novelty, his expression tells us, is his reality. This language belongs to everyone, but has only one native speaker.33

* * *

The self, the body, the popular. These three could be pictured as a triangular model, containing two phases. First the self and the body are collapsed together, so one becomes indistinguishable from the other. Then together they appeal to the collective – which is to say some combination of folk, nation and theatre audience – both embodying it and belonging within it.

Complaints against this kind of performance would be easy to draw up. Indeed this is hardly necessary for the first phase: the wilful reduction of an individual to their physical appearance, inevitably calling into play a longstanding repertoire of stereotypes – racial, regional, national and so on. The second – the appeal to the collective – needs closer attention. The notion that a performer can offer themselves up on stage, as themselves, and can be embraced as such, and the idea that this relationship can be one of belonging or representation or even mutual recognition, all raises the question: on what terms? According to what shared sense of reality or normality? What or who do these terms exclude? Are they open to scrutiny or elided, taken for granted? This comic mechanism implies a third term: some accepted group-sense. And the audience response – laughter, recognition – naturalises a particular collective identity or ideology. This unexamined third term is what Stewart Lee objects to in observational comedy: “Observational comedy is when the comedian pretends to have the same life as you, right, rather than being a philandering coke addict.”34

With Tommy Cooper, this form of performance is left wholly intact. But it appears in a curiously condensed form, as though pared back to its basic elements. Take phase one, the collapse of the self into the body. His whole act is pervaded by a subtle but insistent physical reductionism. His famous hats routine is a masterclass in this theme. He tells a story in rhyme – “’Twas new year’s eve in Joe’s pub. A happy mob was there.” – setting the scene with some mock-dramatic gestures. Then: “A torn and tattered tramp walked in.” He fishes a ripped, brown hat out of a box in front of him and whips it on his head: Tommy Cooper the tramp. His eyes dart. A few people chuckle. Next, “a sailor standing at the bar said…” He switches to the sailor’s hat. Then back to the tramp’s. And so on, through banker, soldier, fireman, pilot, Frenchman.

The hats are a comic short hand. They stand for social types, which are immediately retrievable, as though from a box. These types are of a relatively innocuous sort (mostly professional and military, though elsewhere in Tommy Cooper’s repertoire they are often racial, for instance). But they invoke a special kind of signification. A hat is a form of branding, a stamp on the forehead, triggering a set of associations which, by their very immediacy, go unquestioned. It creates an equivalence, a collapse of the social into the referent, the signified into the signifier: split-second identification by means of a hat. The routine is poised on that split second, the immediacy, the inanity of it. The moment he puts on a new hat he looks up; his hands drop, he pauses, lets the effect of the hat register. And this moment of hesitation is no punch line. In that second he is aimless, his decorated head a gormless protrusion, his expression almost guilty.

We can go further: in that second, the absurdity of the hat is outdone by the absurdity of Tommy Cooper’s wearing it. Not for an instant does he become the tramp, fireman, Frenchman. The impression is wafer thin. Nothing could be further from suspension of disbelief. The hat is frivolous, ineffectual: the gargantuan features of his face loom out from under it. (The woman’s hat is ludicrously dainty, like a tutu on a hippopotamus.) In that moment of hesitation, our eyes rebound onto the surface of his body, onto him. The effect is not so much to disrupt the narrative as to render it impossible. We never see a sailor or a banker, only Tommy Cooper in a silly hat. There is no dissemblance, no change of aspect. Tommy Cooper only ever is Tommy Cooper. Eventually, as though to emphasise the point, the routine breaks down. He can’t find the right prop, forgets his lines, bumps his head on the fireman’s helmet and complains about it to someone in the wings. The whole thing degenerates into little more than an excuse to see Tommy Cooper in a series of funny hats.

Variety’s physical comedy tradition, here, becomes peculiarly stunted. The hats-in-a-box are a debasement of the classic chapeaugraphy act, where the performer twists a ring of felt into a sombrero, baseball cap, Napoleonic bicorn etc. Tommy Cooper dispenses with the skill. Fancy dress is enough. The physical insists on itself to the exclusion of other competencies. Narrative breaks down. Nothing develops, as in his one-liner jokes which trail off abruptly, turning in on themselves the moment they begin. Everything has a self-defeating self-evidence. The body comes first; the face speaks for itself. A thing is what it is. Meaning is on the surface. We are forced to succumb to a comic logic of equivalence which collapses a person into their outward appearances. It is a regressive logic, the workings of petty prejudice. Tommy Cooper’s presence threatens to degenerate into pure stigma. And we could leave it at that, if he didn’t look so worried.

For in those few frames after he puts on a new hat and looks up at the audience, his face shows some mixture of self-consciousness, anxiety and outright fear. His head suddenly becomes an object of pathos. The blood seems to drain from his face. His presence dilates, shrinking into the pinpoints of his eyes. It is as though the hat has placed crosshairs on his forehead. He gives a split-second look of terror, like someone anticipating a tidal wave: stunned, helpless, resigned.

Here we have to turn to the second phase, the appeal to the collective. His wife Gwen remembered how he would try out new material: “Usually he bursts into the kitchen with a funny hat just as I’m putting the joint in the oven – and is hurt if I don’t laugh.”35 There is much in this statement: his habitat, the humdrum normality of the Sunday roast, the gendered domesticity, the ordinariness of it, and the gracelessness of the man who bursts in (presumably not helping with lunch then) and needs spontaneous acknowledgement. The hat is an appeal for attention, which intrudes on normality and expects to be embraced into it. Or to be precise, the way Tommy Cooper puts on a hat makes it clear that the two phases of performance – the collapse of the self into the body and the appeal to the collective – cannot really be separated: the reduction of meaning and identity to physical appearances (here the act of putting on a hat) is itself a bid for immediate acceptance, an attempt to close the gap between performer and audience. The reduction to the bodily, to the obvious, is exactly the mechanism by which the appeal is made.

