Such is the reverence for their beloved performers of yesteryear, that on New Year’s Eve when we were in London, there were separate hour-long television specials celebrating two British comedy legends, one, a team, Morecambe and Wise, and the other, Tommy Cooper. My focus today is on Cooper.
Tommy Cooper was a beefy, good-natured, Man of the People-type, who appeared onstage wearing a tassled, red Shriner’s cap and a dark suit and tie. While engaging the audience with a mixture of scripted and seemingly improvised comedy patter, Cooper performed a series of hackneyed magic tricks, none of which ever worked.
Cooper was like your funny uncle, who shows up for family gathering in a condition reflecting a recent unwisely extended visit to the pub. Though his act was relentlessly corny, Cooper’s enthusiasm and good spirits would inevitably capture your heart. Slapstick silliness is not close to my favorite form of comedy but, living in England in the sixties, whenever Tommy Cooper appeared on the telly, I would never fail to watch.
In 1984, at the age of 63, and nearing the end of a successful career, Tommy Cooper, while performing live on television suffered a heart attack and died
On the air.
The audience, familiar with his shenanigans, believed that Cooper’s stumbling to the floor was simply a part of the act. The resulting experience was…
Laugh. Laugh. Dead. Laugh.
Cooper’s career and his life ended simultaneously.
One way to go.
In Canada, Helen Baillargeon hosted a daily fifteen-minute television show called Chez Helene (“Shay ‘aylen”). After running for fourteen years, from 1959 to 1973, Chez Helene was cancelled by the CBC (the Canadian national television network), even though it was still popular. Baillargeon, who was fifty-seven when her show was dumped, disappeared from public view. She lived another twenty-four years.
(By the way, cancelling popular shows is not unusual in Canadian broadcasting. My brother served as a regular on a comedy/panel series called This Is The Law, which, though it continued to score high ratings, was axed by the network, because, they explained, they wanted “to give somebody else a chance.” That’s Canada for you. Fair to a fault.)
I may have read about this, or I may have made it up. But even if I made it up, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; it just means it was not reported. The following event still could have taken place. And when I heard of Chez Helene’s abrupt cancellation after fourteen years, it seems likely that it did.
INT. MONTREAL TAVERN – DAY
THE BAR IS DARK AND GLOOMY AND, IN THE MIDDLE OF A WORKDAY AFTERNOON, ALMOST EMPTY. SITTING ALONE, NURSING A FRENCH-CANADIAN COCKTAIL, IS HELENE BAILLARGEON, A FIFTY-SEVEN YEAR OLD WOMAN WHO HAS SUDDENLY, AND UNEXPECTEDLY, LOST IT ALL.
HELENE BAILLARGEON: (GAZING MISTILY INTO THE DISTANCE) I was…”Chez Helene.”
For fourteen years, stwangers would pass me on de stweet, day would say, “Bonjour, Helene! Comment ca va?”
Were day zaying “Bonjour” to me, Helene Baillargeon, or to the “Helene” from the show? I don’t know, because “Helene” is not simply a character on TV, c’est moi! But wut duz it matter? Day were friendly. Day were nice. Always a greeting. Always a smile.
Will day still say “Bonjour” to me? Now dat I am no longer “Chez Helene”?
Dis is impossible! Four fourteen years, I am on national television, and – like dat! – day take it away from me? How can day do dat!
I am “Chez Helene!”
What wuz da reason? Was I an inferior “Chez Helene” zan I was before? No! If anyt’ing, I was better! A more deeply human “Chez Helene”, a “Chez Helene” with colors! Dear God! I watched some of dose early “Chez Helene” episodes. I was terrible! Day should have cancelled me den! But now? How could day! I am at the top of my form!
To dem, it duz not matter. “The show has run its course. It is time for it to go.”
“Chez Helene” is no more.
Who am I now?
“Laugh. Laugh. Dead. Laugh.”
Suddenly, it doesn’t sound that terrible.