The Rise & Fall of the Great Comedian Peter Cook
Originality of thought and a command of words give him a maturity of style beyond his years. In speech or essay he is never dull and his work should always be interesting. — Peter Cook’s school report, aged 14
I know I’ve been destructive. What I do reflects the idiocy and chaos within myself. — Peter Cook
In the self-congratulatory world of show business, the word “genius” is used casually and often, and “comic genius” more than most, but in its original sense it is occasionally appropriate. In Latin, genius means a spirit, and more specifically genius loci: a protective, pervasive spirit said to guard and bless a particular place. Between the 1960s and ‘70s, Englishman Peter Cook was the genius loci of British satirical comedy.
Born in 1937, and apparently destined to go into the Foreign Office, Cook chose comedy instead, and would go on to co-found the seminal Cambridge University revue Beyond the Fringe, create Soho’s famous (and infamous) Establishment Club, buy and edit the British satirical magazine Private Eye, create some of British comedy’s greatest characters with his long-time associate — and often antagonist — Dudley Moore, make several films, marry three times, and spend the tail-end of his career and life drifting in and out of severe alcoholism. His biographer, Harry Thompson, was part of Cook’s world, and Peter Cook is comprehensive and exhaustive. As well as charting Cook’s life, it is a panoramic social document of “swinging London.”
Cook went to Radley public school, where he was lonely and introverted. That changed when he went up to Cambridge University and began writing comic material for the college’s famous Footlights Revue. His confidence soared and he began writing successfully for West End shows in London. Then he forged three friendships that not only changed his life, but altered British comedy until it was almost unrecognizable.
Jonathan Miller was a junior house surgeon, Alan Bennett an academic, and Dudley Moore a jazz pianist who led his own trio. Between them they formed Beyond the Fringe. Their sketches would influence generations of comics, not least Monty Python.
The roots of British satire being at Cambridge University meant that much of the humor produced was cerebral rather than slapstick. In his sketch Mr. Moses, Cook displaces a standard music-hall joke to Biblical times:
First man: Hello hello hello, who was that woman I saw you with last night?
Second man: That was no woman, that was Elosheba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Naashon, son of Mushi and Jochabed.
(Cue cymbal crash)
Thompson points out that the reason so many political satirists emerged from Britain’s elite universities is that they were able to observe their future political leaders from both close quarters and at an early age. And it was political satire that was to be the making of Peter Cook, with the opening of the Establishment Club in London’s Soho. “The Establishment” was a phrase coined in the Spectator magazine “to describe the invisible nexus of power that controls our lives.” It was the deep state in Savile Row suits. To set up a club named for this powerful cabal, and then to ridicule it, was iconoclastic in a way hard for us to appreciate 60 years later. Thompson notes: “Impressions of Prime Ministers are of course common today [Thompson’s biography of Cook was published in 1997], but [then] they were rather shocking.”
Referring to Peter Cook’s impression of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Christopher Booker — later Cook’s colleague at Private Eye — said the skit was “the key moment in the birth of what was to become known as the satire movement.”
Booker had vaguely irritated Cook by showing him the first issue of Private Eye, the most enduring satirical magazine in the United Kingdom – which is still going. Cook had planned a very similar magazine, but he needn’t have worried; the hard work had been done for him. The Eye, as it is still known, has always been involved in various libel lawsuits, and had just been cleaned out in court. Cook was making money and effectively bought it, becoming its editor at the same time. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Peter and the magazine which became the house publication of the satire boom.
The Eye was far from being simply satirical, and soon gained a reputation for investigative journalism which made “the establishment” began to fear it. Readers learned first about “the Heath government’s secret talks with the IRA, Israeli links with the mafia,” and other scoops. Cook was uniquely placed to take the pulse of the media, regularly buying all the daily newspapers. Despite never having been seen to read a book, or mentioned having done so, he was regularly seen with sheafs of newsprint.
The Establishment Club was the place to be seen, and Peter cast his net for some high-flying acts. He flew in American comic Lenny Bruce, not knowing Bruce was a heroin addict. One night at 3 AM, Cook found himself driving Bruce around London, looking to score. Bruce’s residency ended when he jumped from a hotel window shouting “I am Superjew!” and broke both his ankles. Eventually, the British authorities deported him. Years later, in a strange reversal, Joseph Heller would take Cook out for a nocturnal drive around New York to find prescription drugs for the Englishman.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had now formed a double act, and it wasn’t just the glitterati of London who flocked to see them. When they went Stateside and played on Broadway, those who crowded the stage door to be introduced to the pair included Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Walter Matthau, Tennessee Williams, Henry Kissinger, and Groucho Marx. Groucho invited them back to his apartment for a private performance as he was quite deaf and couldn’t hear the show. He described Cook and Moore as “two of the funniest performers I have ever seen.”
