The Show Must Go On - Well, Until the Point It Can't

Ernest Kearney


“The show must go on,” is a old entertainer’s saw, which it may surprise many has been religiously abided by over the years, to the extent of some actors and performers going on stage immediately after learning some tragic family news or when forced to conceal some grievous injury simply to reach the closing act. However, when those who live for an audience end up dying before one, this grand tradition is rendered “null and void.”

One such case was that of the Wales born Tommy Cooper, who was not only Britain’s most beloved comic during his lifetime, but according to nearly every polling of the United Kingdom’s public conducted during the three decades since his death, remains so.

Cooper’s career started at age eight when his father bought him a magic set igniting a lifelong infatuation with the conjuror’s arts. Sadly, however, the young Tommy proved not a very adept magician, but he did discover that he could still win audiences over with jokes. Years later a critic with the Magic Circle magazine reviewing Cooper’s act wrote, “The skill with which Tommy ruined his act was amazing.”

At the outbreak of World War II Cooper enlisted. Wounded, he was re-assigned to Cairo and performed for soldiers on leave. Going towards the stage for one performance Cooper on a whim grabbed a fez off the head of one of the Egyptian waiters and wore it through his act. The sight was ridiculous enough to earn a few extra laughs from his audience, and from then on the Fez was Cooper’s trademark. After the war, Cooper returned to Britain hoping to work as an entertainer, but at 6’4” and with a visage more suitable to Hammer horror films than nightclubs, that seemed unlikely.

Cooper returned to that “awful magician” routine of his youth, spicing the act up with bizarre props and one liners that reflected his unique and rather twisted comic sensibility:

“I went to the doctor’s the other day. I said, ‘Doctor, I think I’m a dog.’ He said, ‘Take a seat.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I’m not allowed on the furniture’”

“I cleaned out the attic with the wife the other day. Damp, filthy, full of cobwebs, but she’s good with the kids.”

“Electricity is a wonderful thing. Do you realize that of we didn’t have electricity we’d be watching television by candle light?”

“Two cannibals were eating a clown. One said to the other: ‘Does he taste funny to you?’”

And as each conjuring trick he attempted went absurdly wrong, he’d turn to the audience and triumphantly crow, “Just like that!”

Cooper found an audience who after suffering the horrors of World War II could appreciate ludicrousness of a magician who was too dim to recognize there was nothing “magical” in his act.

By the 1950s Cooper was the most popular face on British TV and earning as much as ₤10,000 a week.

On April 15, 1984, Cooper was appearing on the live TV variety show Live From Her Majesty’s. Half way through his act, the “pretty magician's assistant” came on stage and the comic fell over backwards.

The audience laughed thinking it was part of the act.

The pretty assistant thought Cooper was improvising.

They were both wrong. Cooper had had a massive heart attack. Realizing something was amiss, the program went into a break and Cooper was rushed to the hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. When the program returned to the air Cooper was just gone and in his place was a dance number featuring Donny Osmond.

“Just like that.”