“I Don’t Know How I Keep a Straight Face!”

TJ Worthington on Phil Cool

First published August 2005

Impressionism has always been the poor relation of comedy, weighed down by images of dinner-jacketed club comics meekly imitating the famous voices of the day, and by contemporaries at school or work haranguing you with their miserable rendition of some sitcom character or other. It has also suffered from not being a particularly amusing art form in itself; the mere act of recognition of vocal similarities alone is generally not enough to induce side-splitting laughter, and the strong jokes that should really be backing it up are often notable by their absence. In fact, it is easy to assume that – the odd appropriation of the art like Spitting Image or Peter Cook’s infamous portrayal of Harold MacMillan aside – nobody had really attempted to do anything “new” or challenging with impersonation until Rory Bremner’s overnight conversion to topical satire.

In the mid-to-late ’80s, however, one particular performer certainly was pushing the straightforward act of mimicry into previously unexplored areas, and met with a considerable degree of small-screen popularity as a result.

Born Phil Martin in Chorley, Phil Cool discovered a talent for “pulling faces” while he was still at school, but didn’t hit on the idea of combining them with vocal impersonation and comic performance until he was asked to introduce a local rock band on stage. His largely improvised “act” went down well with audiences, and it wasn’t long before Cool – who by then was in his mid-20s and had worked as an electrician since leaving school – began to consider turning his new-found talent into a career.

Far removed in both performance style and appearance from the traditional image of the stand-up impressionist, the sharp-dressing Cool emerged from the same transitional halfway house between traditional and alternative standup comedy that would also give rise to the likes of Richard Digance, Billy Connolly and Mike Harding. His impressions were based around observations of character and appearance rather than merely vocal qualities, and as such were generally performed with his entire body, making particularly effective use of his adaptable facial features. Unlike others, he honed in on and exaggerated the characteristics (both vocal and visual) of his subjects and was able to – for example – both sound and look like the Pope.

Cool spent much of the late ’70s touring around working men’s clubs and other traditional venues, and while his rather offbeat take on the art form may have been a little too unusual for more conservative audiences to fully appreciate, this extensive experience crucially meant he was ideally positioned to benefit from the reinvigoration of the live comedy scene that followed the emergence of the Comic Strip/Comedy Store performers and the “alternative comedy” crowd at the turn of the decade.

His first significant television exposure came in 1980 with a semi-regular slot on Yorkshire TV’s Rock With Laughter, a Saturday evening “talent show” in the old sense of the term, which existed primarily to give a leg-up to some of the better acts working the cabaret club circuit at that time. While touring on the back of his appearance in the series, he wound up performing at Jasper Carrott’s Boggery Folk Club, an event which was to prove a crucial turning point in his career. Impressed by Cool’s act, Carrott elected to take an active hand in furthering his career – it was largely as a result of his patronage and recommendation that Cool ended up as a regular performer on Central’s Chris Tarrant-fronted standup showcase Saturday Stayback (the successor to the notorious OTT) in 1983, with the somewhat edgier nature and “live” feel of the show giving him a perfect opportunity to fine tune his performance for the small screen.

Essentially – much like Carrott himself – Phil Cool was a graduate of the old school of standup, who had seen the potential of the newer strain of “alternative” humour, and had allowed its vitality (if not necessarily its taboo-challenging ideology) to infiltrate his act accordingly. Perhaps fittingly, he soon wound up as the studio warm-up man for ITV’s late-night puppet satire show Spitting Image (the early episodes of which were shown to a studio audience, as the production team were still undecided on whether or not to broadcast it with a laugh track, and it was at one such recording session he was spotted by a BBC producer who booked him for a couple of tryout slots on Pebble Mill at One. Although the ailing daytime talk show was soon to disappear from the air with the imminent revamp of the BBC’s daytime schedules, it had nonetheless provided a great many performers with their first big break over the years, and Cool was no exception. Proving to be a hit with daytime audiences, he was soon signed up for his own series on BBC2.

Running to a mere three shows, the first series of Cool It! (broadcast 30 August to 13 September 1985) was co-written by Cool and Carrott, with the latter also undertaking script-editing duties. The shows essentially took the form of an extended standup set (if they weren’t actually recorded in a single continuous take, then they certainly looked as if they were) performed on an empty stage in front of a studio audience. With virtually no props, costumes or pre-recorded inserts to assist him, Cool (who introduced himself by telling the audience “people tell me I have a mobile face, and they’re right – I take it with me everywhere I go”) had to rely entirely on his skills as a performer to hold the audience’s attention; and this he managed brilliantly.

Although there were brief flashes of more biting humour (“Dave Lee Travis is a grown man – and you know, Mickey Mouse wears a Dave Lee Travis watch”), his routines were generally quite whimsical and laid back, despite the tremendous physical energy he put into them. They often bore more of a resemblance to freewheeling streams of consciousness than defined “routines”, and his impersonations, while undoubtedly stronger stuff than television audiences were generally used to, were affectionately mocking rather than cruel. Mike Harding, for example, was reduced to a guitar-strumming stream of gruff Northern clich├ęs (“… get up them Pennine Hills”), while Eamonn Andrews’ genial and amiably stumbling on-screen manner was replicated perfectly.

Cool also proved himself to be equally able when dealing with fictitious characters like Quasimodo (a visualisation so effective it would later find its way into the show’s opening titles) or inanimate objects such as cars, and – thanks to his musical ability – anyone from Bryan Ferry (“the thinking woman’s Continued On Page 38″) to all six of The Flying Pickets. One recurring, and truly visually arresting motif involved him suddenly interrupting a straightforward impersonation of a public figure to “rip” off their face and reveal an alien visage underneath.