The implication of course is that there is such a normality or collectivity to appeal to. The appeal requires or summons that collectivity. There is a theoretical term for this: interpellation, the process of call-and-response by which a subject is hailed into being. The hat – though in fact this principle underpins Tommy Cooper’s whole performance – is an appeal for recognition that implies and engenders a shared perception or subjectivity which would allow such recognition to be immediate, from the gut.36 The type must be recognised. But also – the body must be loved. The face needs empathy, and reaches for a context or set of common assumptions that will accept it as natural. This is what is at stake in the gag, which has to be accepted on its own terms or not at all. The body can only be received whole. And if it is not, if there is no laughter, then the consequences go beyond the individual: the collective which the individual is a part of, which he derives meaning from, hangs in the balance. And the glint of desperation which passes all too often across Tommy Cooper’s face tells us that, in his appeal to something – anything – beyond himself, he is not sure of a response.

* * *

Unscientific sample of Tommy Cooper one-liners. Searching for a rhythm.

I went to see my doctor. I had to, he’s ill.

Here’s a quick joke. I must tell you this. I want to hear it myself.

It’s lovely to be here. [Walks a few paces sideways.] It’s lovely to be here as well.

Now before I begin my act proper, I’d like to say this. This.

They say take an aspirin for a headache. Who wants a headache?

I went to the doctor. I said “it hurts me when I do that.” [Raises left elbow.] He said “well don’t do it.”

They’ve got a speciality that melts in the mouth. Ice cream.

I dreamt the other night I was plucking a chicken. And I woke up the next morning and the wife was bald.

[Into wings] Darling, darling, put the kettle on won’t you. Oh you got it on. Suits you.

You gotta laugh haven’t you. Please.37

One step forward, two steps back.

part II

The transition from early music hall to variety theatre was marked by the increasing rationalisation of the use of time and space. In the 1880s the industry entered a period of rapid expansion. The halls became dominated by a handful of magnates who organised them into national or regional chains. As power became more concentrated and decision-making more centralised, the variety form was honed to minimise cost and maximise profit. The twice nightly system was introduced to increase attendances. Productions became quicker and more tightly scheduled. The traditional music hall chairman, who had acted as compère, was replaced by number boards, and from the late 1920s dead patches between acts were eliminated under the ‘high-speed variety’ regime. Audience behaviour too became more circumscribed. New purpose-built variety theatres replaced tables and chairs with fixed seating; shorter bills discouraged conversation during performances and the practice of ‘looking in’ for a few turns.38

At the same time new venues were increasingly prevented from getting drinks licenses, which removed a source of income and encouraged them to broaden their clientele. Variety sought a cross-class, family audience. This shift combined with the efforts of the moral reform lobby to produce a more respectable entertainment that drew closer to the legitimate stage. New halls had neoclassical facades and instituted a greater distance between audience and performer; bills increasingly featured sketches, as well as ballet and opera. Meanwhile, in an attempt to assert decorum, managements clamped down on rowdiness and audience interjection, even trying, in some Edwardian halls, to stop people singing along to choruses.39

This combination of industrial rationalisation and moral reform led to an increased disciplining of performers and their bodies. Performers’ independence was eroded as power accrued to a growing profession of booking agents, which functioned as an intermediary with the halls. Contractual barring clauses were introduced, preventing acts from appearing in local, rival halls for a duration. And as bills became shorter under the twice nightly system, fewer performers were required to appear more frequently. Turns were more tightly time-controlled and more closely scrutinised. (Moss Empire’s Cissie Williams notoriously refused to rebook acts with dirty shoes.)40 Unwanted innuendo could even be prohibited by contract. For some skill-based acts the repetitious physical exertion was punishing. As Little Tich once said, “I have to nearly kill myself every night,” dropping his strenuous big boot dance from around 1915.41

With these transformations, music hall’s early variation on the mass culture debate began in earnest. If the older halls had represented the customary moral degeneracy of the lower classes, which could be diagnosed at a distance by middle class observers, variety posed a different order of threat.42 The broadening of the mass audience and variety’s mimicry of the legitimate stage could be seen as signs of an alarming tendency towards socio-cultural levelling, or as one commentator put it in 1901 “the humour and the lolling license of a sordid democracy fringed about and set off by the fashion and the glamour of the titled and the rich”.43

The masses attending variety’s new Palaces, Hippodromes and Empires had ceased to know their place; but, for some, the tragedy in this was less the erosion of social and aesthetic hierarchy than the corruption of music hall’s integral popular character. Critics, historians and one-time bohemians mourned a previous phase of music hall, which in retrospect had provided a source of popular cohesion and resilience. The earlier halls and their well-known personalities came to represent, around the turn of the century, a kind of lost industrial indigeneity. The essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, for instance, pined for music hall’s “unregenerate period”: lewd, rough-hewn and rowdy, but also unaffected and homely.44

The magic had fled – the dear old magic of the unity – the monotony, if you will – of song after song after song, good, bad, and indifferent, but all fusing one with another and cumulatively instilling a sense of deep beatitude – a strange sweet foretaste of Nirvana.45

In this account, the decline which for Eliot culminated in cinema – the triumph of detachment over collective participation – was well underway beforehand. As mass culture was commercialised, rationalised and refined, the harmony of audience and performer was fractured. If music hall was a body made up of bodies, then at some point it had lost its organic unity. The result, though, was not disintegration, but regimentation and specialisation. The body crystallised and hardened. In one passage, Beerbohm seems to sense a subtle regime pervading variety culture, as though its precision and brilliance produced an alienation so general it was impossible to describe:

There is a swift succession of strongly, variously defined personalities, all trained and talented and self-conscious; all in pretty or appropriately grotesque costumes; all imitating this or that phase of modern life within the limits of their new art. The words of their songs are quite pregnant with character and wit. The music to which they are set is no longer the eternal variation on one or two themes, but is often novel and always adapted to the words’ meaning. When fatuousness and vulgarity take their turn, themselves are in the nature of a surprise, startling, not soothing. I find no repose for my faculties in the Tivoli. The atmosphere from the stage of it is surcharged with artistic conscience.46

Here it is variety’s sheer aesthetic proficiency that hollows out the form. Its aesthetics are everywhere hemmed in by self-conscious propriety. It is all the same whether performers are pretty or grotesque, as even the grotesques are “appropriately grotesque”. In spite of variety’s incessant novelty, nothing is left to chance. The spectacle is too perfect, too accomplished, over-determined.

