They say the old ones are the best, but in the case of Tommy Cooper the jokes are so old I’d almost forgotten someone once had to write them. But as David Threlfall expertly played through one of Tommy’s routines, I realised that many of his jokes were known to me as internet e-cards, the preserve of Facebook and Pinterest. Perhaps a biopic of the comedian is well timed, if only to remind people where the genius came from.
Certainly there didn’t seem to be any malice in his humour, a mix of dodgy magic tricks, daft props and quick one liners. The problem came from Tommy offstage, cutting, selfish and never not performing. I swiftly got the impression that living with Tommy must have been exhausting, the man can barely reach the end of a sentence without a quip. The joke wore thin.
And so too did the other characters patience. Loving wife Dove, played with gusto by Amanda Redman, doesn’t take too kindly to finding out her husband is having an affair. Amanda was half the reason I tuned in, the other half being Helen McRory as Tommy’s lover Mary and the third half being the gorgeous period detail. Yes, I did nick the halves joke from Tommy.
It is astonishing that Tommy managed to keep his assistant Mary a secret from Dove, and the fact that Mary was also his lover a secret from Dove and crucially, the British press. Given that much of this drama is set in the 1970s, recent controversies concerning entertainers at that time and how they got away with criminal activities for so long start to make a bit more sense. Thankfully, this isn’t a topic the drama needed to cover, but we’ve got plenty else to keep us occupied.
I was rather taken with the idea that all the comedians of the day all bought their tricks from the same shop. With Jason Manford playing the proprietor and Gregor Fisher taking on the role of Miff, Cooper’s lawyer, modern comedy was well represented. We also had a fabulous portrayal of Eric Morecambe from Bob Golding and Paul Ritter as Eric Sykes. No complaints there, but I can’t help feeling Les Dennis will be less than thrilled at being depicted as so clingy and inexperienced. But perhaps he was in 1984.
The biopic takes us from 1966 right up to Cooper’s death on stage in 1984. It’s a not terribly gradual decline from family man and everyone’s favourite comedian to boozy comic juggling health problems and loving two women. His death isn’t a shock to us viewers but the panic at the TV station where they are unwittingly broadcasting it live is well performed.
The main reason to marvel at this Easter treat was the stunning performance from David Threlfall. Watching him tackling Cooper’s routines it was easy to forget you weren’t watching the man himself in action. There have been many of these biopics over the years but it’d be hard to top Threlfall’s portrayal. He immerses in Cooper and is completely unrecognisable from recent roles in What Remains and Shameless. I’d be very surprised if he’s not at the very least nominated for a BAFTA when the time comes.
Simon Nye’s script didn’t shy away from the darker elements of Cooper’s personality but it was balanced nicely with his incessant need to perform. Overall, I found drama unfolded a little slowly but then I’m not a fan of Tommy Cooper so this might be why it didn’t always hold my interest. One thing I did struggle with was why Mary became so enraptured by him, but then what to me were tired old lines were fresh comedy to her.
For anyone remotely interested in Cooper’s legend or in this drama’s three stars this was a real Easter treat. But I fear younger viewers might miss the point slightly. At least I shall be kept well supplied in ‘dad jokes’ for the next few weeks. Sadly, given my own Dad’s penchant for stealing other people’s jokes, Not Like This, Like That is likely to be repeated to me by a far less talented performer than David Threlfall.
Contributed by Vicky Priror