Peter Cook: Comedian, 1937 - 1995
Created | Updated Jun 7, 2011
Cricket is nothing if it is not one man pitted against a fish.
Peter Cook left a comic legacy that has influenced every generation of comedians since. He's seen as the man who virtually invented modern satire and whose savage wit made the 'alternative' comedy of the 1980s possible. Former Monty Python star Terry Jones said of him: He changed the course of comedy. He injected a vein of savage irony into British humour which was a breath of fresh air.
From the 1970s until the end of his life, Peter Cook was regarded as not having lived up to his promise - as an unhappy genius who had chosen to devote his life to alcohol and trivia, and who remained in the shadow of his former comedy partner, Hollywood star Dudley Moore. Yet exactly a decade later, in January 2005, he was ranked number one in a list entitled The Comedian's Comedian, a poll voted for by fellow comedians and comic writers and shown on Channel 4 in the UK. He finished ahead of other important, legendary comics such Groucho Marx, John Cleese, Eric Morecambe, Laurel and Hardy and Woody Allen. Coincidentally, the same week the Comedians' Comedian programme was shown, Channel 4 broadcast Not Only But Always, a television movie dramatising the relationship between Cook and Moore, with Welsh actor Rhys Ifans portraying Cook.
I've got nothing against your left leg...trouble is, neither have you.
Peter Edward Cook was born in Torquay on 17 November, 1937 to Alexander and Margaret Cook. Peter's father came from a long line of civil servants in the diplomatic services, a tradition Peter was fully expected to follow. He was educated at Radley College and went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge where he auditioned for the university's Footlights Revue1, impersonating Mr Boylett, a college servant from Radley - who later metamorphosed into Arthur Grole and then EL Wisty. Readily recognisable by his raincoat and hat and nasal drone, this spectacularly dull character specialised in absurd claims about trivial matters.
Once he'd finished his studies, Peter continued to contribute to Footlights revues and began to write sketches for West End revues, most notable for Pieces of Eight (1959) and One Over the Eight (1961) starring Kenneth Williams. The second of these saw the debut of the famous One Leg Too Few sketch - written by Cook at 18, and, in his opinion, something he never bettered - in which a one-legged man auditions for the role of Tarzan.
Beyond the Fringe
I had seen him in the Footlights - an astonishing, strange, glazed, handsome creature producing weird stuff, the like of which I'd never heard before...You felt you were with somebody from the Foreign Office who had suddenly gone completely bananas. - Jonathan Miller
In 1960 Cook joined fellow Cambridge man, Jonathan Miller (a doctor) with two Oxford talents, Dudley Moore (a brilliant jazz pianist) and Alan Bennett (a medieval historian). Together they created the revue, Beyond the Fringe, which, in turn, took the Edinburgh Festival, the West End, and New York by storm. The show contrasted strongly with previous revues in that there were no songs or dancing girls - it was confrontational and satirical and including Cook's famous, groundbreaking impersonation of Harold Macmillan. It was the first time in living memory that politicians, churchmen and the armed forces had been publicly mocked and the show encapsulated post-war impatience with old values. Although slow to take off, the show eventually transferred from Edinburgh to London, via the English provinces, in 1961, and then to New York in 1962 and it led to Cook, Miller and Moore recording an album with two of Peter's Goon Show heroes, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, called Bridge On The River Wye (1962).
Having seemingly effortlessly engineered the decade's 'satire boom', in 1961 Cook and business partner Nick Luard set up The Establishment, 'London's First Satirical Nightclub', which was to be modelled on the political cabarets of Berlin in the Thirties, which, as Cook pointed out, 'did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler'. Proprietors Cook and Luard revived the career of Frankie Howerd as well as introducing Melbourne housewife Edna Everage, aka Barry Humphries, and legendary US comedian Lenny Bruce to British audiences. They tried to set up a similar club in New York in 1963, but their ambitions were quashed due to a failed magazine investment (Scene) – Cook later stated: I lost interest in business as soon as I went out of business.
He saved and sustained Private Eye more than once but never gorged himself on it, still less interfered in it. - Paul Foot
Despite this, there was one area of business Cook was to retain an interest in. The briefly entrepreneurial Cook had, again with Luard, bought controlling shares in the struggling satirical magazine Private Eye in 1962, the beginning of a lifelong association. At the time he joined, the magazine's circulation had dipped from 95,000 to 15,000. Peter introduced the team of Barry Humphries and Nick Garland to the magazine. Together they produced 'The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie', recording the antics of an innocent Australian in Swinging London. It was an enormous hit and played a huge part in reviving the ailing Eye.
