Stevie Starr, Finchley. © David Secombe 1990.
Stevie Starr swallows things; then he brings them back up again. He is a professional regurgitator.
In the picture above he is bringing up a fountain of sucrose powder – which , bizarrely, is coming up dry – one of a number of different items and substances which disappeared and then reappeared before our eyes: a lightbulb, a billiard ball, coins … Another routine involved swallowing soapy water, smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke-filled bubbles. He refrained from performing his famous goldfish routine, a trick which had got him into some trouble with the RSPCA. Stevie pointed out to the animal welfare inspector who came to see his show that he drank six pints of water before he swallowed the fish, that he had never had one die on him and that, as their memory span was only eight seconds, by the time they were in his stomach they couldn’t remember how they got there.
Stevie’s story of how he came to acquire such a skill was touching, if perhaps calculated; he said that he was bullied at school and had to swallow his pocket money to stop it from being stolen; he then discovered that he could bring the change back at will.
I heard nothing of Stevie for many years – until last year, when he appeared as a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent. Stevie’s talent is specialist but genuine: in an earlier era, he might have become as well-known as the celebrating farting turn Le Petomane, but Stevie’s skill is perhaps too unnerving for contemporary taste. Seeing his routine close-up was a hugely memorable yet faintly worrying experience: I thought he was going to choke to death on that billiard ball.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.
Tommy Cooper, Thames Television Studios, 1967. Photo © John Claridge.
On Tommy Cooper by Garry Lyons:
It’s all for you, isn’t it, Tommy? All the time – even offstage – you’re thinking: how can I get noticed? How can I get a gag out of this? You’d piss in the gutter to make a drain laugh, wouldn’t you? You’d shoot your granny for half a titter.
You leave that gutter out of this.
These lines are a characteristic interchange from the two eponymous comics in my play Frankie and Tommy. Frankie is my dad aged 23, as I re-imagined him. His oppo is none other than Tommy Cooper. The play tells the story of their brief and ill-fated double-act, entertaining the troops in Cairo in 1946.
It was commissioned by John Godber for the 21st anniversary of Hull Truck Theatre Company, and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. It caused a bit of a stir. I didn’t see my play as an exposé of a celebrity so much as a bitter-sweet Everyman tale about lost opportunities and faded dreams. For me, the story was a universal one about the shadow cast over youthful illusions by a brief, fleeting brush with true genius. It was about lost opportunity, and coming to terms with one’s failures and mediocrity.
The play is like a variety show Amadeus, with my dad as Salieri and Cooper as Mozart. It’s as much a professional tribute to Cooper’s stage brilliance as it is an unveiling of Cooper the man. It was an attempt to show the fez-wearing buffoon in all his perfectionist complexity, an artist in whom emotional inadequacy was the spur that drove his hyper-nervous and shambolically skilful act – an act full of fumbled magic tricks and painful wordplay acting as armour-plated defence mechanisms from too much inquiry into the inner self.
The invented dialogue of Frankie and Tommy – which owes a lot to Morecambe and Wise, Barker and Corbett and similar duos – is full of puns and evasions in which Cooper constantly undercuts a serious point with a wisecrack or non sequitur. It’s the technique of the inveterate joker who can’t bear to face reality, yet in dodging it not only makes us laugh but often presents us with an even more profound truth.
Perhaps, in the end, that is the enduring force of Cooper’s humour. He wasn’t, as some have claimed, the first ‘alternative comedian’. There was nothing politically anti-establishment about his mainstream, commercial television style. But it was certainly subversive in the way it used ineptitude as comic strategy, satirising the empty slickness of much light entertainment and reminding us that at heart we’re all fools within.
… for The London Column. © Garry Lyons 2011.