Clive takes on Tommy

Andrew ClarkeClive Mantle is best known for parts in Robin of Sherwood, Casualty and The Vicar Of Dibley. But as he tells ANDREW CLARKE his latest role is a tribute to one of his comic heroes - Tommy Cooper.Andrew Clarke

Clive Mantle is best known for parts in Robin of Sherwood, Casualty and The Vicar Of Dibley. But as he tells ANDREW CLARKE his latest role is a tribute to one of his comic heroes - Tommy Cooper.

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For many people Clive Mantle will always be Dr Mike Barratt from Casualty and Holby City. For others he is the definitive Little John from the TV Robin of Sherwood with Michael Praed, while others cannot forget him romping round with Dawn French in The Vicar of Dibley.

It's clear that Clive is a man of many parts but his latest role is both a challenge and a labour of love. He is getting under the skin of one of his own comic heroes - Tommy Cooper.

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The show, Jus' Like That, aims to give fans a glimpse of the man behind the fez while, at the same time, allowing us to revel in some of the great man's best-loved routines.

He said that he needed to take a deep breath to step into the shoes of one of the nation's greatest comedy talents but it is something that he is really enjoying. 'I am a huge Tommy Cooper fan. From my mid-to-late adolescence he had a great influence on me. I loved watching him. He never failed to make me laugh.'

Clive's journey into the role has taken longer than originally planned. He first auditioned for the role nine years ago. 'The production was originally going to be directed by Alan Acykbourn. It was 11th of September 2001. I stepped out of the audition and the planes hit the twin towers half an hour later.'

The show was subsequently cancelled and when it was eventually revived Simon Callow had replaced Ayckbourn in the director's chair and Jerome Flynn was cast as Cooper.

Clive thought that the opportunity to play the part had past him by until last year he decided to take the bull by the horns and try and resurrect the show himself.

'The show was last performed six or seven years ago and I wrote to the producers last year asking if they had any plans to revive it. They phoned me the following day and said they had been talking about what to do with the show when my letter arrived.

'It was a fantastic piece of synchronisticity and in actual fact it is better for me to be doing it nine years later because I am closer to the age that Tommy was when he was at the height of his career, therefore more suitable to play the part.'

Coming off the back of his enormously popular television appearances, Tommy Cooper was for a period, the highest paid entertainer in Britain. The first half of the show is a recreation of Tommy's cabaret act when he was at the height of his powers. The second half of the show opens backstage with an older Tommy Cooper locked away in his dressing room.

'He's in his dressing room with Mary, his assistant, and the woman he had an affair with for 17 years, and she is getting him ready to go on stage. The illnesses have now kicked in, the pleurisy, the heart problems, the alcohol…they have all combined to chip away at his ability to keep himself at the leading edge of show business,' said Clive. 'Mary has to re-build him, rather like Frankenstein's monster, so he's ready to face an audience and almost shoves him out on stage. It's a brief glimpse through the hole of the dressing room door into what his life must have been like.'

To prepare for the role Clive has studied DVDs and the tapes time and time again, and he still laughs every time. 'Some of the routines I have seen 60 or 70 times in an attempt to nail them down,' he said. 'For me that is the true test of whether something is really funny. It's timeless comedy.'

Clive maintains that Tommy's height and build were an essential part of what made him intrinsically funny. 'Tommy was 6ft 3-and-a-half. I am 6ft five-and-a-half, so when you get big blokes like us trying to get to be balletic then that's funny.'

He said that he was a genuine family entertainer that didn't tell blue jokes or even indulge in innuendo in his live shows. 'He was one of life's natural funny men.'

Clive admits he has become something of a Tommy Cooper evangelist - trying to introduce younger audiences, who perhaps haven't had a chance to witness Tommy in action on television.

'Rather like Frankie Howerd, he's become something of a cult figure in colleges and universities. He's been dead 25 years now but people have heard of his genius and this is a fantastic opportunity to see his routines.'

The actor is pleased to have had the opportunity to get to grips with some magic. The whole idea of Cooper's disastrous magic act came about by accident when as an 18-year-old first he tried to entertain his work mates and while it all went wrong, his attempts to rescue the act provided the laughs.

Many people fail to realise was that Tommy was in fact a very good magician. 'You have to be good in order to make bad magic seem funny,' said Clive. 'If it genuinely went wrong then it wouldn't be funny. It would be rather tragic. In order to make it funny, you have to drill it, rehearse it and really understand it.

'He was never happier than when he was tucked away in the back room of a magic shop on the Charring Cross Road with half a bottle of Scotch and a new magic trick to learn. He was a kid in the candy store then. Magic was the abiding passion throughout his life.'

t Jus' Like That: A Night With Tommy Cooper is at Norwich Theatre Royal, May 17-18, �19.50-�5, 01603 630000,