Phil Cool

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When writing about a certain type of comic performer, there’s a phrase all media is obligated to use, or else the Secret Critic Police will kick in the doors and drag them off to the gulags. There’s even an ancient proverb about it — “If wild expressions you see, then ‘rubber-faced funnyman’ they be!” Putting that exact phrase, rubber-faced funnyman, into Google throws up a bunch of names; predominantly Jim Carrey, but also Lee Evans, Jim ‘Ernest’ Varney, Rowan Atkinson, Roberto Benigni, and Martin Clunes. There’s one more name, easily the most rubber-faced of all, but which hasn’t been spoken aloud in many a year.

Though a genuine mainstream star in his day, Phil Cool’s been largely forgotten in the 21st century. He occupied a rather singular space, and barring the odd Royal Variety, didn’t really mix with other shows. Once he got his own series, as demonstrated by a frugal page of credits, he never ventured outside of them as a performer, making no guest appearances, and just a handful of interview spots. Cool It was a similarly separatist endeavour, and in a run of 15 episodes from 1985-1988, there are scant few additional cast members listed; all brief celebrity cameos like Ian McCaskill and Geoff Capes, while the first series was written solely by its star.

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Perhaps this should’ve been part of my Past Laugh Regression series, considering how much I enjoyed Cool’s work as a schoolboy, with me and my young chums futilely attempting to mimic his snorting Devil face in the playground to freak each other out. Cool It debuted on BBC2 on August 30th 1985, with a budget that makes Who Do You Do? look like Waterworld. This isn’t just lo-fi, it’s the cheapest television possible; at least until the pandemic turned every channel into Celebrity Chatroulette. A true one-man show, the entire first episode is a single, 23-minute routine, with Cool in a spotlight on a spartan stage, in regular clothes, and with no props beyond an eventual pair of glasses and hook-on beard.

In settling on these for a rewatch, I had assumed that, like everything else from childhood, where bullies were ten feet tall, and everything was either the best or worst, my memories had overplayed his rubber-facedness. Surely it hadn’t been that extreme? This was the ’80s, when we were but an innocent species, wowed by commercials with talking cats and yet to discover pegging, so I’m sure everyone just got carried away. But no. If anything, it’s more impressive than I remembered. A real-life Faceache from Buster, Phil Cool genuinely seems to have no bones in his head, forming and shaping his mug at will, like one of those weird elderly man hand puppets you could buy from newsagents. Even his body, hunching his shoulders up by his ears and telescoping his neck as ET, seems unregulated by the rules of human biology. God only knows what he can do with his nob.

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But does the material match the physicality? Every impressionist is beholden to the scales of comedy, which weigh quality of voices against quality of jokes, and the ratio is typically only balanced when both are bad. The other fear is always that it’ll be the same half dozen celebrities everyone does; Frank Spencer, Norman Wisdom, Frank Bruno; Prince Charles robotically moving his arms and going “err…” I’m quite delighted when this turns out not to be the case, with Cool’s roster of voices including luminaries such as Mr. Kipling, the Pope, his old teachers, Arthur Scargill, Robin Day (a popular one, granted) and a drunken Lawrie McMenemy unable to pronounce his own name.

The material’s a pleasant surprise too, and with unexpected bite, made all the more disarming by its languid delivery, as Cool takes his time in a slow, soft-spoken Lancashire drawl. One section would incite a flood of coordinated complaints from evangelicals in 2021, where he talks about being “cheated out of an education” at his old school, “where religious instruction took precedence over every other subject… so consequently, when you left the damn place, you were thicker than when you went in.” He takes digs against nuns, walking into the jungle to convert happy, well-adjusted tribes of pagans “into a bunch of unhappy, confused, sickly, westernised Christians,” ending with a punchline where a Tarzan yell segues into Ave Maria. Then there’s an impression of a Jehovah’s Witness walking the streets like a town crier, bellowing “AIDS epidemic spreads by blood transfusion; we told you so!

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The crowd are right with him, until the question “talking about religion… what about this pope?” elicits awkward murmurs. “He’s a right little belter,” says Cool, “very cuddly,” before an impersonation where JP’s chatting to the cardinals at the bar about going to the chippy. He doesn’t hold back in his political gags either, with a Question Time skit that feels contemporary, satirising the format, guests and audience. There’s a pop at Thatcherite Tory Sir Keith Joseph (Day: “I’m not frightened, I’ve got my clove of garlic and my crucifix!”) and lines that tackle the disparity in pay rises between top civil servants and teachers, with Sir Keith blaming the top salaries review board; “and tell us, Keith, who sits on the top salaries review board?” (note: it’s him) Scargill recites a Trade Union-themed Lord’s Prayer — “…and deliver us from Thatcherism” — and there’s even stuff about climate change and fossil fuels, in 1985! Phil’s an ally, and we Stan the rubber-faced funnyman.

