Forty years after swapping the electrical trade for the comedy circuit, Phil Cool is all set for his final shows back in his native Lancashire.
And it’s perhaps rather apt that there’s been no great fuss about the former TV regular’s retirement.
I found a cutting recently of my last Phil Cool live review, from when I was a reporter for the Chorley and Leyland Guardian. The date was missing, but the only record I could find online suggested my last chat with the Chorley-born comic – carried out around a week before – was in October 1999.
Rather poignantly I recalled how this down-to-earth entertainer seemed genuinely surprised that the audience at that Chorley Town Hall show had stuck around for the second part of his set.
That seemed to sum him up. There was nothing ‘showbusiness’ about this performer. He just happens to have that ability to make people laugh, and not just because of that ridiculously rubbery face he uses to such good effect.
I was genuinely surprised recently when he called me, via the Lancashire Evening Post.
He really only wanted a number for his old pal, John Foxx, the original Ultravox front-man I’d just interviewed. But there and then we arranged a proper chat, not least on account of the fact that his farewell shows were approaching.
In 2013 he’d set out on his ‘last tour’, having grown tired of all the the travelling between his home in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley and the UK comedy circuit, while celebrating his new-found status as a pensioner.
Now we have what look like being his last-ever gigs, one in Chorley, the other in nearby Ormskirk.
When I mentioned our last interview 15 years before and my cutting from that Town Hall show, the 66-year-old replied, typically deadpan, ‘It’ll be faded now, won’t it?’
Pretty soon, we’d travelled back another 15 years, recalling Phil’s pre-TV period at Chorley’s Royal Oak Hotel.
“I had a comedy club there in the cellar bar, then called Clouseau’s. It was a really good venue.
“When you go down steps I always think you’re going to get value for money when it comes to comedy.
“The guy that ran the Royal Oak, now based over Ramsbottom, was Steve Taylor. We met under strange circumstances.
“I told him I used to be a patron of the Royal Oak. In other words, I drank there! I went and had a look, and when I saw that cellar I said, ‘this is just the place’.
“My comedy club at the time was at the cricket club on Fox Lane, Leyland, called The Laughing Gas. So I asked Steve if I could switch it to the Royal Oak.
“He said yeah, and when I told him I was getting fed up of booking acts, he said he’d sort all that out. So I let him do all that and just came and did my stuff.
“I didn’t get paid for it, but I was just limbering up for my TV show then. That was in 1985. I was doing my Young Ones routines and that. They were all worked out at the Cellar Bar.”
Phil soon hit the big time, finding national fame through the success of his BBC series, Cool It, which ran for three series and led to tie-in album, book and video releases.
The story of that rise to fame is told in his autobiography, Stand Up Chameleon, alternatively titled, Phil Cool Died Here (And Lived to Tell the Tale).
“I’ve written it for my family, really, so they’ll know in time to come how their Dad and their Grandad made it, and just how it was in those days.”
That autobiography starts in 1985, with the entertainer about to go on stage at Leeds Grand Theatre to a crowd of more than 1,500.
“That was the first big theatre I did, the pinnacle of my career at a time when I wanted to escape working men’s clubs, the nightclubs, the strip-joints, and all that rubbish.
“I wanted to be like Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Jasper Carrott.”
Phil goes on to cover his formative years in the book, including those at Chorley’s St Augustine’s Secondary Modern School in Chorley.
That includes him pulling faces in class and getting his first laughs, the front cover featuring Phil pulling his famed Quasimodo face, one he tried out on his schoolmates.
“I got in real trouble for doing it, getting the cane.”
Those school days weren’t happy ones for young Phil Martin, as he was known then, despite his friendship with people like Dennis Leigh, the slightly younger lad who would also go on to become a star in his own right as John Foxx.
I get on to that Cool/Foxx friendship in more detail in a further piece on this blog here, but they were clearly defining times, as was his spell as a young warehouseman in a cotton mill near Harpers Lane, Chorley.
“I was there nine months. My mother knew it was a dead-end job, as did I, so she asked an electrician in the main street at Chorley, and I moved to his firm.”
A lot of great material followed, as detailed in the autobiog, including Phil’s tale of the day he dropped his toolbox as he was getting off the bus one morning, its contents scattering across the road.
Then there was the time he got into big trouble when left on his own to finish a job on a big house in Chorley.
“It was the most frightening thing in my life at the time. I hit a gas pipe, and there was a fire on in the house. Mercifully, the house didn’t blow up.
“There are lots of stories like that. It’s not just showbusiness. It’s me telling how I made that transition.”
Having always had a hankering for art and music, Phil started writing songs, but didn’t take to the stage for a few years yet.
“I was just struggling day to day, and when I was about 26 I’d done electrical jobs all around the country for big firms.
