AS a teenager, John Fisher practised magic and it was at a magicians' convention in Eastbourne that the 18-year-old John first met Tommy Cooper back in 1963.
"We were watching other magicians performing their act, and all of a sudden there was a terrific commotion," recalls Fisher. "The only empty seat was next to me. This big, smartly-dressed and instantly- recognisable man came clambering over everyone else to to get to it. He was juggling a cup of tea, a glass of Scotch, a cigar, a rolled up newspaper and the convention programme."
At that point Tommy Cooper was a already a big name. He and the young Fisher fell to talking, and Cooper invited his new friend to see him at the London Palladium.
A few years later, Fisher graduated from Oxford and joined the BBC as a trainee in light entertainment. He worked as a researcher on the first series of Michael Parkinson chat shows and stayed there for 11 years. Becoming a producer and getting Cooper into the chair next to Parky helped to cement the friendship that had blossomed years before in Eastbourne.
Fisher went on to make Tommy Cooper TV specials, and later, as head of entertainment at Thames Television, he took over responsibility for the archive of Tommy Cooper comedy shows made by the company over many years. As Cooper's friend (who also wrote the Welshman's biography Always Leave Them Laughing many years later), he saw many highs and lows and the comedian's increasing dependence on alcohol.
After Cooper's death from a heart attack at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1984, his widow Gwen – whom Tommy always called "Dove" – handed over to Fisher many of her husband's scripts and notes. Fisher also bought other items of Cooper's material from Paul Daniels.
"When I explained to Gwen that I was planning a stage show about Tommy and the biography, she was very helpful. I tried to get hold of material relating to Tommy that was held by his former manager Miff Ferrie, but didn't succeed. Later, when he had died, his widow said I could have the files if she got a percentage of any money I earned by using them. I said no.
"When Mrs Ferrie died, her solicitor got in touch to say that Tommy's correspondence and business papers were going to go to the dump in three days' time unless I wanted them and could get down to Folkestone quickly. Thank God I wasn't away on holiday. I already had the
'funny stuff,' but this material was about another side of Tommy's life."
Fisher, who is now 64 and retired from television but still writing, has this week published a new book of Tommy Cooper jokes with an insightful foreword.
"It's a collection of his classic material," says Fisher, whose favourite TC jokes is : "Sometimes I drink my whisky neat. Other times I take my tie off and have my shirt hanging out."
"The idea is that people can enjoy themselves telling these jokes and maybe amuse the family over Christmas."
Cooper's jokes are still laugh-out-loud funny, even if you're only reading them. In performance, it's hard to imagine anyone coming close
to the visual side of the master's act of "You've heard of the lone ranger? I'm his brother hydrangea!" or "My wife just phoned me.
She said, 'I've got water in the carburettor.' I said, 'Where's the car?' She said, 'Inthe river...'"
"Tommy had funny genes," says Fisher. "His walk was funny, his hands were funny, his eyes were funny.
"Eric Morecambe said of him, 'If you don't like Cooper, you don't like comedy,' and it's true. He was loved by the public, but he was also loved by fellow comedians, who knew how difficult the business of being funny was."
According to Fisher, Cooper wrote none of his own material, instead performing either jokes written for him or those he culled from American joke bulletins he subscribed to.
"He was a brilliant judge and editor of material as well as a gifted performer with the split-second timing that makes a joke really work.
"The only comedian around today who I feel approaches Tommy is Tim Vine, the brother of radio presenter Jeremy Vine. He has something like the same talent, and writes the material himself. In the old days, he probably could have written for Tommy."
Let's end with a gag that came out of a real-life situation: "Tommy was late for a cabaret date, and when he finally arrived the venue manager said, 'You were on half an hour ago.' Tommy replied, 'Really? How
The Tommy Cooper Joke Book is published by Preface, 9.99.
To order from the Yorkshire Post bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepost bookshop.co.uk. P&P is 2.75.