Although, you can’t ever get 10 minutes in these things without a Yewtree, so there is a bit with Rolf redecorating the Sistine Chapel, retroactively tainting every line with beastly innuendo about “little cherubs.” The following year, Cool would go onto release a single as Rolf, with a cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water; a track filled with Rolf’s weird little asthmatic noises, taken from comedy album Not Just a Pretty Face. Probably don’t make it the first dance at your wedding. As a whole, the first episode of Cool It is a really enjoyable watch, with the 36-year-old material holding up wonderfully, as it’s not just a slew of empty references to people and things, and all coupled with the uniqueness of Cool’s absolutely grotesque Scrunges. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.

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We skip forwards a year to the second series, co-written with Jasper Carrott. Carrott’s a looming figure in the career of Phil Cool, as a mentor of sorts, following an early bravura performance at Carrott’s folk club, The Boggery. In the 90s, they’d tour together as Carrott and Cool, but here, Carrott’s presence remains behind the scenes, other than a recognisable, uncredited cameo as an offscreen voice, yelling for Cool to get off the stage during a performance of Blowin’ in the Wind (which ends with Cool’s Bob Dylan snorting an unspecified substance off a harmonica). Carrott’s voice is heard most strongly in the material, which plays like a cover version of his folksy shaggy dog stories, in routines rescued from the bottom drawer. There’s a long section about playing rooms “full of plain clothes morris dancers” and “pigeon-chested pigeon fanciers,” and a bit about a guru, “rattling his joss stick and smoking his kaftan.” What’s Phil gonna do in episode 2, sire Dawn from The Office?

Gone is the unique voice of the first series, replaced with this Carrott-karaoke, while the delivery’s changed too. It’s all gotten faster, louder and sweatier, like those horrible VHS tapes of American comics wearing big suits in night clubs, damp mullets swinging as they mime the waddle of an overweight person they saw in the supermarket. Even the face-pulling’s massively reduced to mere punctuation on incredibly poor punchlines, like a bit about STDs in “the itchy 80s” with a rare impression of “the herpes simplex virus” as it lays dormant in the carrier’s neck. I mean, I know I didn’t want all the cliched voices, but this is some monkey’s paw shit.

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I’m assuming anything that’s… unCarrotty is Cool’s half of the writing, of a rushed quality which suggests the first series used up all the tightly-honed material he’d been doing in clubs for years. A bunch of time’s devoted to country singer George Hamilton IV [monkey paw closes another finger] and the Grand Ole Opry, before going all Rory Bremner with the old “imagine if Roy Hattersley were a country singer!” as Roy “splatters me Hattersley” spits everywhere, in that bit nicked from Spitting Image where Cool used to work. There is one great nob gag, about going “round this whole country, scouring for new talent… and I got boxcar willy!” Though it’s absolutely ruined by the follow-up “some people say it’s my fault for sleeping on freight trains!” For those who still don’t get it, willy is slang for penis, and Webster’s Dictionary defines a boxcar as…

What we really want is the funny faces, and without them, it’s Peter Kay not reminding you of things, or Chubby Brown never once mentioning his wife’s smelly fanny. Instead, we get jokes about eating chicken in a basket; “they’d finished the chicken, they were onto the basket!” C’mon, Phil, get a gurn on! Yank your foreskin over your head! Maybe things will improve by jumping forwards to 1988’s final series. Spoilers — they absolutely don’t. Though Carrott’s not providing gags, there’s additional credits for three other writers, which would explain the unfocussed, scattershot nature, and the jokes; oh, the jokes! “Anyone ever un-streaked? Ran through a nudist colony fully clothed?” and “last night, me daughter came home with a yo-yo… I think his name was Brian!

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The satirical rage, once pointed at the grand establishment, now sets its sights on stamp collectors. “How can anyone get worked up about a little piece of gummed paper?!” he rages, miming a protracted orgasm-into-heart-attack while inspecting a stamp under a magnifying glass. He talks about fashion and flared trousers; “I thought i’d go out in them, then I thought, no I won’t, I’ll go far out in them!” There are impressions, but one’s a Kinnock in a routine about deely bobbers and “what if the labour party wore one?!” In the last episode, he’ll submit to fate and do a Prince Charles; arms moving robotically, an “errr” croaking from the side of his mouth. This is Impressionist Hell; Satan in a beret going “ooh, Betty!” As every mimic risks the guillotine should they fail to bring them out, Sean Connery shows up, along with Norman Wisdom, falling over and yelling for Mr. Grimsdale. Almost a full minute goes to Cool rolling around on the floor, making the grizzling Norman Wisdom noise.

