JOHN HEWER INTERVIEW
A huge fan of Tommy Cooper, John Hewer decided that it was high-time the comic genius deserved a tribute show to do his life’s “work” justice. Here, in an exclusive interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, John chats about what it’s like to be following in Tommy’s footsteps with “Just Like That!”…
Hi John, how are things, and how has 2016 treated you?
I’m a very, very lucky person. 2016 has treated me well. Hard work pays off, folks! The year has seen my West End debut as a scriptwriter, and my debut as a published writer. It has also seen me taking the everlasting fun and frolics of Tommy to old and new audiences across the UK.
Yes, you’re currently on tour with a show inspired by the late Tommy Cooper. Is it a “tribute” show in the strictest sense?
It’s certainly best described as a true compendium of everything that made him so unique. Tommy was a very clever man: he saw a specific gap in the entertainment world and filled it after years of “training” whilst abroad during his army days, as well as working the club and cabaret circuits. He was actually a very accomplished magician. Akin to his contemporary Les Dawson, who had an act of playing the piano “badly,” he had to know exactly how the magic tricks worked to perform them “wrong.” One of the joys of watching Tommy boils down to you wondering, “Will this trick actually work?” That aspect of his act certainly helped make his brand of comedy timeless. It’s also inoffensive. You can watch Tommy Cooper with your youngest child, or your eldest relative, and there will always be tons of things that they’ll love. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries who were “on the scene” during the sixties, seventies and eighties, Tommy constantly returned to his touring roots. He was undoubtedly at his happiest when working with a live audience, which provided a certain quality and vibrancy that just can’t be captured through a camera lens. The fact that he continued working the smaller clubs right until his death speaks volumes. He loved it, and that is the essence of my show, because I’m trying to recapture the sheer magic of witnessing Tommy Cooper live on stage.
Have you always been a fan of Tommy?
Absolutely! I feel we inherit our “comic gene” from our dads, so it was only natural for me to fall in love with what is now called “Classic British Comedy.” Morecambe & Wise, Ken Dodd, the “Carry On” films, Peter Sellers… the list is pretty much endless from that golden era. Tommy Cooper fits in very well amongst those names. He carries an added nostalgic touch, too. He’s become a family favourite for many – especially at Christmas time. The fact that he died more than thirty years ago and is still so fondly remembered is fantastic.
At what point did you decide to formulate a “tribute” show?
It was after our success with “Hancock’s Half Hour: The Lost Episodes” (2012) that we wanted to commemorate other comedy giants. 2014 marked the thirtieth anniversary of Tommy’s very tragic, very memorable passing. There’s been a huge amount of “trashing” our comedy heroes in recent decades. Ultimately, we need to remember why they remain so popular in all our hearts. I’d recently read a fantastic and insightful biography (by John Fisher), and that inspired me to venture beyond “the famous routines” in order to seek out the sheer wealth of material he has left.
Did you need to get any permission from any of Tommy’s family in order to tour the show?
It was imperative that I did. On both a personal and a professional level, I wanted this to be the “No. 1” accredited Tommy Cooper celebration. I contacted the estate, along with Tommy’s daughter, Vicky, to seek their blessing and approval. I didn’t start a single hour of research until I knew they were happy for me to proceed. Vicky read the script through the developmental process and has written a very touching foreword for our brochures. We are honouring a very special person… not only an international star, but also her father.
You have been hard at work for the past few years, tirelessly touring the show. What has been the general reaction to it, and which venues have you enjoyed performing at the most?
The show has been on the road, on and off, for three years, and the responses have been amazing. The love for the man is stronger now than ever. People genuinely miss the jokes or routines that made them laugh. Different generations of families turn up, and they’re all laughing along at the same joke. That’s a very special quality. The show is very flexible, as it works just as well in an intimate cabaret room above a pub as it does at some of the larger regional theatres. I don’t mind about the size of the auditorium or the audience, but I do like to work closely with them. To see the faces of the first few rows makes a great connection: something Tommy always appreciated. Ken Dodd likened it to building a bridge between the comedian and the audience.
Of all of Tommy’s jokes and “tricks” that you perform, which are your favourites?
The sure-fire favourites are always a pleasure to do… stuff like “Spoon/ Jar,” the flower podium, and his famous “hats” routine. There’s a special element of fun performing the stuff that wasn’t captured on the television specials – authentic Tommy Cooper material that hasn’t been performed for decades. I won’t spoil them, but they’re exceptional to do.
So were you a performer prior to you developing “Just Like That!” and “Hancock’s Half Hour: The Lost Episodes”?
I was, with a penchant for comedy. I like to perform with broader strokes, so farces and madcap comedies are great fun. I was completely miscast as a love interest in a Shakespeare play once. It was good experience, though! I know my limitations, but recreating these popular personas like Hancock, Cooper, Frankie Howerd and Basil Fawlty is something I enjoy perfecting.
When you’re not on stage, you’re co-running “Hambledon Productions.” Furthermore, I hear you’re in the process of producing a play based on “Steptoe and Son”…
Yes! We’ve been speaking to the original writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who, after the success we had handling their Hancock scripts, have very kindly given us full access to their Steptoe archive. We’ll be touring Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire in Spring 2017 (we make a big deal of premiering all our work in our home county and the surrounding area), and – hopefully – that’ll be just the start for the production.
What else does 2017 hold in store for you? Also, what is the best way for people to find out more about you and your shows?
Well, “Just Like That!” is touring until July, and Steptoe is set for a March-to-June run. Come summer, I run a scriptwriting workshop (in Louth), and we’ll be marking 10 years of Hambledon Productions (crudely named “HambleTEN”) with some very special events and shows. All our previous shows, scripts, videos, photos and reviews are available on www.hambledonproductions.com and we’re easily found on Facebook and Twitter. 2017 will undoubtedly be our biggest year yet. Jus’-like-that!
Searching for travel-related inspiration? Why not pick up a copy of Steve’s first book, “Pulse,” here