Tommy Cooper’s Christmas – 25th December 1973

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Tommy Cooper’s ability to keep the audience in hysterics whilst apparently doing very little is firmly in evidence at the start of this Christmas Special.  Maybe it’s simply because the audience can see tables laden with magic props and therefore know that almost anything could happen ….

The first fifteen minutes is typical freewheeling Cooper – a captive audience, a wide selection of props and an almost endless supply of gags (“my wife’s just had a facelift. But it’s not high enough, I can still see her”).  How scripted this part of the show was is open to debate – there’s certainly a few sharp edits which suggests that some flab was excised (the fact that Cooper dashes from one trick to the other, apparently at random, may not entirely be an act then).  There are a few successes (a vanishing watch for example) but the standard of illusions here never rises above trick shop fare – although he does have a nice line in dexterity.  But then nobody watches Tommy Cooper for skilful magic.

In order to pad things out to an hour, Cooper later takes part in various sketches.  These are often not quite as entertaining as his magical efforts, but two of the longer efforts – playing snooker with Allan Cuthbertson and cooking with a puppet duck – stand out.

Cuthbertson was a Cooper regular during this time.  He’s the perfect straight man – able (almost always) to keep his composure whilst Cooper causes anarchy.  The premise of the sketch (Cooper is a golfer, not a snooker player, and so attempts to clamber on the table to take his shot, etc) may be thin but the pair of them make it work.  One of the best moments is an unscripted one after Cuthbertson has a temporary dry and garbles the order of the colours.  His slight loss of composure is palpable, although after sharing a wry grin with Cooper he pulls himself together (it’s noticeable that Cooper didn’t attempt to make capital from Cutherberton’s stumble – easy to imagine some other comics wouldn’t have been so forgiving).  The arrival of snooker legend Joe Davis (attired, like Cooper, for the golf course) proves to be a nice moment to close the sketch on.

Clodagh Rodgers and Sacha Distel provide the music.  Both have their own solo spots before joining forces for a duet.  Rogers essays a Christmas medley whilst standing in front of a series of silvery Christmas trees (maybe there was a lack of baubles that year – the trees look very underdressed).  Distel plumps for the non-Christmassy Playground in My Mind.  He doesn’t have to contend with denuded Christmas trees – instead he’s surrounded by slightly menacing masks.

Although Tommy Cooper tended to work better in the half hour format (The Tommy Cooper Hour, although boasting some impressive guests – including Abba – across its run, did sometimes feel a bit padded out) this is a decent special.  Unusual to see Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke on scripting duties, as they were much better known for sitcoms than sketches.

Bob Monkhouse – Behind the Laughter

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I’ve recently, after a long break, uploaded some archive bits and bobs to my YouTube channel, including this two part documentary from 2003.

Sadly part one cuts out early (presumably there was a late schedule change and the timer let me down) whilst uploading part two is proving to be rather problematic, since BBC Worldwide appear to have a block on even short clips of Tony Hancock’s BBC shows.  Quite why they should be so protective of him is a bit of a mystery.  I’ll have another go at uploading part two – I’ll probably just cut the whole Hancock section out to be on the safe side.

Although it wasn’t known at the time, Monkhouse was reaching the end of his life and this might explain the downbeat tone of the piece.  Heroes of Comedy this certainly isn’t ….

But whilst Monkhouse does dwell on the self destructive nature of some of Britain’s comedy greats, he also acknowledges their undoubted skills  – even if, as with Frankie Howerd, he also admits that he never understood his appeal.

Part one tackles Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Ken Dodd.  There are no major revelations, since the frailties of Cooper, Hill and Howerd were already well known (had the recording not cut out I’d assume that the only living subject – Dodd – would have received an easier ride).  The most absorbing sections occur when Monkhouse relates his own personal experiences with his subjects.  Frankie Howerd, painted as an unpleasant sexual predator, certainly comes off worse here.

In part two, Monkhouse turns his attention to Morecambe & Wise, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock.  The character flaws of Sellers and Hancock were also very familiar, although again the personal touch from Monkhouse is of interest (he claims that Tony Hancock and Morecambe & Wise were rather condescending towards him).

Monkhouse’s comedy partner, Denis Goodwin, who took his own life at an early age, is also discussed, which fits into the general tone that comedy can be bitterly self-destructive.

Not always an easy watch then, but Bob Monkhouse doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind and – unlike some talking heads who have passed judgement on these people in other documentaries – at least he knew and worked with them.