Q&A with Simon Sladen

Eleanor Mills, 06.09.2016
The V&A’s plans for the Tommy Cooper Collection
Comprising over 116 boxes of archive material and 24 props and posters, the Tommy Cooper Collection that London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has recently acquired charts the career of the famous magician and comedian known for his trademark fez and endearingly flustered jokes.

Museums Journal caught up with Simon Sladen, the senior curator of modern and contemporary performance at the V&A, and asked him about the importance of the collection, and what the museum’s plans for it are.

Has the acquisition of the Tommy Cooper Collection been a long time coming?

The V&A has been actively collecting material that tells the story of British comedy since 2010. When the Department of Theatre and Performance was approached about potentially acquiring the Tommy Cooper Collection, we were naturally very excited.

Tommy Cooper is a key figure in the history of British Comedy and entertained audiences for almost four decades. In total, it has taken around 18 months to secure the collection for the nation, and now that we have it we hope to complete cataloguing it by the end of this year.

This addition builds on the V&A’s growing comedy collection, which includes material from Ronnie Barker, Tony Hancock and Morecambe and Wise. Is there going to be a British comedy retrospective at some point?

We are very fortunate to have a wide cross-section of British comedy performers represented in our collections. The Theatre and Performance Galleries in the V&A display a pair of suits famously worn by Morecambe and Wise, Ronnie Barker’s BAFTA, Dame Edna Everage’s Sydney Opera House hat, and flap shoes worn by Lupino Lane.

The Tommy Cooper Collection gives us the opportunity to explore his practice and process in great depth and I look forward to curating a new case for the permanent galleries that celebrates his remarkable career.

Tommy Cooper kept a gag file – was he unusual among comedians to have done this?

Tommy Cooper’s gag file is meticulously organised; it had to be. It was his resource and reference guide and his very own archive of jokes.

While only a small percentage of the vast amount of material could have ever been used, the classification system meant he could easily access gags, jokes and sketches on a particular topic.

Bob Monkhouse had a similar approach, but rather than use a filing cabinet system, he preferred to write them down in large hardback accounting books organised alphabetically by theme.

Interestingly, the collection suggests Cooper didn’t particularly like notebooks, preferring to write down jokes on scraps of cardboard, be they posters or shirt packaging, before typing them up or transferring them from volumes of Billy Glason’s Fun-Master Giant Encyclopedia of Classified Gags, which Cooper had purchased at the beginning of his career.

An idea or spark for a gag can come at any time, so noting it down in some way or form is vital. In today’s day and age, recording an audio file or saving a note on a mobile phone is easy and convenient, but many comedians still carry a small notebook or cards to jot down the moment inspiration strikes.

Tim Vine, for example, aims to write 10 jokes a day in the lead up to a new tour, so he, like Cooper and Monkhouse, has a large collection of jokes and his own bespoke system.

The V&A hasn’t acquired the famous fez that Cooper wore, but what’s the most special item of the objects that have arrived?

Aside from the gag file, one of the most fascinating items in the collection is a typed list of 20 jokes, gags and comedy tricks for use in Cooper’s first London Palladium performance.

Item number six reads: “All the greatest magicians are dead. Houdini is dead. Devant is dead. Horace Goldin is dead. I’m not feeling so well myself tonight.”

Knowing that Cooper died live on television during his act in 1984 gives the piece heightened resonance; Cooper ended up joining the list of men he admired and about whom he joked.

Famously, his heart attack was initially misread as part of the act, but when his co-stars realised what was happening, they dragged him behind the curtains and attempts were made to resuscitate him.

What’s next for the history of comedy?

Over the next few years there are a number of significant comedy anniversaries, including what would have been Tommy Cooper’s 70th anniversary since his first professional engagement in 1947.

2017 also marks 50 years since the end of The Frost Report, which brought so many key names in British comedy together including Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Marty Feldman, Barry Cryer and Denis Norden.

Then 2018 is Spike Milligan’s centenary and the 50th anniversary of Tony Hancock’s death.

And 2019 marks half a century since the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast.

We will continue to actively collect material in this area to ensure the work of great British comedy performers, comedians and writers can be enjoyed by future generations and to explore the important and interesting role comedy and humour plays in society.

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