“I GO TO THE THEATRE TO BE ENTERTAINED…I DON’T WANT TO SEE PLAYS ABOUT RAPE, SODOMY AND DRUG ADDICTION…I CAN GET ALL THAT AT HOME”
The 1980s are often described as Peter Cook’s wilderness years. I’m going to be controversial and say that I don’t think this decade was entirely wasted. Cook never reached the heights that Dudley Moore did as a leading man in movies or had the interviewing career of David Frost.
What Peter Cook did have though was the respect of other comedians, because he was a genius. But Peter’s 1980s period was definitely not wasted, it was varied and he fits more projects within 10 years than most people do in a life time. So I will actually go out on a limb and say that while most people comment that Peter Cook wasted his talent in the latter half of his life I will say he actually diversified and experimented. Although he didn’t have the success of the 70s with touring a stage show and a number one record, I think the 80s were more eclectic and he probably become the ultimate talk show guest.
The first thing that Peter started writing was “Peter Cook and Co”. A one off E.L.Wisty special. It’s a shame this did not become a series. The show co-starred John Cleese, Beryl Reid, Rowan Atkinson and Paula Wilcox. One of my favourite sketches in this is the spoof of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected where Cook, as Roald Dahl, says that he used to be Ronald Dahl but dropped the N to be more mysterious, then a log drops off the fireplace next to him and starts setting everywhere on fire while, totally oblivious, he carries on talking. Completely balmy but fun.
In the early 1980s Peter started work on a CBS sitcom in America called The Two of Us. Cook played an English Butler named Brentwood. By all accounts Peter liked the idea that he was in LA and competing with Dudley. Filming went into 1981 and the first series aired, by March 1982 it was cancelled due to it simply not being good enough.
Peter’s next memorable role is that of Richard III in “The Blackadder” (1983), the first in a series of sitcoms starring Rowan Atkinson which were written by Rowan Atkinson, Ben Elton, and Richard Curtis. Peter is only in the first episode but plays a great part. Also, in 1983 Peter appeared on TV-am in a “Through the Keyhole” spoof where he imitates Lloyd Grossman as he goes round Grossman’s home!
In 1986 Peter had two very different experiences on TV. The worst programme that Peter was involved with during this period must be “Can We Talk?” a talk show with Joan Rivers hosting and Peter as her sidekick. Peter was ill-advised to take part in this, especially after the disaster of his previous talk show experience in the 1970s. He sits quietly for most episodes watching the interviews. In one episode Bernard Manning says, horribly, “You used to be very funny Peter.” The chat show got bad reviews and, luckily for Cook, it was cancelled. Peter Cook is one of the best talk show guests one can imagine ever having on a show, however, he seems to be ill-at-ease interviewing others.
The other programme in 1986 was Saturday Live in which he appeared in several sketches performing with John Bird and John Fortune, with the up-and-coming comedians of the 80s also performing: Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders, Harry Enfield as Stavros and motormouth stand-up Ben Elton. These sketches made up for the talk show experience.
One of Cookie’s highlights for the 1980s was appearing in 1988’s “The Comic Strip Presents - Mr Jolly Lives Next Door”, with Peter playing the title character Mr Jolly.
It was directed by Stephen Frears and Cook played the psychopathic contract killer who hacks up his victims to the classic 1960s tunes of Tom Jones.
Cook went on to make several films in the 1980s beginning with “Yellowbeard” (1983) with which he had a writing credit due to helping Graham Chapman, of Monty Python fame, with a rewrite in October 1980. The following year in 1984 he co-starred in “Supergirl”, based on the DC comics character, warlock Nigel! The movie was considered a box-office bomb. Interestingly Dudley also starred in another Alexander and Ilya Salkind film “Santa Claus: The Movie” (1985).
Whether Peter craved the film accolades which Dudley had received is hard to say, but appearances in other films followed “Whoops Apocalypse” (1988), “Without a Clue” (1988) and the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic “Great Balls of Fire!” (1989). He also had a brief but memorable scene in “The Princess Bride” as the vicar with a lisp. His final film role was in 1994, working once again with Eleanor Bron in “Black Beauty”, the pair played Lord and Lady Wexmire. Eleanor recalls in “Peter Cook Remembered” that on the first day of the shoot, she was to be picked up by a chauffeur. Her doorbell rang and she heard a foreign voice - it was Peter experimenting with a new persona “Darling - is a nightmare! From Hampstead – the roads – are entirely clear – every traffic light is green! A nightmare!”
Peter’s 80s career was patchy, but it was diverse. His home life was even worse as he became estranged from Judy in 1983, with her living at Mitchell Leys Farm and him staying at Perrins Walk in Hampstead. By all accounts, he never wanted to break up with Judy but she could not deal with his moods and alcohol consumption.
