Interview: Jason Manford on Tommy Cooper

Jason Manford has done a little bit of acting in the past. He appeared in the C4 series Shameless and funnily he appears alongside Shameless star David Threlfall in Not Like That, Like This, ITV1's forthcoming drama about Tommy Cooper. Not that you would recognise Threlfall, who is totally convincing as the lumbering comedy magician. And you might take a moment to recognise Manford, who sports heavy spectacles, kipper tie, braces and cardigan as trick-devising magician Ken Brooke. Cooper visits Brooke when he is looking for new stage ideas. Manford/Brooke shows him the classic bottle/glass trick, quickly filling the table with Martini bottles, but Cooper hesitates when he hears that Brooke wants £35 for the trick. Cooper was famously tight and in the one-off film is shown avoiding buying a round of drinks for Eric Morecambe and Eric Sykes. Like Cooper, Manford is naturally funny, but short arms, long pockets is one quality he doesn't share – Manford recently made the news buying a round for his entire audience in Lincoln whihc came to over £3500. We spoke to Manford about his love of Cooper and his role in Not Like That, Like This.

 

BTJ: You’ve previously said you were a fan. What did you like most about Tommy Cooper?

JM: I guess it was the 'funny bones' thing. It's become a cliche that the audience are laughing before he spoke, but they actually were. He told terrible jokes and performed tricks terribly but he was a genius at both. He was just joyous to watch on stage. I know people focus on the fact you have to be very good magician to deliberately perform tricks wrong and he was also such a gifted comedian that he could get laughs out of some of those jokes. Don't get me wrong there were some absolute corkers but it was all down to performance, delivery and timing. Even now if I meet someone who says they don't like Tommy Cooper, I think there's something wrong with them!

BTJ: I spotted you in the trailer! it looks like a warts-and-all portrayal, how do you feel about that?

JM: Yeah, it's pretty much true to life as far as I can tell. His daughter and family read the script and I guess gave their blessing and (writer of the book Simon Nye's script is based on) John Fisher knew him well. There's some pretty brutal moments offstage and it shows a darker side to a national treasure. But I don't think you'd come out the other end and feel any less love for the performer. The director, producer and writer were all huge Cooper fans so it's done with love.

BTJ: Do you expect it to be controversial?

JM: I don't think so, but what do I know! There are some bits that are tough to watch when you love him so much but I suppose like any biopic, like Ray or Walk the Line, you don't love Ray Charles or Johnny Cash's music any less do you?

BTJ: How accurate is it, does it use a lot of dramatic license?

JM: I can't answer that as I wasn't there! It's accurate to the book. A better question is how good is David Threlfall? He was amazing. I worked with him on Shameless and he could not be further away from Frank Gallagher. He's an amazing actor and was fabulous on set and looks like and just is Tommy Cooper. It's like one British telly legend playing another British telly legend! It's so exciting.

BTJ: Do you think all great comedians (apart from Eric Morecambe, it seems) are flawed? Was Cooper's alcoholism in his DNA or did work pressures cause it?

JM: I don't know what was in his DNA but I do know that most performers are flawed in someway, they have a vice or something that balances them out and makes them more normal. Imagine if they were all just clowns all the time, if anything that would be stranger than them having a dark side to our character. I mean 'their' character!

BTJ: Is this your biggest TV acting role? How did you find it, did you do much research into Ken Brooke?

JM: Yeah it's pretty big for me acting wise. I mean I'm only in it for a few minutes (although I also do the voice of Jimmy Tarbuck in another scene). I researched Ken in quite a bit of detail really, I spoke to a lot of people who knew him and were disciples of him, had contact with his grandchildren and the Bradford Magic Circle. I had to learn the famous bottle-glass-glass-bottle trick. Taking a case of empty Martini bottles with me on tour – housekeeping must've thought I was an alcoholic!

Not Like That, Like This is on ITV1 on Easter Monday at 9pm. Read an extract about Tommy Cooper from Bruce Dessau's book, Beyond A Joke, here.

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