The critic can no longer derive a vicarious sense of belonging from popular culture. Music hall once provided him with a mirage of togetherness. The individual was dissolved into the collective body, entering a state of blissful union, like Nirvana. With the coming of variety, Beerbohm found his senses assaulted, his experience fragmented. The performers on stage, “all imitating this or that phase of modern life,” were punctilious, shape-shifting constructs, like the quick-change magicians who switched in a second from one costume to another. Beneath variety’s efficiency and definition, an absence had opened up. The spectator could no longer locate himself in the spectacle. The body, crisply delineated on stage, was hollowed out and striped of its sutaining context. Music hall’s corporeal unity had been fractured, the performing body uprooted and hyper-individualised, and spectatorship reduced to disembodied vision.

* * *

It is easy to forget how often he sings. But singing was a natural part of his act: a sure sign of his roots.

Five young women in a line with bob cuts and sparkly red waistcoats – a family troupe called The Sisters Duane – sing an introduction to ‘sing-a-long-a-Tom-time’.47 Nostalgia is laid on thick. “Down memory lane with Mr T.C.…” Yet the setup is more reminiscent of a jazz club than a music hall sing-along. Tommy Cooper wears an oversized tuxedo jacket and perches on a barstool. The audience are not invited to join in.

“Once again it’s sing-along time,” he says, “with old songs and new songs. Sunger song a song asong. And then we have new songs and old songs and old songs and new songs. But first, I think we’ll have some old songs, before we have the new songs. And after that…” He closes his eyes and hangs his head. “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Tommy Cooper’s health was at its lowest ebb in the late ’70s, and here, in the 1978 series Just Like That, it shows. His comic timing gives way to a disturbing incoherence. He never looks like he’s enjoying himself. Teetering on the bar stool next to the singing sisters, he looks in pain.

They start up again. “Auf wiedersehen…” and Tommy Cooper shouts back, “Auf wiedersehen.” His voice is vicious and toneless. “We’ll meet again…” they sing. “We’ll meet again,” he screams.

The traditional audience sing-along has been inverted: the singer sings along to his backing vocalists. A cruel trick. He is trapped in the song. His responses become more violent, more desperate, more fragmentary. His frame is stiff. He leans away from the sisters: they are too angelic, too pitifully disingenuous. “This lovely day…” they sing. “Thi laveelaee lavee da…” He trails off and clutches his heart. This cardboard cut-out might just crumple.

 There is no trace of amusement left in his face. The applause cannot disguise the gravity of what is happening. He walks off without a bow, and as he does he gives the audience a glance of contempt and shouts, “Rubbish. Rubbish.”

* * *

Television was not made for Tommy Cooper; he was not made for television. His screen presence was a conundrum never quite solved. The only way to fit the tall oblong of his body into the squat rectangle of the television set was to zoom right out, losing some of the impact of his face. When he appears on screen, it is as though the camera has not worked out how to mimic the way the naked eye hones (if not actually zooms) in on the face of a performer whilst retaining an image of the body, and beyond that the atmosphere of the auditorium. Confronted with the awkwardness of a long rectangle wedged into a short one, television usually opted for an only slightly less awkward middle ground: he appears from the waist up. But even then we lose out on the finesse of his legs and feet. His body is an indivisible whole, unamenable to montage. The camera merely reports on what he is doing, an impoverished substitute for the real thing.

Tommy Cooper – his persona, his body – was forged on the variety stage. Variety as an institution, though, finally dwindled around the time he was entering show business, with the mass closure of variety theatres in the 1950s. It was supplanted, not by cinema as had often been predicted, but by television. It should be clear by now that Tommy Cooper’s appeal, the way his presence insists on itself – singular, unmediated – and demands some response or recognition, was standard music hall populism. It might also be clear how to begin to explain the faltering of that appeal, the undercurrent of uncertainty that runs through his whole performance.

Tommy Cooper’s first series was in 1952; his last television appearance was on the day of his death in 1984. His career coincided closely with the first era of the mass television audience, spanning the entire duration of the BBC-ITV duopoly, from the post-war rise of television up until the end of what John Ellis calls television’s ‘era of scarcity’ marked by the launch of Channel 4 in 1982.48 Within the spectrum defined by the two providers, Tommy Cooper tended to occupy the commercial, as opposed to the public service, end. After his first series, under the BBC monopoly, the vast majority of his television appearances were for the commercial channel. He worked initially for the ITV contractor ABC Television, then starred in two flagship programmes in 1968 heralding the opening of Thames Television. The remainder of his series were for the latter company, which held the London weekday franchise, situating him at the centre of the federal ITV system.

Tommy Cooper occupied, therefore, a long interstice. He was lodged between worlds, an artefact of an older medium transported to the heart of the emergent consumer culture. Like a piece of period junk, unchanging, unreconstructed, he was appropriated by the mass market as a commodity-cum-institution. What was it to occupy this position? What did it mean to be permanently available and yet permanently displaced? Not only did the variety form gradually lose its influence; crucially, the variety star was hauled into a new relationship to the mass audience, which changed from live and communal to mediated and national. What was lost and what was gained?