“There was one at Pembroke Power Station with about 1,000 guys on that job. It was like being paid for being in jail really. I hated it so much.
“Getting up on stage and singing songs, telling funny stories and doing impressions was my ticket out of there.”
Impressionists like Mike Yarwood, Aiden J Harvey and Fogwell Flax were cited as influences, but Phil said he ‘always wanted to do it differently’.
“I’ve never been an act that wanted to do summer seasons, pantomimes or all that nightclub stuff. I’ve always been more of a musician’s comic really.”
“I really admired styles of folk club acts, those who didn’t particularly tell jokes but told stories, like Billy Connolly, Max Boyce and Mike Harding.
“Mike was instrumental in me getting a break. Then there were other local acts like Bernard Wrigley and Bob Williamson.
“I thought, I’d love to do what they do. I just kept doing it gradually, and got good at it after about 10 years.
“I always like those who told a story then sang a funny song at the end, finishing the story off.
“I was just doing a few songs and impressions in between, but it was quite disjointed. I knew I had to remedy it, make it a little more palatable for the audience.
“Actually, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter, like my son is now. I’m hoping he’s going to reach the places I wanted to but never did, having got side-lined with comedy.”
In fact, father and son – Joe Martin – are about to join forces for Phil’s forthcoming retirement gigs.
“Because I’ve retired I’m not taking any money, but Joe’s got to pay the taxpayer back for lending him money to go to university.”
Phil’s career started to turn when, influenced by Mike Harding, he wrote a song about his car, a Morris Minor Traveller – The Deadwood Morris.
“It was to the same tune as The Deadwood Stage, as sung by Doris Day in Calamity Jane. It was a song about meeting this copper, having had too much to drink.
“This was back in the days before the breathalyser. I thought I’d get away with it because only nuns and little old ladies drove those cars usually. But I got pulled up.
“This story was born, went in my first TV series, and got me talking to the audience rather than at them.
“And from that moment on, I became Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and God knows who else all rolled into one.”
Another prime influence was Birmingham comic Jasper Carrott, who produced his early TV series, the pair going on to tour in the early ‘90s as Carrott and Cool.
“He was one of my heroes, and got in touch with my agency back in 1980, after I’d been on Yorkshire TV’s Rock with Laughter.”
I was just about to mention that. Wasn’t that your first small screen experience?
“Yes, and it was a dreadful show! But I stood out among the other acts. I looked different and acted different, I suppose.
“I had denims on and a Yates’s Wine Lodge t-shirt. Everyone else had a shiny jacket and dickie bow. I stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Bev Bevan from ELO apparently taped everything at the time. When he saw me on TV he called his mate Jasper and said, ‘You’ve got to see this Phil Cool fella’.
“Jasper got in touch, saying, ‘Can we meet up?’ He wanted to see if I could write for him and we met at the Apollo in Manchester after he did a fabulous show, supported by Telephone Bill and the Smooth Operators.
“After everyone else had gone home I was invited backstage. We had a sandwich, a laugh and a cup of tea, then a bit of wine.
“When I came back on stage I looked out at all those empty seats – nearly 3,000 – and asked Jasper how the hell he made contact with all those people.
“It seemed such an awesome task to get through to them. But he said (in Phil’s best Brummie accent), ‘Ah, one day, Phil. You’ll see, you’ll be doing it yourself.
“He planted the seed then that I was going to make it, and helped me along the way.”
One of Jasper’s associates, Les Ward, ran a rough and ready folk club in Solihull, The Boggery, and asked Phil to do a show.
“I went there, did a set and really tore the place apart. A year or so passed and my association with Jasper and Les got stronger, and when my five-year contract with a guy in Wigan ran out, I switched over.
“By that time the break I desperately wanted had come, doing Pebble Mill at One.”
Fame followed, but did Phil ever get time to enjoy his success in those days?
“I did, and the great enjoyment came from the fact that I was going out to gigs without a twisted knot in my stomach.
“People were paying to come and see me, were all facing the right way and in the right mood! I wasn’t up against hostile audiences like for the last 10 years.
“I could relax and just go around touring, sometimes doing three nights in a place, sometimes a week. It was great!”
I take it you were happier doing repeat nights rather than playing enormous venues, as became the case in the years to come with some comedians.
“I see these arena gigs by some of the bigger comics today, and don’t think I’d have enjoyed that. What I do is quite intimate really, with the facial and visual stuff.
“The big screens are not the same, and there’s no atmosphere in those places. The only time I’ve played a massive place was when I did a charity show for Jasper.
“That was at the NEC in Birmingham, with 12,000-plus in there. I did 10 or 15 minutes, but don’t think I’d have liked to have done two hours.”
It’s now 25 years since that last Cool It series, after which Phil swapped the BBC for ITV’s Cool Head.