From 1988 to circa 1992 he made phone calls to LBC Radio to the late night/early morning show of Clive Bull. Clive didn’t know it was Peter. Peter was talking in the guise of a Norwegian fisherman Sven, who was living in a Swiss Cottage and was trying to find his wife Yuta who had fled to London to get away from him or the fish in Norway. It is melancholy and slightly sad but also hilarious that Cookie was doing this for his own amusement as no one knew it was a comedy creation. In many ways, it paralleled his own life with Judy’s.
One of my favourite Peter Cook moments is during the 1980s when David Frost phoned him and said he was taking Prince Andrew and his fiancé out for dinner, giving Peter the date of the dinner, and asking if would Peter like to join them. Peter on the other end of the phone is heard leafing through his diary and then replies “I’m sorry I’m busy watching TV that night”. Classic Peter, cutting but absolutely hilarious and just the reason David wanted him as a dinner guest!
“I HAVE LEARNT FROM MY MISTAKES, AND I AM SURE I CAN REPEAT THEM EXACTLY”
As the 1980s came to an end his relationship with Judy finally ended with divorce and Peter met his 3rd Wife Lin Chong, whom he married in 1989.
Lin was able to order Peter’s life and organise him better, giving him structure and helping him start to become a little soberer.
The early 1990s was Peter’s last hoorah making new TV shows and radio programmes. These included “A Life in Pieces” which was aired over the Christmas/New Year Period of 1990/1991. It had Ludovic Kennedy interview Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and was made up of 12 episodes, every 5 minutes, based around the 12 days of Christmas. This then led to Cook working with Chris Morris (who would go on to create two controversial series: Brass Eye and Jam) on the BBC Radio 3 series Why Bother? This consisted of five 10-minute episodes of Morris interviewing Cook in character as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, this was broadcast in January 1994. Cook received sole writing credit and Morris producer although the pair adlibbed the majority of the dialogue, which Morris then edited. The series are flights of fancy on Cook’s and Morris’ part and a tour de force by Cook.
Cook had a few more TV roles in the 90s one as Martin Trout, a paparazzo, in “One Foot in the Algarve” a 1993 one and half hour special from the TV show “One Foot in the Grave”. It follows the Meldrews with their friend Mrs Warboys on a holiday to Portugal. Cook’s character follows them believing they have a roll of film that belongs to him. It is a really good piece of acting, maybe the best Cook ever did in fact.
One of my favourite stories of Peter in this period is of a Nile Cruise organised by John Cleese in April 1992 to spend time with his friends. Peter and Lin went on this tour and as told by Stephen Fry in “Peter Cook Remembered”, Peter invented a new game. At the Royal Simbel Hotel in Abu Simbel on a very hot day, everyone was sitting around the pool and Peter concocted a game using the swimming pool steps and a beach ball. It was called “The Royal and Not Noticeably Ancient Game of Abu Simbel” and had unusual words for the scoring system such as “a Rufford”, “Strottled”, “Trote” and an “Abu Simbel” and instead of teams it was a “Frett”. This was the brilliance of Peter; he didn’t need to be on TV to invent something magic - he just needed an audience. John Cleese once said of Peter “It was almost discouraging. Whereas most of us would take six hours to write a good three-minute sketch, it took Peter three minutes to write a three minute sketch.”
Peter went on to be on comedy quiz shows such as “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and “Have I Got News For You!”, appearing as a great talk show guest for Clive James and putting items into Room 101 with Nick Hancock. He had one final amazing appearance on “Clive Anderson Talks Back” in 1993, where, instead of appearing as himself, he played four different characters; Norman House, who had been abducted by aliens, which looked like beavers, for what seemed like years, but was in fact in our time 3 minutes; Sir James Beauchamp, a judge who had been suspended for shooting a woman in court and whose wife is paralysed down one side, which means “she can serve drinks, but not peanuts at the same time”; Alan Latchley who became a football manager at the age of 16 and a half and who gives his view of football as “she’s a cruel mistress, she’s more than a mistress she’s a wife, she’s a mother, she’s a daughter, she’s a child, she can make you laugh, she can make you cry, she can bring blood to my shoulders, she can bring the kettle to the boil, but football is about nothing unless it’s about something and what it’s about is football!”; and finally he played Eric Daley who created the first super-group in the seventies “Ye Gods” and whose greatest hit was the appropriately titled “I love it”, for the lyrics throughout the song are “I love it”. Eric also had a patchy film career taking roles such as Edward the Confessor. Cook in 1994 made a video along the same lines as this show, called “Peter Cook talks Golf Balls”.
One of the things which Peter always carried on being involved with was the Private Eye Magazine and in these later years, he would be with Ian Hislop, the Editor of the magazine, at Court hearings when they had been sued for liable.
