Summer 2007

Impossible Return

Watching Tommy Cooper die, again

Adrian Heathfield

The invitation came from nowhere, or so it seemed. You know how it is when you write things: you send out letters into the void. I have little idea, for instance, who you are, whether these thoughts will touch you, how you might deal with these words, what you may give in return. Writing is all blind aspiration: the words stumble into the darkness of an unknown social body. To write is to negotiate an intimate but anonymous relation, to sound something out for strangers’ ears.

The author of the invitation had read an old essay of mine, a critical meditation on performance, laughter, and magic. In the essay I had found myself returning to a childhood passion: the hysterical routines of Tommy Cooper, the great British variety performer and comic-magician. Cooper was famous for his artfully crafted disastrous magic acts: exquisitely shoddy rambles through apparently impromptu sets of doomed illusions. His act turned on physical paradox. A dexterous hulk of a man, he often appeared in sharp formal attire supplemented by unwieldy hair sprouting out from under a fez. He would systematically mistime his tricks (and jokes), drifting through his prop-laden routines with shaky gestures and an air of purposelessness. By this bad magic, Cooper reveled in an array of human falls, his performances of the failure of illusion always depending on its stage machinery and skills. At the center of his metaphysical tremulousness was his laugh. Cooper laughed at and with himself quite freely throughout his routines, as if he had finally managed the impossible: the self-tickle. His corpsing (as it is known in the trade) frequently occasioned involuntary outbursts of laughter from the audience, making audible what was already apparent, that his act was founded on the contagious powers of the negative. The joys of Tommy Cooper were always shot through with a certain sense of futility. Cooper’s legend was crystallized through his death on stage at the denouement of one such anti-magic act: an event that was broadcast live on British TV from Her Majesty’s Theatre on 15 April 1984. Immunized by Cooper’s lifelong plays of frailty and mortal inadequacy, the audience that night collectively misrecognized his dying gasps and literally had the last laugh. Researching Cooper, I had found the accounts of his death contradictory in detail and a video record proved hard to attain. The moment was missing. I had little choice but to acknowledge this deficit in writing and passively echo the speculation and metaphors surrounding his passing.

You know how it is when you leave things undone: they soon come back to haunt you. “I am a magician and I have just read your essay on Cooper,” the invitation said. “I have the video. I wonder if you would like to see it?” And so I found myself drawn, but full of ambivalence, sitting on a stranger’s sofa drinking tea, waiting to watch Tommy Cooper die. I must confess to my trepidation in even writing this, dicing with the ethical traps of voyeurism, but it seems to me that the same impulse that took me into that room is driving these very words as they find their way onto the page. I think it is the desire for Magic.

We sit in an uncomfortable silence as the tape is played. Then Cooper’s intro music starts up and I am gripped by another welling, the awful gut-wrenching feeling of constraint, of being held in this irreversible passage towards death. “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Cooper begins. He has entered with an absurd visual gag, a gigantic prop packet of Tunes—a popular decongestive sweet—strapped to his head. “I do,” he says. “Sometimes I think I’m Beethoven come back.” Beat. “I do really.” Beat. “Because I’ve had tunes through my head all day.” By now I am longing to stop time and the videotape, it is all too uncanny, but Cooper is fake-hearing heckles from the wings, “What? What do you mean, ‘come off?’” he says, “I’ve just come on.” And so an elegant routine of botched tricks and gags on corporeal malfunction gets played out at the all-too-real border between appearance and disappearance. There is a magic table whose legs fall out from under itself, some inter-looped metallic rings that fail to mysteriously separate, an evidently pathetic dice trick based on simple math, a rubber dove illusion that surprisingly explodes. The whole punctuated throughout with Cooper’s trademark aimlessness, inclusions of the audience, fake swoons and laughs at laughter itself. “Do you know, my memory’s going … my memory is getting very bad.” Beat. “I was shaving this morning, and I cut myself, and I forgot to bleed.” Sudden melodramatic tears at a failed trick: “I thought it would go better than that.” Beat. “I thought it was funny.” Beat. “And that was my encore.” Each action, each hoped-for transformation and cancellation, each play on mortality given awful weight by an imminent death.

When the heart attack comes, he has donned a long Egyptian robe out of which he would have “materialized” an increasingly preposterous set of objects, evidently fed from backstage by an invisible if somewhat incompetent assistant. But as he stands in position, his legs fall out from under him and he crumples to the floor, though his face is still seen, propped up by the heavy theatrical drapes. The audience laughs. And now he takes deep rasping breaths. Still laughter. The helping hand of his assistant comically appears from behind the drapes, then changes its mind and withdraws. More laughs. A few last rattling breaths. If Cooper could have choreographed his own death, he couldn’t have done it better. And now this earthbound giant magician with feet of lead seems to be playing one last hopeless trick. His grand protruding feet slowly start to float off the ground; an involuntary levitation act, supported by theatrical curtains and gifted by an exploding heart. Sudden intrusion of music signaling the End of the Act. Only this tune, this tune will not help his lost breathing. The TV cuts to a commercial break and on the sofa I cut back to life. Seeing Tommy die, one feels the still beating pulse of magic. To be with death and to survive it: an impossible return. Cooper spent his life, and it would seem his last breath, reminding us that the alluring flights of magic—to become a being of exceptional life, to transcend the constraints of the material world—are nowhere to be found. In the space of this negation he proposed a further enchantment: the joy discovered in the broken passage of all things.

The stranger was insistent that the video could not be copied, but he did allow me a single snapshot: a little fragment of an ecstatic departure. Something always returns. “Will you write about this?” he asked.

Adrian Heathfield is a writer and curator working with performance. Professor of performance and visual culture at Roehampton University, London, he is the editor of Live: Art and Performance (Tate Publishing, 2004). For more information, visit

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