* * *

To read Beerbohm’s pronouncements on the “virus of ‘Variety’” or Eliot’s on the “cheap and rapid-breeding cinema” is to return to the moment at which the very notion of an industrially manufactured spectacle, dictated by economic imperatives, with little organic connection to the lives of its audience, was still scandalous.49 The perils of such a culture loomed from the outset, predating the moving image, and constituted something like an innate condition of mass entertainment itself: a condition of crisis. Variety, in the hands of its detractors, was a first approximation of this condition, marking the decisive moment at which music hall lost its variegated connection to the folk.

In this way the music hall lament directly prefigured a familiar debate over the effects and dangers of mass culture in general. The criticisms levelled at variety – debased aesthetic and moral standards, the fragmentation of its audience, the erasure of customary forms of collective, working class association – gained a new object after the Second World War: television, particularly its commercial channel launched in 1955. A television set was an emblem of the new cross-class consumerism. Like the washing machine or refrigerator, it was a consumer good made widely available for the first time in the 1950s by relative affluence and relaxed hire-purchase arrangements. It was also an obvious symbol of the societal dangers associated with the new culture. Material improvements met with cultural pessimism: slum clearances and the mass relocation of people to new outer-city industrial areas fragmented working class communities; traditional spaces of collective association declined, notably pubs and cinemas as well, of course, as variety theatres. These changes, in combination with the post-war baby boom, conspired to keep people at home.50 Leisure became increasingly domestic-centred; the mass audience became even easier to conceive as atomised and submissive.

Such attitudes spanned intellectual and policy making circles, as for instance in the person of Richard Hoggart, an academic and influential member of the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting which recommended curbing advertisers’ influence over ITV and the introduction of a second BBC channel. His book The Uses of Literacy, published in 1957, was an account of working class culture and its degradation. It was written just before television could feature prominently (though music hall occasionally still does in its conventional idealist guise). Where it is mentioned, the impression it leaves is still blisteringly fresh. Television was culture stripped of all collective participation and belonging. It turned its audience into an insensate mass,

a group only in the sense that its members shared a passivity. For the majority of them work would be dull and ambition out of place. But nightly, dead from the eyes downwards, they would be able to link on to the Great Mother. […] The eyes would register but not connect to the nerves, the heart, and the brain […]51

The dangers posed by the new device were extreme and unmitigated. The body turns inert; the collective is reduced to an empty cipher, little more than a viewing statistic.

Several years later Hoggart would found The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Yet The Uses of Literacy is full of judgements the field of cultural studies itself would in time make inconceivable. The book’s conception of popular culture is wedded to a series of binary oppositions: between tradition and change, authentic and inauthentic, high and low, and between culture in two distinct senses, anthropological and Arnoldian. For Hoggart the working classes had no real recourse to high culture – “the best which has been thought and said in the world”, in Matthew Arnold’s well-worn phrase.52 Their options were two: on the one hand tradition, the authentically popular, and on the other hand the new, mass culture, which was invasive and corrupting. These alternatives were fixed in opposition not only by time – old vs new – but by the incapacity of working people to understand the forces assaulting them. Their only form of resistance was the inertia of tradition.

Hence the popular becomes reified. It is fixed at an unspecified point in the past, static, whole, homogenous. There is no suggestion here of how tradition can be actively reinvented. There is no premonition of the way mass culture itself could be contested, cut up, reappropriated, its meanings inverted; no premonition in other words of the subcultures and popular music of the following decades that would blast the anthropological-Arnoldian binary to smithereens. This version of the mass culture critique, in short, transfixed and neutralised what Stuart Hall would call the ‘dialectic’ of popular culture, the popular as a site of struggle and reclamation.53 This charge could be levelled equally, in one form or another, at idealist interpretations of music hall, Arnoldian defenders of high culture such as F. R. Leavis, and Marxist denigrators of mass culture such as Adorno and Horkheimer.

Here we can add, lastly, another binary which harks back to the music hall lament and runs through Hoggart’s prose. Take this extract:

[Working-class people] constantly make rough-and-ready judgements on people, judgements not drawing upon concepts from an outside source, but based on the assumption that there are a few firm, important, desirable qualities; qualities embodied in phrases like, ‘Ah tek a man as ’e is’, and ‘Y’ know where yer ’ave ’im; ’e’s not “say one thing and do another”’; qualities of friendliness and decent-heartedness, of directness and openness in dealing.54

The very language he uses conveys what could be called a bodily affect. ‘Rough’, ‘based’, ‘firm’, ‘embodied’, ‘heartedness’, ‘dealing’: everything suggests physicality, solidity, roughness, thickness, groundedness, density. The binary between the authentically and inauthentically popular is bound to another more insidious and generalised opposition, between body and mind. The popular is the bodily. This is its organic virtue as well as its limitation. This is what leaves the people so vulnerable to corruption, incapable of abstraction beyond their physical surroundings. Once those surroundings begin to change, once their traditional, collective context disappears, the body is left to drift irresponsibly, unable to resist the bombardment of advertisements and cheap publications. And bodiliness, Hoggart acknowledges, has further consequences. To the extent that grave matters like politics and ideas are deemed abstractions, things of the mind, they fall beyond the people’s domain: “most working-people are non-political and non-metaphysical in their outlook.”55

Mind vs body: this is another form in which the dialectic of the popular is fixed. As an image or assumption it is extremely widespread, but it has particular implications for a phase of popular culture in which live performance gave way to mediation, and the communal to the domestic. We have of course to push past the binary opposition. We have to reanimate its static, bounded terms – tracing areas of overlap, unexpected inversions – even, sometimes, where those terms still seem irrevocably fixed in place.

* * *

Comedy headgear is usually a one-liner. The joke is almost over before it’s begun. He comes on with an ice pick sticking into his head: “Oh I’m so fed up of people picking on me.”56 He comes on with a saw through his head: “I don’t know why I’m laughing. I’ve got a sore head.”57

But if the punchlines of his one-liners come too early, those of his shaggy dog stories almost fail to arrive, like half-hearted excuses. He comes on wearing a giant right ear. Coughs.