One such liable case was from The Daily Mirror when, the then proprietor, Robert Maxwell had Private Eye Magazine taken off newsstands for a potentially liable case. Peter decided the best course of action was to send crates of alcohol to the Mirror office and then go around, which they did to find all staff legless. Peter then rang the Mirror photography department telling them they needed photos. Peter and Ian then drew in crayons on the windows ‘Hello Captain Bob’. Hislop recalled, "Then Peter had the bright idea of calling up Maxwell in New York. He said: ‘I'd like to speak with Maxwell.’ ‘Why?’ came the answer. ‘Because I'm in his office’. We all shouted: 'Hello Captain Bob' down the phone and were eventually thrown out of the building by Mirror security.”
During the late 1980s and into the 1990s Pete and Dud did work together again. Dudley had immense success in films but then like all film careers it wasn’t sustained by the films he chose. So both Peter and Dudley found themselves back together again for Comic Relief 1987 in America, on stage for the first time in over a decade, performing in One Leg Too Few. They then went on to appear together again in The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball for four nights in August/September 1989 with Cook as Arthur Streeb-Greebling in the Frog and Peach sketch with Dudley interviewing and also doing One Leg Too Few. Then in 1990, they promoted the video release for the “Best of What’s Left of Not Only…But Also”, doing the talk show circuit. They had campaigned the BBC, in part thanks to a pleading letter from Cook’s elderly mum, to piece together six half-hour compilation programmes which were shown on BBC2 in November and December 1990.
Then again in 1993, they got together to promote the video release of Derek and Clive Get the Horn. Peter was never happier than when he had Dudley to spar off and, even though Peter was fantastic on his own, I think he always felt slightly lost without Dudley as a comedy partner.
Peter never went on to be a worldwide success like his friend Dudley Moore, or a great chat show host like David Frost. He has been quoted as saying “I was very, very ambitious. I liked to be sort of buzzing around and being an eager beaver. Quite intolerable I should think. I was showing off to a greater degree than I ever have since. Fortunately, it all went wrong. I think I ran out of ambition at 24.” He also said, “Ambition can lead people to take pretty desperate measures, and I am not that desperate.”
Alexi Sayle had said to Time Out magazine before Cook’s death “Peter Cook was the best; unbelievably quick-witted, moving, wizard-like, to the best line and onwards to complex, mad improvisations of dare-devil skill. There seems to be some unwritten rule in comedy; the truly talented flounder, while the ruthless self-promoters and self-advertisers – the Dudley and Frosties’ – go onward and upward”.
“IF YOU THINK YOU CAN GET THE SECRET OF LIFE FOR TWENTY-FIVE SHILLINGS YOU DON’T DESERVE TO HAVE IT. SEND FIFTY SHILLINGS FOR THE SECRET OF LIFE”
Ever since Peter’s death, I’ve collected as much as I can about him. From about 2002 there was a renewed interest in Peter with “Peter Cook Posthumous tribute”, in which celebrities were raising money for charity while performing their own and Peter’s comedy sketches. There was also a one-off made-for-television film during Christmas 2004 about his life, along with Dudley, called “Not Only But Always” starring Rhys Ifans as Cook and Aidan McArdle as Moore.
There have been other programmes about Derek and Clive, lost tapes have been found of sketches Dud and Pete filmed in Australia, and then in 2016 Lin Cook, his widow, gave permission for Victor Lewis-Smith to access Peter’s Hampstead house and view all his private recordings and personal clutter.
Lin had locked up the house in 1995 after his death and denied any access to it with everything untouched. Lin gave this access as she was selling the house, assumedly this was due partly to her failing health as she passed away in November 2016 at the age of 71.
What happened to these possessions of Peter’s we may never know. Whether Victor Lewis-Smith now holds the Dead Sea Scroll recordings and we will have to wait and see if these are ever released, or if they are still as blasphemous as they were in the early 1960s when recorded.
It’s amazing how times change from the days when Cookie passed away and there were literally no books about him and just a few video releases of his work. Suddenly books began to appear with “Something Like Fire”, then “Peter Cook: a biography” by Harry Thompson (which was amazing to find out so much about his life), followed by a great book by the Peter Cook Appreciation Society, books by both ex-wives Wendy Cook with “So Farewell Then£, and Judy Cook with “Loving Peter”. The last biography was by William Cook with “One Leg Too Few: The Adventures of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore”. I remember looking for Peter Cook material on YouTube in around 2005 and there was hardly anything, then YouTube exploded and there’s not much that you won’t be able to see of his sketches. The last thing that needs to be released is a definitive collection of the best of what’s left of Not Only…But Also. Collecting all the surviving clips and audio in one DVD collection would be the perfect way to remember Peter and Dudley.
And this brings me to the end of the great man’s short but brilliant life. Maybe fame and failure lead him to alcohol and in turn to not produce as much as he could have. Looking back on Cookie’s career you can only applaud the things he did achieve and most of it, 90% of it, made us laugh.