“Yeah, and the first series will be 30 years ago next year. It doesn’t seem that long ago really though.”
When I saw Phil at the end of the ’90s, it wasn’t just the songs and stories, and I mentioned how ‘it’s not every comic can pull off an impression of a seahorse’.
He did though, along with octopuses and bottle-nosed dolphins meeting David Attenborough at the water’s edge.
Then there was the famed Rolf Harris impression, something I’m guessing we won’t see this time around, and his surprisingly accurate version of Nick Park’s cartoon favourite Wallace.
He was at his best talking about his Chorley childhood, in a typical down to earth style, not least reminiscing about the days when youths wore balaclavas to shield themselves against cold Lancashire winters and ‘looked like midget terrorists’.
And it all ended up with a bizarre Bob Dylan/George Formby medley. Now that’s what I call North Country folk music.
Not long after that comeback, Phil had a major run-in with his health though, including eight days in hospital with a heart problem.
“It wasn’t technically a heart attack, just a big scare, but by 2011 my specialist said ‘go and get it done’, so I went on to Blackpool and had a quadruple bypass.”
I tell Phil that sounds scary, or at least a little sobering. His response is typically deadpan.
“I wouldn’t recommend it. Although the chap that did it must have done a good job, because I feel good now.
“I had angina pain when I set off walking, or heading up a hill. They call it ‘warm-up’ angina. If you keep going it disappears. But now I don’t get that.”
Something like that must have given you a fresh focus, making you think about where you’re going with your life and just what’s important.
“Yeah, and career-wise I knew I wasn’t going to go on much longer though. I decided when I was 65 I’d pack it in, not least because I was fed up of the travelling.
“If I could just snap my fingers and arrive at a venue, it would be fine. I love the actual getting up there and making people laugh. It’s just getting there and back.”
Phil’s lived in Chipping for 27 years now, and loves life in rural Lancashire.
“It’s very good here, way out in the country, with lots of farmers muck-spreading and what-not.”
Is it a bit different from growing up in Chorley?
“Not that different. When I was there I was on the edge of Cabbage Hall Fields, just off Harpers Lane, where the River Chor ran though. A magical place for kids.
“There was countryside, a canal, lots of trees, ponds, catapults, bows and arrows, swings, camp fires and all that stuff health and safety would hate.
“It was brilliant. But now that’s all gone, and that area is just an industrial estate.”
It’s rather fitting that one of his final live dates is at Chorley Little Theatre, not least as he was one of a small band of comics who helped resurrect that town venue.
“Yes. The chap that runs it – Ian Robinson – seems to have done a great job. At one stage it was just amateur dramatics and they weren’t making anything of it.
“He thought, ‘Let’s just do the place up and get some acts on that will fill the place’.
“John Bishop was on recently, warming up for his next tour, and I managed to see Jeremy Hardy and Anthony McGowan, who previously saw me at Redditch.”
Anthony McGowan? Now there’s someone with whom I’m guessing you share a mutual respect.
“Yeah, very much so. I think he’s great. And he’s been very good to me in the past, mentioning me on shows like Steve Wright on Radio 2.”
Despite his farewell gigs, I get the impression (sorry) if an offer comes up, Phil might yet be tempted to do more shows.
“Well, it would have to be something near by. I’m through with going to Norfolk, the South Coast, Scotland and all that.
“But if someone offers me something in Preston, Blackburn or Lancaster …”
Phil Cool and Joe Martin play Chorley Little Theatre on Saturday, September 27 and Edge Hill University’s Rose Theatre, Ormskirk, on Saturday, November 22. For more details contact the venues via the above links.
If you missed it first time around, the John Foxx feature that prompted Phil Cool to get in touch can be found here.
Meanwhile, Phil Cool – Stand-Up Chameleon is available as an e-book via http://www.philcool.co.uk.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature first published in the Lancashire Evening Post on September 18th, 2014. For the original online version, head here.
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I remember going to see Phil nearly 40 years ago on a New Years Eve night in Queensferry in Wales just about the early 80s and I’ve got to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard or so long watching a live entertainer since, and I’ve been to see a lot since then! My girlfriend, Sue, and I went with our good friends, Ron & Ramona, and unfortunately, we all found ourselves skint on the night (We had bought the tickets weeks before) and I mean we had just about enough for two rounds of drinks between the four of us to last all night! Even so, Phil was so funny, he had the whole audience in hysterics, we all enjoyed ourselves immensely and had a fantastic night after which we all went back to Ron & Ramonas home at Saighton Camp Army Barracks where we had drinks-a-plenty stocked up! I am now 59 and I remember that evening watching Phil, entertain us all with lovely memories with my mates and my beautiful girl with great fondness. Happy days!
Thanks for sharing, Steven. And Ron and Ramona sound as rocking a pairing as you could ever find.
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