The producer of the show said to me tonight, he said eh, ‘How you feeling tonight?’ I said, ‘I feel a little bit funny.’ He said, ‘Well, get out there before it wears off.’ D’you know, eh, anybody, anybody here that saw the last show? Anybody? Yes? Great… No, that’s what I like, faith. No, the reason I say that, because the producer last… in the last show, said to me… I said to him, ‘Eh, what was it like?’ I said to him. ‘What was it like?’ And he said, he went, he went…

He shuffles stiffly on the spot with his hands behind his back, mimicking the producer. He is still wearing the ear.

And he said, ‘It wasn’t very good.’ I said, ‘What d’you mean?’ He said, ‘It wasn’t you.’ I said ‘What do you mean it wasn’t me?’ He said ‘Well you didn’t have any sparkle.’ He said, ‘You were down.’ He said ‘You weren’t bright, all like that.’

He flails his arms and wiggles his fingers, eyes wide. And do we detect, perhaps, a tinge of genuine resentment at the producer’s emotional demands? The monologue, or internal dialogue, lasts several minutes, becoming increasingly nervous and self-reflexive. He is still wearing the ear.

Look at that sparkle! Is that better? It’s better isn’t it? He said ‘Well that’s not bad,’ he said, ‘but,’ he said ‘roll your eyes.’ I went like that. See them rolling? See ’em? I did that the other day – this one fell out. He said, ‘But you weren’t yourself, you weren’t the real me.’ So, it got me worried. So I went to my doctor. And my doctor goes to about six or seven hospitals a week. He’s a very sick doctor. I said ‘oh…’ He sent me to see this psychiatrist friend. And I told him what the producer said. ’Cause I was a little bit upset you know. And he said I wasn’t the real me. He said, ‘Well, we gotta look for who the real you is. Otherwise you won’t be happy.’ I said ‘You’re right, you’re right!’ I was right, well I was right. ’Cause, the producer said to me, he said, ‘It just wasn’t you. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t the real you.’ So I told him, I said, ‘The producer said, I wasn’t the real you, or me.’ You know what I’m talking about? I don’t. And he said, he said ‘Well, we gotta look for the real you.’ And I said to myself, well, if I don’t know who I am, how do I know what I look like? And the real me could be worse than me! He may not have any more sparkle than me. He may be worse. No sparkle at all, like that see? And he’d get in trouble with the producer. And he said to me, the producer said, ‘It’s no good,’ he said, ‘wasn’t you.’ He said, ‘You looked all alone up there. Last week. All alone.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m the only one here.’

‘Here’ sounds like ‘ear’. Half a punch line – a non sequitur. Anything, at this point, to end the descent. It had to end somehow. He takes off the ear.58

* * *

Politics was not, in any obvious sense, Tommy Cooper’s domain. To say so is so obvious as to seem irrelevant. Scriptwriter Barry Cryer remembers the extent of his political engagement:

He could just sit and sulk a bit if he sensed the attention that he felt justified to himself was not forthcoming. This usually meant he had a trick he wanted to show you while everyone else was deep in conversation about sport or politics or whatever. Then once he got his opportunity and had enchanted you with this piece of magic or convulsed you with that gag, all was right with the world.59

In private life as on stage, politics seemed a distant construction. Politicians and public figures are not among his repertoire of stereotypes. Society itself – its events, dynamics, topics of interest, culture, sophistication, consequences – seems consigned to a permanent elsewhere.

This was partly a function of his medium. The pace and pressure of the variety comic’s repartee left little room to unfold complex positions. Still, by itself this does not explain Tommy Cooper’s acute political naivety. Nor does it account for his peculiar detachment. For as well as being markedly apolitical, his act was virtually free from social antagonism of any kind. There was nothing to offend, nothing to breach any unspoken code of conduct. All was, or was to appear to be, right with the world. Drinking jokes aside, he avoided conscious moral risk, steering clear of material that could undermine his family-friendliness. Indeed there was a remarkable lack of edge or side. Sarcasm and satire and barb all seem fundamentally alien. Innuendo and blue humour had no place in his act either, in contrast, say, to that of his hero Max Miller. In this way he upheld variety’s most sanitised, respectable front; and yet he seemed to do so not out of conservatism or moral uprightness, but out of sheer awkwardness and unworldliness.

The narrowness and claustrophobia of Tommy Cooper’s world were persistently misunderstood by his agent, Miff Ferrie, who tried to stop his client being billed as a niche novelty act. His magic was to be secondary to his comedy, and his comedy was itself supposed to express a complex persona, to be seen in the round. Tommy Cooper was to be an artist of breadth and humanity. Ferrie proposed series titles such as ‘My Life by Tommy Cooper’. This was, on the one hand, to manoeuvre him up the variety hierarchy, which tended to favour the comic personality. On the other, it was to manhandle the variety act into something closer to a sitcom, viewers treated to fly-on-the-wall encounters with the comic “during the course of an ordinary day”.60 This ambition sprung from Ferrie’s refusal to acknowledge how deeply his client was tied to variety in its narrower, more singular form. But what makes it absurd is Tommy Cooper’s radical unworldliness – his permanent aura of displacement which makes it impossible to imagine what it would be like to live as this man for a day, or even spend a day in his company. Was his world one of private obsession or pure banality? Was it full of joy or crippling terror?

His limitations become obvious as soon as he ventures outside solo stand-up work. Whenever he appears with anyone in a sketch or interview he begins to seem out of his element. All social interaction is slightly awkward or foreshortened. This is particularly true of his interactions with women. (Sexual chemistry here seems a wild, improbable notion.) In general even minor conversational exchanges seem to involve a tacit level of role-play, as though buying groceries or asking the time were acts of abstract ritual. Something artificial enters his voice; he has learnt the script, but cannot quite make sense of it.