Cook's editorial approach can be described as laissez-faire, though he contributed a great deal, including the famous speech-bubble covers (inspired by an American magazine) and Private Eye's 'obituary' writer, EJ Thribb (17 1/2), who always started his poetic tributes 'So, farewell then...' Perhaps more importantly, he kept staff morale high and regularly raised cash (sometimes via show business contacts - over the years loans were converted into shares, making people such as Dirk Bogarde and Jane Asher small shareholders, who were given crates of champagne instead of dividends) throughout a seemingly infinite series of legal battles.
The Satire Boom
While Cook was in the US, he received two bad pieces of news. Firstly, the Establishment Club, already a financial drain, had become infiltrated by Soho gangsters. Additionally, Cook's plan for a weekly BBC television series based around its comedians were seemingly scuppered when Ned Sherrin's That Was the Week that Was - presented by Cook's friend David Frost2 - went into production in 1963. Having pioneered, even invented the modern satire movement, Cook now had to sit by as Frost - a man referred to by Cook as 'The Bubonic Plagiarist' - and co became its figureheads nationwide.
His club and proposed television career seemingly in tatters, Cook returned to Britain in 1964, now married to Wendy Snowden, his girlfriend since Cambridge. However, he was to get another opportunity to break into television comedy when he was reunited with his former Beyond the Fringe colleague, Dudley Moore.
Not Only But Also
Bloody Greta Garbo!
Apart from a couple of one-off television appearances and the occasional spot as EL Wisty on ATV's The Braden Beat in 1964, it wasn't until later that year that he would make his breakthrough - thanks to the fact the BBC had decided to make a pilot show with Dudley Moore and guests from the worlds of music and comedy. Moore invited Cook to come along and create sketches and as a result the series Not Only... But Also was born. The series, a huge success when it aired in 1965, introduced the world to Pete and Dud, in a series of routines that later became known as the Dagenham Dialogues, and other characters such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling (or Greeb-Streebling!), who tried to teach ravens to fly underwater. A second series, in 1966, was just as popular.
It was as Pete and Dud that they are most fondly remembered - Pete was the mildly better informed of the two, as they spoke about everything from modern art to being pursued by film stars, and delighted in regularly making Dudley 'corpse', ie, laugh and forget his lines. This work clearly influenced later comedy double acts, most obviously the 'talking heads' dialogues of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones.
In 1969 Cook and Moore left the BBC temporarily to record three one-hour specials, Goodbye Again for Lew Grade's ATV, but they returned to record the last series of Not Only...But Also in 1970. The series was slightly more experimental than the earlier series and not quite as warmly received. Two more shows were made in Australia the following year, but Cook seemed to be tiring of the partnership and so, temporarily frustrated by his flagging film career, he hosted a disastrous chat show called Where Do I Sit? which was pulled after only three weeks. A rather deflated Cook reunited with Moore for John Antrobus's BBC play An Apple A Day, in 1971.
As their television work raised their profiles, opportunities in film arose for Cook and Moore and they appeared as the Finsbury brothers in Bryan Forbes's comedy film The Wrong Box (1966). Yet it wasn't until 1967 that they made their break in starring roles in the wonderful Bedazzled. A lovestruck Stanley Moon, played by Moore, makes a Faustian pact with the devil (or George Spiggott, played by Cook) in order to win the love of his burger-bar colleague Margaret (Eleanor Bron). Spiggott grants Moon seven wishes (based around the seven deadly sins - providing the opportunity for Racquel Welch to make a memorable appearance as Lillian Lust) but simultaneously thwarts him at every turn. The film was scripted entirely by Cook, but made a disappointing showing at the box office.
Cook's acting career wasn't over, but there was to be no real breakthrough. He had a straight, minor role in A Dandy In Aspic (1968), and took on two more minor roles with Moore, firstly in Richard Lester's film of Spike Milligan and John Antrobus's stage play The Bedsitting Room (1969), and then in Monte Carlo Or Bust (1969). He took on the title role in 1970's The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer which was a reworking of an original script by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Sadly, none of the films was successful either critically or commercially. Later work, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, which reunited the partnership, was received with a similar level of apathy.
Behind the Fridge
Not Only...But Also had been such a success Down Under that they embarked upon a five-month stage tour called Behind the Fridge. Comprising entirely new and rather dark material, it took them to 1972, when the show transferred to the Cambridge Theatre. Reviews were not good and the level of Cook's drinking was starting to become more evident. Despite this, they took the show to Boston, then New York, and finally a full US tour as Good Evening, for which they combined the newer material with old favourites such as One Leg Too Few to huge acclaim.
However, by now Cook and Moore's partnership had been tested severely. When the show's run ended, Cook returned home to Hampstead and Moore decided to go to Hollywood to pursue a film career. Cook's drinking, already out of control, was affecting his professional life. It became worse after the final breakdown of his marriage to Wendy, though he had long been involved with Judy Huxtable, who he married in New York in 1974. Long absences from home and the acrimonious nature of his relationship with Wendy meant he saw little of his daughters Lucy and Daisy and this, added to frustration over his career, seemed to push him more and more towards alcohol, to the increased frustration of Moore.