Back in England, Cook and Moore were a part of That Was the Week That Was, a satirical news program, and Peter and Dudley triumphed with Not Only . . . But Also. They made the natural jump from TV and made a film, Bedazzled, which would turn out to be the best of Peter’s several films, although Dudley would briefly go on to much greater things.
Bedazzled has a good central conceit, being the Faust legend played out in ‘60s London. Moore plays Stanley Moon, who is in a no-hope job and besotted with an unattainable girl, and who is visited by the Devil, played by Peter in dapper Carnaby Street threads. There are good gags and good scenes, but it is a collection of sketches rather than possessing a single, linear plotline. The film did well in Europe, but failed to make either Pete or Dud a film star. Years later, it would be Dudley Moore who made two Hollywood box-office hits — 10 and Arthur — as a surprise leading man. Peter never made another decent movie.
Peter Cook simply wasn’t strong enough to carry a linear narrative through the entirety of a film. John Cleese felt that “[a]lthough he was a great sketch performer, he wasn’t a very good actor.” Cleese also remarked that whereas it would take him and the Pythons six hours to come up with a good three-minute sketch, it would take Peter three minutes.
And if Cook wasn’t a very good actor, he wasn’t a very good talk show host, either, which was one of the doomed ideas the BBC came up with when Cook’s career was ebbing. Jonathan Miller pointed out that Cook “wasn’t cut out to be a chat show host. He was cut out to be a chat show guest.”
Cook’s comic engine room was extemporizing, improvising, and making language do his bidding, not working to a formal script. Thompson encapsulates Peter’s style to a nicety: “Never can there have been a comedian who combined such speed of thought, such power of spontaneous invention and such sheer tangential originality.”
Spontaneous invention led to Cook’s next comic exploit with Moore, the controversial album Derek and Clive Live. Cook and Moore worked up their material in situ rather than writing it first, and they wanted to release a set of recordings which were the fruition of these improvisations.
Derek and Clive are extensions of the pair’s famous Pete and Dud characters, who sit in the pub discussing entirely meaningless topics, but far more stupid and foul-mouthed. The album was laced with obscenities, and consequently no record company would touch it. But bootleg cassette tapes began to circulate, and the sketches appealed to rock stars and schoolboys alike (perhaps because those personality types are more or less the same). In 1976 The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin all had the tape on their tour buses — or tour jet, in Zeppelin’s case. It is a mark of Cook’s fame that he was friendly with all three bands.
But Derek and Clive Live dovetailed neatly with the punk zeitgeist, and the album finally came out in 1977, when I first heard it along with a bunch of other 16-year-old schoolboys grouped around a push-button cassette player. Follow-up albums became increasingly crass, but the first influenced later, more ribald comics.
Meanwhile, out of character (and Peter would often converse in one of his character’s voices), Peter’s drinking finally exasperated Moore to the extent that he went his own way. Increasingly incapable on stage, Cook was a nasty drunk, and Dudley had often been the butt of his cruel jokes, so the accelerant of alcohol was too much. Cook stood over six feet tall, while Moore was 5’2” and was born, like Byron, with a club foot. Peter would seize on these handicaps mercilessly.
Cook was an alcoholic in a bipolar way, going weeks without a drink and then going on great boozing sessions, mixing alcohol with prescription drugs. Thompson paints a depressing picture of Cook in the last five years of his life. The once-dandyish prince of the Cambridge footlights “became a familiar sight shuffling down Hampstead High Street, often in his carpet slippers, always with a stack of newspapers under his arm, slurring his requests in shops.”
There was some energy left in the battery, and Cook made some memorable cameo appearances in TV comedy, as well as being perennial value for money on the chat-show circuit. His nature as a prankster never deserted him. For some time, he would call a late-night phone-in show posing as Sven, a lonely Norwegian fisherman alone in London without a girlfriend, or even any fish. Cook’s last appearance was an old-style triumph, appearing on a talk show as four different guests over the course of the hour. It was fitting that he went out triumphally.
Cook died in 1995, finally killed by what was left of his liver, an organ already weakened by jaundice as a young man. It was later found that the BBC had wiped many of Peter and Dudley’s performances, indicating a lack of an archivist with vision, but there is still plenty of material to be found from all stages of Cook’s career. Cook and Moore’s most famous sketch is here, and concerns a one-legged man auditioning to play Tarzan. One of Pete and Dud’s Socratic pub chats is here (also above), and an example of the pair’s later vulgarity is horseracing at Newmarket, here.
“The tears of a clown” is a familiar trope in which British comedians excelled. Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers, among many others, were alcoholics, and perhaps the demands of a mind that is at least partly chaotic leads inexorably to the grape and the grain. But Peter Cook as a tragic drinker was the coda to Peter Cook the wordsmith, a man who didn’t care whether his audience was 600 at the Establishment Club or six at a dinner party, as he would still reduce them to tears of laughter. His was the spirit that presided over the last great British comic revolution. Not a genius, but a genius loci.
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