Nowhere does he seem more out of place than in his interviews with ‘straight men’, whose smug intellectualism made for an obvious contrast. In one, he is posed questions about his life in the style of an intimate chat show. The straight man, played by Allan Cuthbertson, introduces “the definitive autobiography of the great entertainer”, but Tommy Cooper can’t stop playing with his yoyo.61 In another series he dresses up as a succession of historical figures: Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Nelson, Henry the Eighth. Again the straight man tries to conduct an interview but Tommy Cooper – the buffoon under the costume – can’t concentrate. He loses track of the script, barely bothering to tell the jokes, and ending each one with an exaggerated, self-satisfied grin. He fools around with his fancy dress, spinning his hat and fiddling with his ruff, like an attention-seeking child.62 This is Tommy Cooper at his most puerile. Any analysis or venture beyond the obvious seems pure vanity. The straight man is left smirking in the shade. The comedian is a world apart, side-tracked by some private, idiotic gag.

At moments like these his predicament comes into focus. Tommy Cooper was rooted in the variety tradition, which here meant a tradition of bodies that belong, bodies offered up to be adopted by the nation, or the people. This corporeal belonging would redeem his eccentricity and physical peculiarity, which would become part of the flora and fauna of the folk. And yet, he was incapable of belonging anywhere – not just in society, but even in everyday life. His persona projected a need it could not fulfil. As one joke runs, “I belong to the Secret Six. It’s so secret; I don’t even know the other five!”63

And the longer we look, the more desocialised he appears, the more incapable of engaging or projecting beyond the here-and-now. Even language is a struggle. In much of his stand-up words are sparse and usually punctuate actions. His sentences begin with effort and break off precipitously. Whenever he does a longer monologue a self-consciousness or affectation enters his voice. It is impossible to imagine him explaining anything seriously, impossible not to expect a punch line. And the punch line is always abrupt. His voice seems to disappear backwards down his throat. It crumbles in his mouth. And as it trails off, the lurid features of his face lunge forwards: his manic grin, clenched jaw, vice-like rack of teeth, the whites of his eyes looming above his irises. An attack of laughter follows hard on the heels of the punch line, rattling through his body. And laughter here is a semi-involuntary spasm, displacing and obliterating the remnants of sense; sometimes his shoulders laugh by themselves.

The purview of his lifeworld appears ever narrower. It collapses inwards, like a cascade. The result seems to be a progressively reductive metaphysics of presence. His final foothold, beyond society at large, beyond interaction, beyond ideas, beyond language – following a classic epistemological trajectory – is the world of things. He surrounds himself with the paraphernalia of magic; not the cabinets and automata of magic’s Golden Age, but the gags and gimmicks of children’s joke catalogues. Exploding cigarettes, squirting flowers, plastic tubes, fake moustaches. But even this is reduced to rubble. He lays a curse on what he touches. Objects, like words, are abstracted and lose their function. He picks up a table: its legs fall off. A flower: it wilts. Shrinking from words and other people, he takes up residence in the world of objects – but even they fail him.

Faced with such dysfunction, it seems too weak to call him unworldly. He is worldless, or better, unworlded. All that remains is a body. A body unworlded, a body without relation. The construct of music hall populism is left formally intact – the persona, the body, the collective – only we start to see the seams. To be exact, Tommy Cooper brings the populist bid for appreciation, in which the persona is collapsed into the body, to an end-point: all meaning is reduced to the semi-physical, the blatant, the instantaneous. Yet as he does so he becomes vulnerable. The body is left hanging, unsure of a response. Hence his incessant hesitancy. Hence the occasional, quick withdrawal of his expression into the pinpricks of his eyes, the mute panic that passes across his face. The implication is clear: his failure is the failure of his world. His expression signals the loss of the collective to which his body still belongs. In his face, in his motions, we detect an emptiness more radical than mere absence, as though something has been torn away.

* * *

Frank Sinatra – American everyman. Sinatra, byword for charm, street elegance and the ultimate worldliness. Sinatra, who addressed presidents and Mafiosi as equals. Who could nudge the course of history with a love song. Sinatra – man of the American century.

“I… ahem… I’d like to give my impression now,” says Tommy Cooper, “of the one and only Frank Sinatra.” His upper lip glistens with sweat. What will this be like?64 He puts on a black trilby hat with a white band and gives what he clearly intends to be an American smile – haughty, top lip raised – but he’s already getting his wires crossed: the smile is Elvis Presley’s not Sinatra’s.

He sings and wiggles his hips. “Look down, look down, that lonesome road, before you travel on.” As he hits “on”, his voice cracks. The impression, transparent as it is, has lasted all of ten seconds. And now he is shouting, barking the words. “Look up, look up, and seek your maker…” The emotion is unintelligible, somewhere between aggression and over-zealousness. Whatever it is, it is all too much for him. He cuts the music, exhausted, and takes off his hat.

He drops the hat from head height, and as it hits the floor it makes a loud clunk like a dustbin lid or cartoon anvil. A small paradigm shift. An interruption, like a scratch in the record…

But unlike a cartoon anvil, the hat doesn’t come out of nowhere: it has been there all along, in plain view, invisibly wearing him down. His brief impression has told us beyond doubt: he cannot be Frank Sinatra. And now the metal hat seems to say: he never could have been.

* * *

Mind and body interact in ways as yet undocumented. The mind reaches for recognition through the body, and there are moments when the two seem nearly unified: the mind dissolved in the body, at one with it. His body speaks for him. He walks on air. These are moments of grace. But the myth is never complete. There is always a prior moment of doubt, a quiet noise behind the noise, like a loose ball bearing rolling. His attention might rest for a few seconds at his fingertips as they hold a handkerchief or reach for a catch; but then his fingers get caught or lose their grip, and as they recoil, the mind recoils into his deep eyes, withdrawing from the surface, transfixed with fright. His pupils become vanishing points. The result is total polarisation: the mind becomes an infinitesimal essence, the body a brute, commercial fact.