Derek and Clive
What's the worst job you've ever had?
After a small part in the unremarkable Find the Lady in 1976, Cook rediscovered some old tapes he and Dudley had made, mainly for their own amusement, during the 1973 Behind The Fridge tour. The tapes were far from polished, and much of their content was surreal, scatological and obscene in nature. They were an angrier, filthy Pete and Dud, with Moore as Derek and Cook as Clive. The pair ignored the tapes until they realised that, by way of friends, they were starting to emerge in the form of bootlegs and were becoming highly popular. Derek and Clive (Live) was finally released in 1976 and in effect reinvented Cook and Moore. Cook was enthusiastic, but Moore feared it might jeopardise his chances of Hollywood stardom – though ironically the publicity surrounding the albums encouraged Chevy Chase to suggest him for his first hit film, Foul Play in 1978.
Derek And Clive Come Again followed in 1977 and went even further than the first album – most of its subject matter can't really be discussed here, but it's extraordinarily grim, surreal, harsh and obscene. As a result of this Cook was chosen to present Revolver, a showcase for new punk bands including The Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex and a young XTC as a highly-critical dance hall proprietor. A third Derek and Clive album, Ad Nauseum followed in 1978 with even more reliance on shock tactics, racist language and graphic misogynist imagery. This can be seen as brave or appalling, depending on your point of view.
Sessions for the album were filmed for Derek And Clive Get The Horn (1980) but Moore refused to let Cook release it. The British Board of Film Censors refused to give it a certificate but Cook tried to release it on home video, which he succeeded in doing two years later, though Moore managed to prevent it from reaching an American audience. However, the videos were seized under obscenity laws by the Greater Manchester Police and the video's distribution company went bankrupt. Hardly any copies made their way to members of the public and it was not until 1993 that the film was released. The whole episode was to mark the final end of Cook and Moore's creative partnership.
The piecemeal nature of Cook's work continued during and beyond the Derek and Clive years. He wrote a weekly column, Peter Cook's Monday Morning Feeling, for the Daily Mail in the late seventies. Another film with Moore, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) fell victim to the directorship of Carry On enthusiast Paul Morrisey, and was another disappointment. In what seemed an increasingly fragmented period, Cook also provided a narrative play to join together Godley and Creme's triple album Consequences (1977), and he also played Prince Disgusting in Black Cinderella 2 Goes East, for Radio 4, devised by Douglas Adams.
Many of the highlights of Cook's career after the 1960s appear to have been almost unexpected off-the-cuff pieces. Having appeared at 1976's A Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Stick and the following year's The Mermaid Frolics, Cook reacted to a first-night review of The Secret Policeman's Ball which criticised the Amnesty shows for merely being a collection of comedians regurgitating old sketches, rather than attempting anything challenging. Cook's response was 'Entirely A Matter For You', a parody of Judge Cantley's summing up in the Jeremy Thorpe trial, which, with some last-minute help from Billy Connolly, famously employed the phrase 'self-confessed player of the pink oboe.'
Cook made appearances in a number of programmes throughout the 1980s, notably as Richard III in the first series of Blackadder but he also made a successful show for ITV, Peter Cook and Co, most memorable for a sketch involving Roald Dahl setting fire to his own living room. There was talk of a series, but Cook had committed himself to another project: he was cast as an English butler in American sitcom The Two of Us in 1981, but it only lasted one series. In the meantime, his partner Dudley Moore was unexpectedly becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Cook busied himself, as he prepared for a new film, by writing the foreword for Rock Stars In Their Underpants, a book by Paula Yates.
Cook wrote the film Yellowbeard (1983) with Graham Chapman and Bernard McKenna, starring himself as an aristocrat and Chapman as a pirate, but this too failed at the box office. He continued to appear in charity shows and played a villainous maths teacher in Supergirl (1984), but really his decade was characterised by appearances on other people's programmes. In 1986 he was a resident guest on Joan Rivers's chat show, Can We Talk? but the programme was not a success.
There were still moments of brilliance, but they seemed like accidental bursts of genius that occurred in spite of lengthier projects that required more time and energy yet were less successful. Cook hosted an episode of Saturday Live, Channel 4's late night 'alternative' comedy showcase, in 1986, introducing lots of new material, including a surreal and hilarious piece where Cook played James Last touring Britain. The regular compere, Ben Elton, had introduced Cook previously as 'The Boss', acknowledging the debt the new generation of comedians owed him.
He continued to take on small parts in films and appear on chat shows. He played British Prime Minister Sir Mortimer Chris in the film Whoops Apocalypse in 1986, a bishop in Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride (1987), but most memorably played the title role in The Comic Strip Presents...Mr Jolly Lives Next Door (1987). Mr Jolly is a murderer who occupies an office next to Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson's escort agency.