The highlight of the series – and the routine that most people remember – was a startling impersonation of all of The Young Ones (including Alexei Sayle) at once, not only getting most of the voices absolutely perfect, but also their various physical mannerisms. Indeed, his Rik Mayall face won an uproarious laugh from the audience before he had even delivered a single word. As if the brilliance of the impersonations wasn’t enough, the dialogue that ensued between the five reappropriated characters was an affectionate but effective deconstruction of the programme itself, poking fun at the way in which the storylines were introduced and the contrived segues into Alexei Sayle’s solo spots.

For a short-run series on a minority channel, Cool It! made a strong and immediate impression on the viewing public. The overwhelmingly positive response led to the three episodes being repeated on BBC1 soon afterwards, and when a clip from the first series was used in Telly Addicts a couple of months later, the contestants were – unusually – able to put a name to it straightaway. A further five-week run was commissioned for transmission late in 1986, and if anything, this was an improvement on the initial batch of shows. Now more comfortable with working in the medium, Cool assumed the majority of writing duties himself (although he did still collaborate with Carrott and others), while a few basic props and even a couple of musical numbers were introduced to bolster the standup material. Aside from a remarkable werewolf-style transformation into Dave Lee Travis (who hosted an edition of The Golden Oldie Picture Show, featuring Cool’s Four Tops pastiche “The Four Bottoms” with their hit single Mooning), perhaps the most notable item in this series was the interlude featuring Rolf Harris painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The artist would soon emerge as Cool’s “signature” impersonation, being reprised for a number of other appearances and even giving rise to an in-character rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water being released as a single. More ambitiously, he also turned anecdotes about his performing career – including an hilarious tale of being stuck on a rising and falling stage platform while the Thunderbirds theme played in the background – into what were effectively impersonations of his own impersonations.

The second series of Cool It! deservedly won the Royal Television Society award for Most Original Television Achievement in 1987, and Cool’s popularity was underlined by his participation in the high profile live benefit show The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball, and almost literally innumerable appearances in adverts and guest slots on other shows. Two BBC Video compilations of Cool It! (the first featuring the initial series pretty much in its entirety) sold well, as did the live video Cool ‘n’ Hot. During this time he also released a tie-in comedy book, Cool’s Out, and followed up Bridge Over Troubled Water with the album “Not Just a Pretty Face”.

A third series of Cool It! followed late in 1988, and the comic participated in the 1989 Comic Relief event, but after that he was quiet for quite some time, finally reemerging in 1991 having accepted an offer to move to ITV.

Produced by Central, Cool Head was broadcast over February and March 1991 in the late night Sunday slot that had long been established as the home of the channel’s edgy and provocative comedy shows. It returned in August the following year for a shorter run, entitled simply Phil Cool. Despite containing some strong material – most notably a sublime interlude in which Cool conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra with his face – on the whole the shows did not work as well as Cool It! This was due in no small part to the temptation to exploit the greater freedom of the new timeslot. This time around the humour was rather more outrageous and “shock” orientated (such as a somewhat uneasy routine about Bugs Bunny in the electric chair) with a liberal sprinkling of profanities, often at the expense of the genuine charm that had exuded from Cool It!

Whereas other shows in the same slot, such as Spitting Image, Hale & Pace and The New Statesman had been expressly created for and tailored to its demands, Cool’s shows were essentially a more radical extension of his familiar work, and this had the effect of alienating a significant proportion of the audience who had followed him from BBC2. In addition, there was a greater proportion of sketch material at the expense of straight-to-audience standup, and this gave the shows less of a naturalistic flow. This isn’t to say there weren’t some inspired moments to be found in these shows; his John Major impression remains a rare example of managing to wring humour out of the uncharismatic statesman where so many others had failed, and few who witnessed Cool’s half-man-half-horse Prince Charles will have been able to forget it in a hurry.

Early in 1993 Cool was the subject of Channel 4′s fly-on-the-wall documentary series A Day in the Life …, which followed him on part of a joint tour with Jasper Carrott (for which, it was revealed in the documentary, they decided who would go on first and who would “headline” each night by tossing a coin onstage), but following this the television work began to dry up. Nowadays he still tours regularly and performs to packed houses, his act having maintained its edge through the constant adoption of more contemporary impressions including Steve Irwin and George W Bush (and, bizarrely, Jo Brand), and the trademark ambitious conceits such as a Beatles Anthology-inspired routine about Paul McCartney physically extracting John Lennon’s voice from an old tape. Although Cool has recently acted alongside Norman Lovett and Alexei Sayle in the well-received British film Upstaged, a return to television seems unlikely; not merely due to industry apathy, but also because Cool himself claims not to miss TV, expressing particular disinterest in the “celebrity talent show” phenomenon and claiming he would only really consider a new series if it was a suitably distinctive and off-the-wall concept in the vein of Billy Connolly’s World Tours or the underrated Rich Hall’s Fishing Show.

Frequently the subject of “Where are they now?”-style press pieces, Cool’s prolonged absence from the small screen may have resulted in relative obscurity, but he is still far from being a “forgotten” personality – and certainly a long way from the sort of figure of ridicule that many of his impressionist contemporaries have since become. Cool It! was a series that while not exactly striving to break the “rules” was certainly keen to rewrite them in a more interesting and refreshingly diverse fashion, and perhaps fittingly, the “rules” of how erstwhile big names come to be judged in retrospect have not applied to Phil Cool.