That familiar look, which seems to emanate from deep inside the core of the populist body, is the surest sign of his predicament. It is a look of half-realisation; it throws his whole mode of performance into question. But there were other hints of such doubts in his private life. His way of making a living, in particular his reliance on his odd appearance, troubled him. It posed an ethical dilemma: where is the line, if there is a line, between physical comedy and exploitation? He was known to take offence when people laughed at him in real life. At one point he continued working in spite of a broken leg: “Do you know what the worst thing about it is? When I walk out tonight they’ll laugh. They’ll laugh at my leg. It’s not right.”65

And his ethical misgiving compounded a deeper anxiety: fundamentally he did not grasp the basis of his success. His gift remained a mystery to him. On one occasion, during the filming of The Plank, he struggled with a scene that required him simply to walk along the road. He found the humour obscure. The director had to prevent him overacting: “Cooper couldn’t understand that he was getting paid for just walking down the street.”66 The only requirements of his comedy were that he look like himself and be himself – or some preapproved version of himself. This was the foundation of his act, and hence his livelihood and self-worth. And this foundation struck him as basically improbable, tantamount to a con. He might collude in his own success, but could never rest on his laurels.

This sense of his own groundlessness helps explain his attitude to money. He was notoriously penny-pinching, to the point of studiously avoiding buying drinks for friends. “Quite simply he was acknowledged as the tightest man in the business,” writes Fisher.67 His lack of generosity betrayed a defensive cast of mind bordering on paranoia. Despite his fame and spectacular earnings, money remained a matter for minor, everyday calculation, as though his whole career seemed to him a temporary windfall – as though only he could see how narrowly he avoided catastrophe and ruin. Fellow comedian Tom O’Connor explains: 

The makeup of the man was, he didn’t know why he was a genius. I think the reason for the frugality was: it may not last. Now with his talent and our kind of forethought, we’d have sat there saying ‘Hey, this could go forever basically. How can this possibly stop? I’m doing nothing and getting paid for it.’ And I think in the back of the mind was again that doubt, that doubt of the character, the loveable man, but deep down a serious man saying ‘If this finishes tomorrow what have I got?’68

For all his years among the elect of showbiz, he felt permanently precarious, like a cartoon walking on air over a cliff edge. And like the cartoon, his best insurance against falling was never looking down. Self-consciousness was the first sign of weakness, and he rigorously avoided it. Barry Cryer claims he never heard him make an analytical remark.69

This avoidance of all analysis and the fear underlying it – that his ability was groundless, that it may give way at any moment – are not of course only private foibles; they reflect the structure of his whole performance. There can be no intermediate step between premise and punch line. His very body must be accepted there and then, in its fullness. His every action is a bid for immediacy: there is no room to question whether or not it will succeed. And yet, his look of panic tells us: it may not. His way with his audience may not last; in a sense it may never have been there at all. Consciousness of this fact can be buried but not eliminated. In the back of his mind a ball bearing rolls. There is still laughter for now, but behind the noise an old world is imploding.

If by now we can diagnose this condition, it is also clear that diagnosis is not enough. It is not enough to point out that the appeal of the populist body is also its exploitation, or that the collective to which it appeals is mythical, an ideological construct – or that these forms, therefore, deserve to die out and be replaced by what would, after all, be no better or worse. The experience of loss – disorientation, vulnerability, fear – cannot be relativised so easily. Mass culture is no zero-sum game. In his moments of hesitation, when his body seems transfixed by a particle of doubt lodged deep in his mind, the eclipse of his world appears sudden and without consolation. The effect is more catastrophic than outright iconoclasm. What happens when an imperfect world falls from grace? To hold on to it would be foolhardy. To mourn it would be mawkish. And yet, Tommy Cooper seems to tell us, there is still a loss to be accounted for, like a weight imperceptibly lifted. That loss never quite mutates into nostalgia or hardens into critique; it unfolds in the present tense. For this reason it sometimes appears he has never quite fallen from grace, and in a sense this is true: he is falling.

1. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming, (London: Verso, 2010), p. 140.

2. Stand-up segment in The Tommy Cooper Hour [DVD] (London: Network, 2007), 2 October 1974.

3. Alexei Sayle quoted in Oliver Double, Britain Had Talent: A History of Variety Theatre (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 209.

4. See for example Jasper Rees, ‘Television/Heroes of Comedy (C4) Tommy Cooper was funny. But why? Jasper Rees is left in the dark’, The Independent, 14 October 1995 <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/televisionheroes-of-comedy- c4-tommy-cooper-was-funny-but-why-jasper-rees-is-left-in-the-dark-1577467.html> [accessed 7 January 2016]. 

5. Cooper, [DVD] (London: Network, 2008), 15 October 1975. 

6. For music hall’s origins and development, see for example Peter Bailey ed., Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986); J.S. Bratton ed., Music Hall: Performance and Style (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986); Dagmar Kift, The Victorian music hall: Culture, class and conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

7. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. J. A. Underwood (London: Penguin, 2009), pp. 248-9. A comparison could be drawn with the idea of ‘knowingness’, which Peter Bailey has used to describe the internally complex, ‘conspiratorial’ registers of music hall performance. Peter Bailey, ‘Conspiracies of Meaning: Music-Hall and the Knowingness of Popular Culture’, Past & Present, 144, August 1994, pp. 138-170. 

8. T. S. Eliot, ‘London Letter’ in The Dial, Vol. 73 (New York: The Dial, 1922), p. 662. 

9. Ibid., p. 661.

10. See T. J. Clarke, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 216; Barry J. Faulk, ‘Modernism and the Popular: Eliot’s Music Halls’, Modernism/modernity, November 2001, pp. 603-621.

