(This was also published in the Huffington Post)
In my blog a couple of days ago, comedian Jeff Stevenson remembered the night of 15th April 1984 when comedian Tommy Cooper may have died on stage during the Live From Her Majesty’s TV show – which was screened live by London Weekend Television on the full ITV network.
When she read this, a friend of mine who worked for LWT at the time and whom I shall call Anne O’Nimus, told me:
“I was there in the theatre that night, standing at the back of the Circle.”
She told me: “Bearing in mind that Her Majesty’s is a small theatre, I had a good view but wasn’t close or behind the curtains. I never found Tommy Cooper amusing – I never ‘got’ his act – so I wasn’t laughing and, perhaps because of that, as soon as I saw him collapse, I thought he was ill.
“I remember him falling back, clutching at the curtains and falling through them until I could just see his legs twitching and the audience continued to laugh not knowing that he was dying as his legs twitched through the curtain. I think he was either dragged fully back through the curtains or the curtains were arranged in front of him. I mainly remember the twitching legs and realising immediately that the man was ill whilst people around me were laughing and thinking it was part of the act.”
Someone else I know – comedy scriptwriter Nigel Crowle – tells me:
“I was working for the Presentation Department at BBC Television Centre that night, actually running transmission in Pres B, so – as you can imagine – all TV screens were tuned to either BBC 1 or BBC 2. I remember being frustrated that everybody else seemed to have been watching the show live whereas I was cueing up a trail for something like The Two Ronnies.
“In the 1990s, however, I remember talking to Alasdair Macmillan about that night – he had been directing the show. Alasdair said it was one of the worst nights of his life. He knew instantly that something was wrong because Tommy had collapsed mid-act, so they cut to the commercial break early.”
In my blog a couple of days ago, Jeff Stevenson told me:
“The curtains closed and Jimmy Tarbuck, who was the compere, had to stand on stage in front of the curtains filling-in to the audience. He told me later that, as he was talking, he could hear them hitting Tommy’s chest behind the curtain, trying to revive him – and Tommy was one of Jimmy’s heroes. Terrible, terrible.”
Nigel Crowle says: “Then – and this is where in retrospect they should never have returned to the show during live transmission – they made Les Dennis go on with Dustin Gee and do their Mavis and Vera (characters from Coronation Street) routine in front of the curtain, whilst attempts were made behind them to revive Tommy.
“Les Dennis later told me that, as Jimmy Tarbuck told Jeff, it was a harrowing experience because, as he and Dustin were trying to get laughs, (having been told to go on-stage despite knowing that Tommy was in real trouble), they could hear a groaning noise and the sound of people thumping Tommy’s chest a few feet behind them.”
My friend Anne O’Nimus thinks Tommy Cooper died on the stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre that night. She tells me:
“Afterwards, the press kept chasing the story that he died on camera and LWT stuck to their story that he died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.
“Oddly, I read notices of a book recently, purportedly from LWT crew on duty that night, who were also sticking to the company line that Tommy Cooper died later in the ambulance. I think his son stuck to that line as well, so maybe I am wrong.
“But, if so, David Bell (LWT’s Head of Entertainment at the time) and his cohorts were behaving mighty oddly. Everyone clammed-up whenever I asked about it, which was unusual enough. I never knew whether it was because they were afraid that it would put the kibosh on live productions or whether the company might be found to be negligent in some way – which was unlikely, given it was a heart attack. There was no public discussion about it in my presence, even at editorials.
“I felt that they were lying,” my friend Anne O’Nimus told me yesterday, “and I was horrified that anyone would lie about someone’s death – but, then, they said LWT’s Director of Programmes Cyril Bennett fell from that window didn’t they?”
Cyril Bennett was a hugely popular man at LWT and in the television industry. In November 1976, it was said, he was leaning out of the window of his flat in Dolphin Square to see whether his car was there and fell to his death. The verdict was accidental death.