Where series three differentiates is with actual sketches, and suddenly cutting away from the stage for the very first time to an actual beach has me trying to climb into the screen for a paddle, like those audiences in 1895 running in fear from a silent train. But then, Cool’s metal detecting geek in coke-bottle glasses says “hello!” in the standard Mr. Bean nerd voice, before digging a ring-pull out of a massive hole. There’s a Parkinson skit, interviewing George Mellie in split screen, with a jarringly homophobic opening, telling his guest to “grab a seat,” as Mellie replies “so do I, Michael.” Parky keeps picking his nose, while Mellie does a squeaky fart. Rolf comes back, playing a “didgeridon’t” and turning into a werewolf. There’s a close-up of a hairy hand grasping at the set as we zoom in, and…

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First Rolf, and now this — double-Yewtree! And in four episodes, he’s the first supporting artiste to show their face. At this point, we reach the absolute nadir, as DLT selects a song on the jukebox from The Four Bottoms. For reasons of TOS, I’m limited in what I can show in illustrative pictures, but imagine as best you can, a man’s bare arse twitching in time with a “bum bum bum” backing track. More arses fill the screen, superimposed either side of Phil’s head, as he sings the delightful refrain “you may see me moving in the moonlight, tryin’ very hard to get my mooning right.” Yes, a romantic ballad about getting your arse out — “I’m mooning, mooning my way into your life” — where Phil’s face at a window dissolves into a horrible aul hoop pushed right up against the glass.

Can I point out that this isn’t even mooning? They’re just naked. Mooning’s when you pull your trousers down, say, in front of a local deputy headmaster and his wife in Sainsbury’s when they’re out doing the Friday big shop, because they left you a bad book review on Amazon, and six months later there’s a picture of you in the paper trying to cover your face with a Paw Patrol backpack outside of court, with the headline BUM NOTE BY LOCAL ‘AUTHOR’ — SUSSEX MAN BANNED FROM HIGH STREET FOR 10 YEARS. Anyway, then there’s two big twitching arses, in full side profile, with Phil’s little head inbetween, all lit like Bohemian Rhapsody. As best they can with late 80’s video effects, it ends with Phil’s head going right up one of the bums, before a parody of Smith and Jones where he’s talking into a man’s bare ricker. The remaining stand-up’s no better, and from the fun of series one, it’s now the full Geoff Tipps — “...Medusa sat there…” — with hacky routines about jogging, contagious yawning, and a trip to the swimming pool; lanes filled with slow old people, used plasters floating by, and “a verruca up the bazooka! (his anus)”

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Of course, there’s a pop at Arnie, milking the decade’s undying obsession with the comedy value of his surname; only pumping up his chest so he can fit it on a t-shirt, and “we’ve seen him as the TerminaTOR, the PredaTOR, I don’t suppose we’ll ever see him as the acTOR!” From great-ish heights, the final half-hour reduces Cool to a yell of “D’YA EVER TWIST YOUR ANKLE?!” while doing a funny walk, admittedly to massive laughter. Ironically, I can imagine it was the sweaty physical comedy which appealed to me as a kid, rather than his early work about the evils of religion. In the last episode, there’s a bit I remember stealing, in my days as irritating class clown, where he pretends to swallow a bee, eyes bugging out, tongue stabbing wildly against the inside of his cheeks to suggest it’s flying around in there. I’m racked with a horrible shiver of embarrassment, and head to YouTube’s comment section for respite.

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Normal! These days, old comedy — any old comedy — has that lot latching on like a lactating breast. The Grumbleweeds and Les Dennis; even Syd Little who’s just standing there; no longer just very poor comedy acts from television past, but devastating A-bombs in the culture war. You can’t even shout “Mr. Grimsdale!” while pretending to fall down the stairs these days without getting thrown in prison! Speaking of normal, what must Phil Cool look like now? We’ve all seen those old trumpet players with sagging cheek pouches. Shockingly, having retired in 2013 after decades of deforming himself, Phil Cool looks like a regular old bloke, and not, as I’d assumed, a Dick Tracy villain called Ballbag Benson. Though he’s unlikely to show up on TV again, I do recommend revisiting the work of Phil Cool, just keep in mind the quality is like the position of his facial features, and varies wildly.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on May 8, 2021.

2 Responses to “Phil Cool”

  1. When is your next article up?

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