11. Archibald Haddon, The Story of the Music Hall: From Cave of Harmony to Cabaret (London: Fleetway Press, 1930), p. 9.

12. On the genealogy of the music hall lament see Barry J. Faulk, Music Hall and Modernity: The Late-Victorian Discovery of Popular Culture (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004).

13. See for example, Cooper, 15 October 1975. 

14. John Fisher, Tommy Cooper: Always Leave Them Laughing (London: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 40.

15. Ibid., p. 2.

16. In light of this singularity, I will refer to him always as ‘Tommy Cooper’. Besides, ‘Tommy’ brings him too close for comfort and ‘Cooper’ sounds absurdly bookish. 

17. David Quantick, ‘Tommy Cooper: genius or fool?’, The Telegraph, 15 April 2014 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/10768370/Tommy-Cooper-genius-or-fool.html> [accessed 25 May 2015].

18. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, pp. 456, 15, 16. 

19. Ibid. pp. 13-14. See also for example Adrian Heathfield who writes of “his metaphys- ical tremulousness”. Adrian Heathfield, ‘Impossible Return’, Cabinet, 26, Summer 2007 <http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/26/heathfield.php> [accessed 27 May 2015].

20. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. xviii.

21. The Art of Tommy Cooper, BBC Four, 20 April 2014.

22. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 1.

23. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 26.

24. This is the broad thrust of several interesting analyses. See Adrian Heathfield, ‘Last Laughs’, Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, August 2004, pp. 60-66; David Lusted, ‘The Glut of Personality’ in Television Mythologies: Stars, Shows and Signs Len Masterman ed., (London: Taylor & Francis, 2005), pp. 67-74.

25. ‘Tommy Cooper Dean Martin Speech’, David Foley, 27 August 2008 <https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDLYeJPQk3M> [accessed 25 May 2015].

26. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, pp. 368, 364-5.

27. On this transition see for example Double, pp. 69 – 92.

28. Ibid., p. 103.

29. In fact he exaggerated by a finger. Mary Tich and Richard Findlater, Little Tich: Giant of the Music Hall (London: Elm Tree Books, 1979), p. 27.

30. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 426.

31. Eliot, p. 661.

32. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 15; Richard Afton quoting the Duke of Edinburgh, quoted in Ibid., p. 232.

33. The Tommy Cooper Hour, 31 October 1973.

34. Stewart Lee, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), p. 279.

35. Quoted in Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 170.

36. On interpellation see Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’ in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), pp. 85-126.

37. These jokes are transcribed or quoted from various sources. Exclamation marks have been removed if requoting, as they seem out of keeping with his general delivery. Following the order they appear here see Cooper, 15 October 1975; John Fisher, Tommy Cooper’s Gags Galore: Mirth, Magic & Mischief (London: Preface, 2010), p. 33; Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 182; The Tommy Cooper Hour, 11 September 1974; Cooper’s Half Hours [DVD] (London: Freemantle Media, 2007), Episode 4; Tommy Cooper: Just Like That (London: Network, 2008), Episode 6; Fisher, Tommy Cooper’s Gags Galore, p. 104; Cooper’s Half Hours, Episode 3; Cooper, 19 November 1975; Tommy Cooper: Just Like That, [DVD] (London: Network, 2008), Episode 6.

38. On variety’s innovations see Peter Bailey, ‘Introduction: Making Sense of Music Hall’ in Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, pp. viii-xxiii; Double; Dave Russell, ‘Varieties of life: the making of the Edwardian music hall’ in Michael R. Booth and Joel H. Kaplan eds., The Edwardian Theatre: Essays on performance and the stage, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 61-85.

39. Russell, p. 71.

40. Double, p. 22.

41. Tich and Findlater, p. 89.

42. Faulk takes Henry Mayhew’s account of the penny gaff as representative of the earlier discourse. Faulk, Music Hall and Modernity, pp. 7-12.

43. Francis Grierson, ‘The Spirit of the Music Hall’, All Ireland Review, 2(43), December 1901, p. 364.

44. Max Beerbohm, ‘The Blight on the Music Halls’ in More (London: The Bodley Head, 1899), p. 120.

45. Max Beerbohm, ‘Music Halls of my Youth’ in Mainly on the Air (London: William Heinemann, 1946) <www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/beerbohm-mainly/beerbohm-mainly-00-h.html> [accessed 9 January 2016] p. 46.

46. Beerbohm, ‘The Blight on the Music Halls’, pp. 122-3.

47. Tommy Cooper: Just Like That, Episode 4.

48. John Ellis, ‘The First Era of Television: Scarcity’ in Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002), pp. 39-60.

49. Beerbohm, ‘Music Halls of my Youth’, p. 46.

50. On these developments see for example Rob Turnock, Television and Consumer Culture: Britain and the Transformation of Modernity (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), pp. 108-112.

51. Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of working-class life with special reference to publications and entertainments, (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 189.

52. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (London: Cambridge University Press, 1932), p. 6.

53. Stuart Hall, ‘Notes on Deconstructing the Popular’ in John Storey ed., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (London: Pearson Education, 2006), pp. 477-87.

54. Hoggart, p. 106.

55. Ibid., p. 103.

56. Cooper’s Half Hours, Episode 5.

57. Ibid., Episode 3.

58. Ibid., Episode 2.

59. Quoted in Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 29.

60. Ibid., p. 243.

61. The Tommy Cooper Hour, 11 September 1974.

62. Comedy Heroes: Tommy Cooper, (London: ITV, 2007).

63. Quoted in Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 121.

64. Cooper’s Half Hours, Episode 3.

65. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 434.

66. Ibid., p. 336.

67. Ibid., p. 448.

68. The Art of Tommy Cooper.

69. Fisher, Tommy Cooper, p. 309.