Tommy Cooper at the BBC...just like that!

Friday: Tommy Cooper at the BBC; (BBC One, 7.35pm)

Thursday, 4th March 2021, 5:00 pm

You may have noticed that there’s some funny business going on across the BBC’s channels.

That’s because the corporation has launched its Festival of Funny, which it hopes will brighten the gloom amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Later this evening there’s a chance to see PRU, a pilot for a proposed sitcom set in a Pupil Referral Unit. It might not sound like the ideal place in which to base a comedy, but we’re promised extraordinary performances from the young and talented cast who give us a glimpse into the highs and lows of life somewhere rarely depicted on screen.

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But most of the season deals with repeats, and that can’t be a bad thing when it brings the much-missed but still highly hilarious Tommy Cooper back to our screens.

With one look at that bewildered face and bulbous nose, it’s hard not to crack up giggling before he’s even opened his mouth.

Eric Sykes once recalled: “He said to me: ‘People say I’ve only got to walk onto a stage and they laugh. If only they knew what it took me just to walk onto that stage.’”

It goes without saying he was a one-off and little wonder there have been several tributes in the almost 40 years since his death.

Cooper was born in Caerphilly, South Wales, in March 1921 – this month marks his centenary – but was brought up in Devon, where he gained his familiar West Country burr.

Like so many of contemporaries, including Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, he discovered his comic abilities while serving in the Second World War. He spent much of his spare time entertaining the troops – and gained the red fez which would remain his trademark and a part of his act, during this period.

On demobilisation, he decided to turn professional and it was while at an audition that his style was set.

Back then he was a fledgling magician who was so nervous while performing a serious magic show, he kept fluffing the tricks. An agent thought the mistakes were hilarious so Cooper – knowing a good thing when he saw one – decided to keep the errors as part of his act.

Despite his on-stage reputation, he was actually something of a genius in the hocus pocus department. He became a top member of the Inner Magic Circle and picked up more than a few of its highest awards.

Spike Milligan saw Cooper as “that very rare thing – a droll. First of all they must look funny. But he was more than funny, he was miraculous.”

On April 15, 1984, Cooper collapsed on stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Many thought it was part of the act, but he was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

The funnyman made his TV debut on the 1948 BBC talent show New To You, but was largely associated with ITV after that, so it will be interesting to find what has been dredged from the archives for this showcase of his unusual talents.

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