By now, more than ever, Cook's most inspired pieces of work seem to have been accidental by-products of his attempts to entertain himself. In 1988 he began to ring LBC, a London talk radio station, posing as Sven, a Norwegian fisherman with a Scottish accent. For the next four years listeners of Clive Bull's programme, which went out between four and six in the morning, could hear Swiss Cottage resident Sven pouring his heart out about his estranged girlfriend Jutte and fish.
More minor film roles, in Getting it Right and as journalist in Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire (both 1989) followed, and Cook reunited with Moore, thanks to the efforts of Peter's girlfriend Lin Chong, for a few charity appearances as well as a television interview with Mavis Nicholson. Peter had met Lin, a freelance property developer, in 1982, around the time his marriage to Judy Huxtable had failed, but it wasn't until 1989 that they divorced and he married Lin. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage despite, or because of, the fact they continued to live 100 yards away from each other in Hampstead.
Cook went on to make twelve five-minute shows comprising A Life in Pieces, in 1990, where he was interviewed as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling by Ludovic Kennedy in a short series based around The Twelve Days of Christmas, but he continued to take on small roles in other people's projects. He made occasional show-stealing appearances on programmes such as Whose Line is it Anyway, Have I Got News For You and Fantasy Football League and played a photographer in 1993's One Foot in the Grave Christmas special. He also became the voice of Viz's foul-mouthed Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly, when that character made it to the 'big' screen.
Additionally, he received great reviews as the evil Wesley in ITV drama comedy Gone To Seed, alongside an impressive cast that included Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent and Warren Clarke as triplets running an ailing garden centre.
Clive Anderson Talks Back
Motivation, motivation, motivation - the three Ms. - Alan Latchley, football manager
However, Cook's last real creative triumph was a special edition of Clive Anderson Talks Back in 1993, where he appeared as four different characters. Two characters bore more than a passing resemblance to EL Wisty and Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling: Norman House, a biscuit tester recounted his experiences with supernatural beings, and Judge Sir James Beauchamp, endeared all with a refreshingly 'hang 'em and flog 'em' approach. Additionally, Cook introduced us to cliché-happy football manager Alan Latchley and Keef Richards-like rock legend Eric Daley.
The interest roused by the Clive Anderson programme inspired more work: Why Bother? for Radio 3, a largely-improvised series of Arthur Streeb-Greebling interviews hosted by Chris Morris.
On 6 June, 1994, Cook's mother died and Peter was devastated. He threw himself into more television work, making an appearance on Room 101 (where he confined Gracie Fields, Watchdog and the countryside to oblivion) and making the disappointing Peter Cook Talks Golf Balls. However, he was visibly deteriorating.
So Farewell Then...
Peter Cook died on 9 January, 1995, having suffered a gastrointestinal haemorrhage (a direct result of severe liver damage) in the intensive-care unit of the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, North London. He was 57. Days earlier he had been taken in and announced 'I feel a bit poorly.' It seemed Cook's hard-drinking lifestyle had finally caught up with him.
Cook, who once caused a tabloid storm when rude to Zsa Zsa Gabor on a television chat show, predicted that news of his death would be reported by the press under the headline 'Zsa Zsa Man Dead'. In the event, the papers lamented the passing of a comic genius who had failed to live up to his promise - who'd spent his later years drinking and gambling and watching Brazilian soap operas in Hampstead while his former comic partner became a Hollywood star, and his Beyond the Fringe cohorts excelled in culturally highbrow pursuits.
Although he was known for his role in the development of the modern satire movement, Cook's comedy doesn't appear to have been driven by a desire to make political points. His impression of Macmillan was inspired by the absurdity of the fact that a whimsical dreamer had made it into the highest office in the land, not by any furious sense of injustice. Following Wilson's election in 1964, he found there was less to laugh at, and, as Jonathan Coe pointed out, the common thread running through all of Cook's best comedy was 'not political commitment or moral outrage but a sort of stoical nihilism...instrumental though he was in kicking off the satire movement, I think his greater achievement was to have become our first, and indeed only, existential comedian'. Appropriately, Cook listed his recreations in Who's Who as gambling, gossip and golf.
Though the obituaries mourned the loss of the greatest comic talent of his generation but talked of disappointment at unfulfilled promise, over time the consensus has come round to the views expressed at the time by Jack Tinker: to me, though time had clearly not treated him kindly in the cosmetic department, he gave every impression of a man who had enjoyed life entirely on his own terms. And which of us could ask for more? At a service held to celebrate Peter's life in St John's Church, Hampstead in May 1995, Alan Bennett denied that Cook had been frustrated by this state of affairs and that his only regret was to have saved Sir David Frost from drowning in 1963.