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Saturday 23 August 2014

The fateful day Tommy Cooper's widow opened her door and her heart to me

John McEntee recalls how he came to spend the afternoon consoling the magician's wife with gin and sympathy

John McEntee

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

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David Threlfall and Amanda Redman as Tommy and Dove Cooper
Tommy Cooper and his wife Gwen, wearing Cooper's trademark fez, in the garden of their home. Photo: Getty
Tommy Cooper and his wife Gwen, wearing Cooper's trademark fez, in the garden of their home. Photo: Getty
David Threlfall and Helen McCrory in the drama of the comic’s life

A BUNCH of flowers, four pints of London Pride and an Irish accent gained me access to Tommy Cooper's home the day after he died, spectacularly, on the stage of Her Majesty's Theatre in the middle of his act in April 1984.

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ITV will mark the 30th anniversary of Tommy's death tomorrow night by screening Not Like That, Like This, a two-hour film starring David Threlfall as Tommy, Helen McCrory as his mistress Mary and Amanda Redman as his long-suffering wife, Gwen.

I will be marking the anniversary by remembering my afternoon consoling Gwen, known universally as Dove.

I shouldn't have been admitted to the house. Tommy had died the night before and his trunk with all his magic props was still in the hall.

Reporters and photographers had besieged the house in Chiswick all morning. During one of the Irish Press regular strike actions, I was making a crust doing shifts on the Sun. Freelances got all the toxic jobs. The news editor dispatched me to Chiswick to talk to the distraught Mrs Cooper.

She had been sitting at home watching her husband on TV. His mistress Mary, who was also his stage manager, was standing in the wings.

Jimmy Tarbuck was hiding under Tommy's huge red cloak, passing him the props in one of Cooper's best-known acts. Tommy was to have hauled out a succession of unlikely objects – a bucket, a mannequin's leg, a large wooden stepladder – before Jimmy himself emerged to protest he couldn't pass anything more through.

When Tommy collapsed clutching his chest, the audience laughed and cheered until the curtain came down and they realised that this time it was not another stunt deliberately gone wrong.

Since it was being televised live, Jimmy Tarbuck had to continue as compere. And because, for legal and medical reasons, no one was allowed to move the body, the show carried on in front of the curtain with Cooper's size-13 boots protruding from beneath.

This was headline news. I watched from behind a tree in Barrowgate Road as other reporters were rebuffed by the Filipino maid at the doorstep of the six-bedroom mock-Tudor semi-detached house.

I decided to take a wander up Chiswick High Street, have a beer and return later. When I did, laden with flowers and full of the bonhomie induced by four foaming pints of London Pride ale, the coast was clear. I rang the doorbell and took a deep breath.

The maid appeared repeating mantra-like that Mrs Cooper was not seeing anyone. As she spoke, I could see across her left shoulder the top of the grey hair of Mrs Cooper's head, her red-rimmed eyes blinking behind enormous spectacles.

"What lovely flowers!" she exclaimed, elbowing her way alongside the maid. I asked if she would accept the flowers as a token of sympathy from readers of the Sun.

"Are you Irish?" she asked. I answered in the affirmative and was immediately invited into the open-plan front hall.

Poignantly at the foot of the stairs was a large trunk bound with leather straps. It contained Tommy's props from the night before which had been delivered earlier by a factotum from London Weekend Television. He hadn't stayed to field the bewildered Mrs Cooper's callers or prevent an opportunistic Irish journalist from gaining entry to the house of mourning.

Atop the trunk was what appeared to be a half-consumed sliced pan. Dove pointed at it and explained: "It's Tommy's banana sandwiches. He always took a whole loaf of banana sandwiches when he was on stage."

She dissolved in floods of tears. It was at about that time I realised that Tommy's widow was more than well lubricated with infusions of Gordon's gin and Schweppe's tonic.

Dove asked me to pour her a large gin and tonic and insisted I have one myself. As I commandeered the gin – the maid had vanished – the

telephone rang in the adjoining dining room.

"Would you answer that, love?" she asked. I lifted the receiver. It was fellow comic Eric Morecambe calling to pay his respects. Mrs Cooper shook her head in the negative to indicate she didn't want to take the call. "I'm sorry Mrs Cooper is indisposed," I said in a gravelly voice. In the next few hours, I fielded calls from Michael Parkinson, Eric Sykes, Ronnie Barker, Barry Cryer and a profusion of the late Tommy's other acquaintances

His widow then asked if I would sit with her and watch the video of his last show from the previous evening. We sat on a sofa together and turned on the TV and video. Dove wept profusely throughout and nudged me with her glass which I refilled repeatedly. When Tommy came on, she howled and, babbling incoherently, pointed at the uneaten sandwiches atop his trunk in the nearby hall. "He never even finished his banana sandwiches," she wailed.

When Tommy, wearing an Egyptian full-length smock, collapsed on stage (the audience obviously thought it was part of his act), she asked me to freeze the frame. At her insistence, we watched it again and again. She became even more upset. Finally she had enough and we switched off the TV.

I was mercifully distracted by the telephone. Then she asked if I could take the trunk to the first floor. I removed the sandwiches and half pushed and hauled the trunk up the stairs. All of the bedrooms, apart from Tommy and Dove's master bedroom, were full to the rafter with props for Tommy's magic tricks. There was the famous full-sized guillotine (which, inebriated, he demonstrated on the Parkinson show, almost decapitating the chat show host), plastic ducks, bows and arrows, guns and furry toys. I found a space in a spare bedroom and pushed the trunk in behind the door.

Later all this paraphernalia would be sold at auction. Abe Edmonson paid a staggering £7,000 for what transpired to be mostly junk, bits of glass and plastic diminished by the absence of the bumbling genius magician who had lovingly assembled the collection of novelties and tricks.

Craig Brown recently disclosed that he had paid £110 for a number of suitcases containing Tommy's plastic flowers, admitting that they have given him much pleasure.

All this was in the future. As was the disclosure that Tommy had a long-time mistress in his personal assistant, Mary Kay. Dove knew all about her and accepted that Tommy loved two women, one on the road and one at home in Chiswick.

She was also stoic about the fact that in his drink-befuddled state, he would occasionally thump her. On this day, it was clear she adored him and was devastated by his death.

She insisted on showing me the self-contained flat they'd had built at the back of the house for their son Tommy junior (he died of liver failure in 1988).

I opened an overhead wall unit in the kitchen and an avalanche of Tommy's trademark fezs of various sizes cascaded out .They dropped on to the floor. It was surreal. This fez tsunami triggered more grief-stricken caterwauling from Dove. I had now been with Mrs Cooper for more than three hours.

Then Tommy's daughter Vicky, an alarming doppelganger of her dad, arrived and eyed me suspiciously.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. I had no answer.

At that stage, Dove and I were sitting at the scarred and pock-marred mahogany dining room table where Tommy painstakingly practised all his tricks (including the multitudinous Martini bottle). "He got the tricks to perfection and then deliberately messed them up," explained Dove.

Vicky glared at me. It was time to go. When I returned to the Sun's newsroom in Bouverie Street, Tom Petrie asked me how I'd got on. "She wouldn't talk to me," I lied. I just hadn't the heart to write it all up for the delectation of Sun readers. It was my last shift on the Sun.

Sunday Independent

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