Damian Williams, the popular Lyceum pantomime dame, jumped at the chance to play one of his comedy heroes on stage, warts and all.
He is the star of Being Tommy Cooper, a play which comes to Chesterfield this weekend, where he is also a regular on stage.
Damian said: “It’s set in Las Vegas in 1954 when Tommy faces the prospect of his first big failure. It looks at the strained relationship between him and his manager. There’s a guy trying to sell him gags, who’s a sort of has-been comic, and he’s with his mistress Mary Kay. They were having an affair for about 17 years.”
But there is a dark side with his drink problem and his temper and everything else. You get a bit of everything.”
Damian said the biggest challenge was playing a real person when he didn’t know what he was like when he was offstage. “He’s always ‘on’ when you see him on TV chat shows or interviews.
“I was trying to decide what he would be like. I’ve been getting stories from people. A lot of comedians have phoned up and told me their stories. I put all that information together and it seemed to work.”
Damian added: “He’s one of my comedy heroes. I’ve got a massive oil painting of him in my dining room, which I had before I got this part. I grew up watching him, Les Dawson and Morecambe and Wise.
“He influenced me a lot. I wanted to become a comedy actor and I picked up a lot of his style and mannerisms.
“A lot of people say ‘You remind me of Tommy Cooper’. Even my pantomime dame is a cross between Tommy Cooper and Les Dawson. I like to be compared to them!”
Damian says he does a lot of theatre, mainly comedies, aside from his famous dame role. “This is what I really enjoy. You get the comedy and the tragedy and there’s a bit of shock value in there as well. That’s why people enjoy it. I’ve not had any negative comments. People who knew or worked with him said it’s a very good play and have been very complimentary about me. I was worried about the dark side.
“I didn’t want people to not like him but it doesn’t seem to go that way. People still like him at the end even though they know more about him.”
Damian said that the pressure on Tommy Cooper must have been enormous, because he was seen as the comedian’s comedian.
He added: “If I knew I had to be funny every time I turn up it’d drive me to drink, you’d see me at the back of the Crucible with a bottle of cider. They’d probably have to get Bobby Knutt back or something!”
He is a huge favourite with audiences at the Lyceum, where he has played the panto dame several times, and is back this year in Jack and the Beanstalk. He’s already in talks about 2014.
Damian has had to master some magic tricks. He said: “To do it badly you’ve got to know what to do in the first place, just as Les Dawson had to be a good pianist to play badly. I had to learn some magic, which was fun. I have to do a few of the tricks, like ‘glass, bottle, bottle, glass’ and the egg in the bag, the linking rings and the toy duck that chooses the cards when it’s blindfolded so it can’t see.
“It’s a great play, one of those plays where you get everything in. You’re laughing one minute but you get the shock value the next. And it’s about one of our great British icons. What more do you want? I don’t put a dress on for this but if it’ll get people to the theatre, I’ll put one on in the interval!”
Being Tommy Cooper is at the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield this Sunday May 12. Box office: 01246 345 222. www.pomegranatetheatre.co.uk