An exclusive dressing room chat with a comedy legend on his farewell tour
With Phil Cool
In 30 years of journalism, it’s been my great privilege to see some of the funniest men on the planet perform live.
I saw Norman Wisdom and Frankie Howerd at the peak of their powers. I watched Bob Hope bring the house down at the Royal Albert Hall. And I sat ringside at the dawn of Stephen Fry’s career with the Cambridge Footlights in 1982 when the thunderous applause propelled him from the Edinburgh Fringe into eternal stardom.
But none of these comic legends managed to get the needle on the laughometer to swing quite as far into the red zone of hilarity as Phil Cool. If his audience was an engine, it would be in danger of blowing a gasket.
Sitting in his dressing room, Phil, 64, is showing a few more wrinkles than when we saw him in his prime time TV pomp. But he’s still boyishly good looking, laid back and self-deprecating. And his extraordinary energy seemingly undiminished, despite major heart surgery two years ago.
He revealed why, after 37 years on the road, he is finally calling it a day with his latest UK tour - The Final Curtain Tour.
In his undisguised Chorley twang, he says: “I’m fed up with all the traffic on the roads. Even travelling as a passenger in a car drives me mad. It’s not that I’m not up to it. I was back up in front of an audience nine weeks after a quadruple by-pass.
“I’m fit and go to the gym two or three times a week and the heart is good.
“But it’s time to call it a day. I’ll be 65 this year so it will coincide with that landmark too.
“I’ve had a great time but I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of folk singing now. So I’ll continue to do that locally, near home.
“The problem is, comedy kills off anything else you might want to do. Once you are a comedian, no one will accept you as anything else.
“My 18-year-old son has just started a group and I’ve advised him to avoid comedy at all costs.
“Jasper Carrot was the same as me. He started off as a musician and adopted a funny routine and couldn’t go back.
“So I suppose I’m going back to my first love.
“But I’ll only do it locally, somewhere where I can go to after I’ve finished my tea!”
“Locally” for Phil is a farmhouse which he shares with second wife Bev in a picturesque village in Lancashire’s Trough of Bowland.
In the 1980s and early 90s, Phil was a prime time TV comic and performed at the London Palladium in front of Prince Charles and Diana.
Since then, he has been invisible on the small screen. The pressure of coming up with 30 minutes of new material week in week out meant he had to hire writers. Phil has always written his own material and felt his act was becoming diluted by writers who couldn’t quite get his style.
Frankie Howerd was lucky, He found Eric Sykes, who could write in the Howerd style, right down to every “Oh no, look here missus” and script in every comma, pause and supposed ad-lib.
Phil Cool was too mercurial, even for a craftsman like Sykes.
So for the past 20 years, he has been back touring the provinces, finely honing and distilling a two hour act of brilliance with several moments of undoubted comic genius.
He wouldn’t be the first comic to shrewdly eschew the few minutes of fame brought by the small or silver screen, which renders every piece of material instantly old hat. Max Miller was able to do the same slowly evolving routine to mass adulation in the theatres for 30 years. In fact, despite his legendary status, only a few minutes of him performing on screen exist. The same is true for other pre-war comics such as Frank Randle and Norman Evans.
This is the company in which Phil Cool belongs, with a dash of Rory Bremner, Jim Carrey and Lee Evans thrown in.
Phil’s routine is an avalanche of brilliantly observed impersonations in the style of the grotesque. His ability to contort his face into the shape of the person he is mimicking is startling, sometimes shocking. The funniest moment of the entire show, is an impersonation of Tony Blair, in which he says nothing at all while he transforms his face into several typical Blair expressions.
Among the dozens of impersonations, are Prince Charles, Eric Morecambe, Rolf Harris, President George W Bush, President Clinton, President Obama, Terry Wogan, Gordon Brown, John Major, David Attenborough and a ventriloquist’s dummy which has to be seen to believed. There is Jack Nicholson morphing into Bugs Bunny. And an extraordinary John Lennon in which he appears to somehow miraculously rearrange his front teeth.
Coupled with Phil’s mimicry and extraordinary “faceology”, as he calls it, is the biting satire in his own home grown material. He is never content to show you a clever impersonation without an equally clever accompanying gag, leaving you wondering in a flash which to laugh at first – a rare and priceless comic talent.
The art of “faceology” started in 1961, when Phil was a 12-year-old schoolboy.
Phil explains: “I was sitting next to a boy called Woods and I turned to him and pulled my Quasimodo face. He got the shock of his life and shot back in his seat.
“The teacher wanted to know what the fuss was about and, as my real surname is Martin, he screamed: ‘It’s Martin sir!’
“He called us both out to the front of the class and demanded to know what all the fuss was about. When his back was turned to me, I looked at the class and pulled my Quasimodo face at them and they all broke out into laughter. When the teacher turned round to look at me, I had returned to deadpan and couldn’t work out what was happening. There class were in fits of laughter.
“That was the first time I realised I could be funny and hold an audience.”
Phil employs no script writers, preferring to write all his own material himself. He says: “I walk around the house talking to myself, inventing material as I go along. It’s my own act and the only thing I consult is the mirror. I do a lot of mirror consultation.
“I do introduce new characters. The ventriloquist’s dummy routine is popular now. But it will reach a tipping point when it suddenly stops being funny. You do find that happens with comedy routines.
“And I can’t do David Cameron. My wife said he reminds her of Basil Brush. I said, ‘that’s no good, I can’t do him either!’”
The Final Curtain Tour, which finishes on June 15. And if you plan just one family night out at the theatre this year and want guaranteed belly-laughs by the dozen, this is surely it. I had about 50.
For details of the show’s venues and dates see:
Phil’s forthcoming book, Phil Cool, Stand-up Chameleon, will also be announced soon on the same website.
Neville Thurlbeck is the founder of TalentGB, an on-line directory of showreels of artistes of every genre