Peter Dixon

Interview: Phil Cool

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For many years there was only one name on everyone’s lips when it came to original and creative comedy. With award-winning series for both the BBC (Cool It) and ITV (Cool Head), Phil Cool and his legendary rubber face was the toast of television. Today’s top comics remember Cool It and Cool Head as series that changed their own lives. Alistair McGowan says that it was Phil who “most inspired me to do impressions” while Jon Culshaw recollects that “Cool It was unmissable. On so many occasions Phil was the reason I missed doing my A level homework.” Now, after forty years in the comedy business, Cool is calling it quits – with a farewell tour of the UK. Peter Dixon grabs a coffee with Phil to chat about his career, a special night in 1985, and finds out what’s next for “the master of Faceology.”

PD: Hi Phil. You’re about to head off on your Final Curtain Tour – how come you’re leaving us?

PC: Well, you’ve heard of Seasick Steve – I’m Seasick Phil. Sick of travelling. I had a bit of an accident a year ago, smashed my car in on a motorway at night, and that’s the first accident I’ve ever had actually. It’s just added to the rest of the stuff; motorways shutting at night and all that. I’m getting old as well. I’m 65 soon, so I thought I’d call it the Final Curtain Tour and make it that too. After June I’ll just be working locally – clubs where I live – so I don’t have to travel far.

PD: How’ve you approached the show? Is it a greatest hits type tour or is it new material?

PC: It’s not really got anything finite to it; I’ve not tailored it to end my career or anything. It’s just a normal show of mine.

Alistair McGowen came to see me a few months back and his favourite bit of the whole show was my ventriloquist’s routine without a dummy. I do the dummy and the ventriloquist, and it ends with the dummy reciting the alphabet and the ventriloquist drinking a glass of water. I’ve had a couple of shots at a Brian Cox impression, so by the time I come to the North East in April I might have cracked that.

There’s two hours of all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff; it’ll be a good show.

PD: I know you’ll have been asked this before – so apologies – but where did the name Phil Cool come from? [Phil’s real name is Phil Martin…]

PC: Well, I’ve explained it in detail in my book which is coming out soon, but briefly, it was my manager – this was in 1979, he got me a TV show to do on Yorkshire TV called Rock With Laughter. In those days you had to be in the union – in equity – so I applied for an equity card under Phil Martin, and they said I couldn’t have the name Phil Martin. There was already a singer in Manchester called Phil Martin. My manager said, ‘We’re going to have to find a middle name for you!’

There was a comedian in Wigan called Mike Douglas, and he had the same problem; so he put the word ‘Stand’ in the middle – so he became Mike Stand Douglas. A few suggestions were made for my name. Someone suggested ‘Loon’, and I said, ‘Hang on a minute here, I don’t want to be known as a complete nutter. I want to retain a bit of cool…’

My manager said, ‘That’s the word I’ve heard you say most on stage – we’ll use that.’ I became Phil Cool Martin for a while, but I still wasn’t allowed that because this guy from Manchester – the singer – didn’t want any other combination of Phil and Martin.

Time was running out, so my manager said, ‘Scrap the Martin, just go with Phil Cool.’ I’ve never liked it all that much, but strangers who don’t know me seem to think it’s a better name than Phil Martin.

PD: It’s definitely a good name – you’ve used it for a lot of stand-up and TV shows. Setting out, how did you realise you could impersonate people? Was it on the school ground?

PC: I could make my friends laugh doing daft things at school, and I remember pulling my Quasimodo face and frightening the kid next to me half to death. He nearly fell backwards off his chair. This got us into trouble and we both ended up with the cane. I then started doing impressions of the teachers, and I wrote poems about them. I made a poem up about the pottery teacher. He was a Neanderthal sort of a man and I wrote a poem about him getting blown up by the kiln. The kids at school used to sing on the bus home at night, so I knew then that I could make them laugh with my face and my words and stuff.

I was on my way then, really, but it seemed a world away. My mother wanted me to just have a normal job, so I become an apprentice electrician and then a fully-fledged electrician. I hated it. I also hated the prospect of going on stage, but I made the effort because I had to escape this world of wires and plugs. I did force myself to go on stage, I would stand in the wings quaking with fear, my mouth dried up and everything. A lot of years went by and it gradually got better; after 10 years I started to ease into it a bit.

I got sent up to the North East – up to Sunderland and Newcastle – with the knowledge in my mind that the North East is very difficult to do. I braved it and my first gig was in Gateshead; Gateshead Central Club. It was an afternoon gig and the strippers were on. I was stuck in the same dressing as the strippers.

I was at the bar for a pint beforehand and a local lad come up to me and said, ‘Are you the comedian, like?’ and I said, ‘Yeah…’ He said, ‘Ooh, we don’t like comedians up here. You’ll die. You’ll die.’ I went on and was an absolute storm. I don’t think they’d seen anything like me before, and it was an all-male audience really. I left there feeling elated – perhaps I’m different.

All that soon changed when I did the night gig, and the audience had a horizon it was that big. The clouds of cigarette smoke hung in the air like the fog in Los Angeles. I did half an hour or something and nobody looked up. My little bubble of hope had burst.

PD: In the same way that a magician has to be able to do tricks and be funny, an impressionist needs to do a double shift, really…

PC: Yes, but I think of it as one process really. I’m not one of these stand-ups who can perform other people’s material. Most people can do that, but it really grates with me. The actual material comes simultaneously with the performance, standing in front of the mirror and trying to think of something.

I used to write it down and I found that was a mistake. When you learn something off the page it’s just not the same as busking it, slogging it out and trying to do it slightly less wrong each time. You refine it, lengthen it and then you’ve got a good piece. Some people can write and perform, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’ve only ever recorded myself once – when I was struggling for new material after burning a lot of [old material] on television. I didn’t like it. I’d sooner just let material come slowly and evolve over a few years because I think that’s how to get real quality stuff. It comes from your subconscious, and how the audience reacts. They’re the monitor, really.

I think that’s what Peter Kay does. He just goes on with a vague idea and as the gigs go by it gets better and better. I’d imagine so anyway.

PD: We touched on it before, but you’re writing an autobiography. I understand one pivotal moment in the book is your appearance at Leeds Grand Theatre in 1985. It just so happens I went along to that show…

PC: Wow. I regard that actual night as the pinnacle of my career because the object of it for me was to escape from the night clubs and get into the theatres. That night, doing a 1600 seater in a fabulous theatre…I don’t think anything I’ve done can top that.

The book starts off with me in the wings in Leeds, waiting to step on stage. I can remember the smell of the dust. Old theatres have a certain smell about them, it’s a dusty smell. It’s quite nice, actually. I don’t know why. I’m running through my lines in my head and I can hear the audience rumbling and I’m just about to step out. The lights go dim and the music goes down and I step out.

It was packed. People were standing up at the back, I remember. I had a support act; it was fairly easy for me – I just did one spot, an hour and a half or something.

It’ll live forever in my memory that show.

Phil Cool’s Final Curtain Tour starts in Bolton tonight. He visits the North East in April, with shows at the Customs House, South Shields on Friday 12 April, and the Parish Hall, Barnard Castle on Saturday 27 April. Listen to the full interview here.