Remembering the unmistakeable Paul Cooke

The Vic in Victoria Road, Old Town, 1986: Pete Fitzsimmons, Pete O’Driscoll, The Big Man, Steve Hobbs and Jonny Stephens

The Vic in Victoria Road, Old Town, 1986: Pete Fitzsimmons, Pete O’Driscoll, The Big Man, Steve Hobbs and Jonny Stephens

First published in News
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Swindon Advertiser: Photograph of the Author by

AS the final strains of the band’s heady take on Howling Wolf’s Chicago blues classic Killing Floor evaporate into the dank air of a packed, smoke-filled pub, the sax player’s timing is perfect as he proclaims, with the exaggerated swank of a fairground barker: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I want you to put your hands together and welcome onstage the man everyone is talking about… in the flesh… the fabulous… the one and only… the unmistakable… Paul Cooke.”

The crowd suddenly parts like the Red Sea deferentially making way for Moses.

Squashed into a penguin-like tuxedo, he swaggers through the beery throng, expertly milking the moment and grinning with anticipation as he thrusts his way onstage.

“They call, they call me The Fat Man, ‘cause I weigh 200 pounds,” bawls the hefty singer from behind a sinister pair of shades. “All the girls they love me, ‘cause I know my way around…”

Wedged at the front are the band’s dedicated following of Mods, bellowing along with the choruses, clapping hands and raising their arms in unison when instructed by the Big Fella.

It could have been the Steam Railway in Newport Street, The Vic in Victoria Road, The Kingsdown in Stratton, the now-demolished White House near the station or a string of other live music-friendly drinking houses in and around Swindon that Paul Cooke and his band frequented during the mid-Eighties.

Whatever the venue, everyone present knew they were in for 90 minutes of rowdy rhythm and blues, a healthy dollop of Swindon soul (by way of Memphis) and no shortage of showbiz bluster Paul Cooke-style. It was simply unmistakable!

Next month the Advertiser will publish a supplement of 160 Swindon headline-makers to mark this newspaper’s 160th anniversary. Sadly Paul Cooke’s name will not be among them.

That is because he died at the age of 22 on the cusp of a potentially huge career as an actor, singer, musician and all-round extrovert performer… his prospects agonisingly unfulfilled.

The door of his London agent was in the process of being trampled by TV and film production people when 20-stone Paul fell ill in the summer of 1986 and died weeks later from pancreatitis.

Who knows where Paul’s immense talent would have taken him. At the time of his illness, a role in EastEnders was on the cards while acclaimed British film-maker Mike Leigh was keen for a link-up.

It is nothing short of a tragedy that this singular and rather wonderful fellow – described by his agent as “quite brilliant for his age” – died so young.

Paul Cooke – who would have been 50 yesterday – was a former pupil of Hreod Burna School who taught himself blues piano on an old upright in the spare room at parents’ Greenmeadow home.

Despite suffering severe dyslexia, at 16 he became one of the youngest students ever to win a coveted place at the celebrated Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) which he did with the aid of a council grant.

After leaving RADA in 1985, his acting career began to take off with small parts in TV shows Casualty and a Very Peculiar Practice.

His perceptive performance of wimpy Barry Sutton in Granada TV’s medical drama The Practice garnered much praise.

Brief appearances in films The Death of Patton, starring George C Scott, and Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, with Phil Daniels, followed but with much bigger stuff on the horizon.

However, he still found time to front – in soul shouting, piano-pumping mode – an uproarious Swindon rhythm and blues outfit whose ever changing names included Paul Cooke and the Lucky Ones, Paul Cooke and the Fourtunettes and The Unmistakable Paul Cooke.

The first time I met Paul he came strutting into the Advertiser’s offices in 1985 with the words: “I’m gonna be a big star.” He was certainly big! “I’ve got a band – come and see us,” were my instructions.

It was at the old skittle alley at the back of the Steam Railway. The band was outstanding, playing tough, sassy r’n’b. Paul, however, dominated the proceedings, hollering into the mike, cajoling the audience, his lightning fingers rampaging over the keys.

Initially Paul’s stage gear of preference was tennis whites before the band later adopted a dapper Blues Brothers style tux and dickie-bow guise.

I can’t and don’t wish to extinguish the image of The Big Man in his Boris Becker glad-rags temporarily abandoning his beloved Yamaha electric piano at The Kingsdown after the pub’s pool table was daft enough to have caught his eye.

There was a collective intake of breath as the larger-than-life maestro somehow sprang mid-song onto the green baize and performed a triumphant jig. Buckled but unbowed, the table somehow held outOn another occasion he wasn’t so lucky. Sax player Steve Hobbs recalled Paul bounding onto a table where he had plonked his Yamaha during a show at the Link Centre. “The whole thing collapsed. It was hilarious.”

The screen, however, beckoned. Paul landed “a great role” in a Mike Leigh film provisionally titled Rhubarb, alongside Julie Walters, Jane Horrocks and David Thewlis.

Like the table at the Link, however, the project suddenly collapsed. But there were options aplenty on the horizon when Paul became fatally ill. Speaking shortly after his death, his agent Alan Turner of Michelle Braidman Associates, London, W1 said: “Paul was developing into a very promising and well-loved character actor. “We were receiving enquiries for Paul from some of the best casting people in the business.”

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