‘Everyone had a shiny jacket and dickie bow. I stuck out like a sore thumb’
When I caught Phil Cool live at Chorley Town Hall in 1999, he seemed genuinely surprised after the interval that the audience were still around for his second set.
That summed 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.
Last year he went on his farewell tour, having grown tired of travelling between his home in the Ribble Valley and the UK comedy circuit, looking forward to new-found pensioner status.
Now we have what look like his final gigs, one in his Chorley hometown, the other in 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.
“I told the guy that ran it, Steve Taylor, I used to be a patron of the Royal Oak, in other words I drank there! I had a look, and when I saw that cellar said, ‘this is just the place’.
“I’d started The Laughing Gas at the cricket club on Fox Lane, Leyland, in 1981. I asked Steve if I could switch it there and he said yeah.
“I told him I was getting fed up of booking acts, and he said he’d sort all that out. So I let him and just came and did my stuff.
“I didn’t get paid, but I was just limbering up for my TV show.
“That was in 1985. I was doing Young Ones routines and that, 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.”
He goes on to cover his formative years, including those at St Augustine’s Secondary Modern School in Chorley – now part of Holy Cross RC High School.
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.”
Secondary school wasn’t a particularly happy time for Phil Martin, as he was known, 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, including the day he got into 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 the 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. 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.
“From that moment 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.
“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.
“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.”
Did he 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.”
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.”
After his late ‘90s comeback, Phil had a major run-in with his health, 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 wouldn’t recommend it. Although the chap that did it must have done a good job, because I feel good now.
“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 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 the 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 any thing 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.”
I get the impression if an offer comes up, Phil might yet be tempted to do more gigs.
“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.
Meanwhile, Phil Cool – Stand-Up Chameleon is available as an e-book via www.philcool.co.uk