The Peter Cook Tribute – A beginner’s guide to a comedy genius

Part 1 – How it all began

“I could have been a Judge, but I never had the Latin”

In the February 1995 college magazine (Screever) I wrote a tribute article to Peter Cook. At the time I didn’t know much about Peter Cook to be honest. I’d gone home for lunch on the 9th January 1995 and it was on the news that Cookie, as he was affectionately known, had passed away.

Peter Cook the founder of satire, in the correct meaning of the word, passed away at Hampstead’s Royal Free Hospital on the 9th January 1995, as a result of gastro-intestinal haemorrhaging. I’d only seen a few things by Peter Cook – mainly Supergirl, the best of what was left of Not Only…But Also had been shown in the six half episodes in 1990 on a Sunday night on BBC2 and Peter Cook’s last crowning glory had been shown the previous year, Clive Anderson Talks Back.

I went back to college that afternoon saddened by the news that he’d passed away and decided to learn as much as I could about Peter Cook because I loved comedy and he was the master of it. Remember, this was the days before the internet when the information was not at the touch of a button. I remember reading and writing down all the information about him and tributes from the newspapers and Ceefax pages and recording anything on TV about him.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1998 when I went to the library with my younger brother that I picked up a book about Peter Cook – Something Like Fire, Peter Cook Remembered. This was a collection of stories about Peter from his friends. It had been edited by Lyn Cook his third wife, who passed away a few years ago.  This was a time that I started collecting Peter Cook books, CDs and videos. There are probably still a few things I haven’t got. Having read the article again I’d written in the Screever I thought it wasn’t bad for a thousand-word overview of his life. But there were a few things missing and because at that point I’d only touched the tip of Peter Cook (make your own Derek and Clive joke to that innuendo) I only had given an overview of his work, not the man. I aim to give you an overview of Peter’s work and why I love him so much, even though, to a degree, I found him after he died.

Peter Cook was born 17th November 1937 and started his writing career whilst still at school, Radley College near Oxford. Though initially, he had intended to follow his father into the diplomatic service, he found that his talent for comedy brought him immediate success. He had items published in Punch and wrote material performed on the school stage, although he readily confessed “it was really quite appalling”. Whilst at Radley Peter met Arthur Boylett, Radley’s High Table Butler, and he became the basis of his creation for E.L. Wisty with his boring flights of fancy. Having skipped National Service by claiming to have an allergy to feather pillows he went to Cambridge in 1957. Cook stood out even at Cambridge with his funny voices, his fantastic monologues, characters with names such as Pules and Rune; humour poured out of him in an irrepressible stream.

Christopher Booker, of Private Eye magazine, who went to Cambridge with Cook said: “When Peter entered a room full of people and began talking, within thirty seconds everyone was rolling around helpless with laughter”.

In Cook’s first year at Cambridge he had written most of the sketches for a hit West End revue starring Kenneth Williams, Pieces of Eight.

Whilst at Cambridge he came up with one of his most famous sketches with an off-the-cuff remark. Peter Bellwood, his friend, was the straight man for this whilst visiting him one day at his “newspaper-strewn” apartment. Bellwood recalled he happened to be standing on one leg scratching a blister on his heal and Cookie went into asking him why he had decided to come for the part of Tarzan having only one leg when the normal requirement for the role is two. Thus “One Leg Too Few” was born and Cook told Bellwood later that it put him “present at that creation”. In his second year at Cambridge he joined the Footlights and probably made this the conveyor belt of comedy geniuses on our screens we have today. Many other comedians came from the Footlights after Peter, amongst these are John Cleese , Graham Chapman and Eric Idle of the Monty Python team, with more recent comics such as David Mitchell and Robert Webb of Peep Show fame and Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness of the cult show Dark Place.

In his last year at University, Cook’s most successful cabaret act was an hilarious, half-improvised parody of a party-political broadcast sending up the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, which would lead to a later memorable piece in an Edinburgh Fringe Sketch. By the time he left Cambridge he had acquired an agent and was a professional writer. Whilst at Cambridge he met his first wife Wendy Cook, whom he married in 1963 and would spend most of the sixties boom period with and have two daughters, Lucy and Daisy.

“We need a futile gesture at this stage”

Then came his big break…the official Edinburgh Festival organisers asked Dudley Moore, who was at Oxford University, to assist with a revue to counter that being prepared by the Fringe Festival. Moore proposed fellow Oxford stalwart Alan Bennett as collaborator, who suggested a Cambridge pair should also be represented. Over lunch with Cook and Jonathan Miller, the team for Beyond the Fringe was assembled. After Peter had passed away, Alan Bennett commented that the thing he most remembered about Peter from this meeting, apart from his fashionable style of dress, was the number of newspapers under his arm. The newspapers would remain a constant in Peter’s life with him devouring the print on a daily basis, this was the one thing that informed his comedy and would lead to much of his satire. The “Beyond the Fringe” show was a hit in Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre in August 1960, and it was an even bigger hit in London, to which it transferred the following May. The Harold Macmillan PM sketch he had performed in his cabaret act at university became a main piece for “Beyond the Fringe” and by all accounts when the Prime Minister came to watch the show one night Peter adlibbed in the sketch, and I’m paraphrasing “Sometimes I like to go to the theatre and watch these young people putting on their satirical shows and I sit there with a big silly grin on my face. I heard they do a very good impression of me which is great, because I leave a bad impression wherever I go.”  This was the first time that members of parliament had been mocked and to be mocked to their face was even worse. But Cook got away with it, whether Macmillan actually found it funny is debatable but Macmillan claimed that he did.

After the success of Beyond the Fringe, in 1961 Cook set about finding a suitable London venue as a home for the embryonic satire boom. Cook found an ex-strip club on Greek Street in Soho and opened it up as The Establishment Club. It was the first satire club in Britain which would have twice-nightly cabaret, one at 9.30pm featuring a resident cast of regulars and a second at half past midnight featuring the cast of Beyond the Fringe and during the interval of performances The Dudley Moore Trio would play jazz. Peter said it was “The only good title (The Establishment) I ever came up with”. The Establishment didn’t run for a long period of time it opened in October 1961 and closed in 1964. Whilst open it had performers on such as Lenny Bruce in 1962, who was subsequently banned from entering the UK a year later, and also introduced Britain to the talent of Barry Humphries.

The entrepreneurial Cook also planned to set up a magazine, but was beaten to it by Private Eye. When the magazine was floundering in 1962 Cook stepped in as a major shareholder and suggested the trademark cover format of news photos with bubble captions. Private Eye is probably the thing that Cook kept going throughout his life, turning up at the office whenever he felt like it to throw in a few comedy ideas. Cookie’s ideas were always off the wall. In later editions of the magazine he came up with adverts for screaming Hawaiian grass that yells at you to cut it when it reaches a foot long or Torvill and Dean ants skating on an ice cube. 

When Cook was in New York, in the autumn of 1962 with Beyond the Fringe, satire exploded onto British television screens with “That Was The Week That Was”. The show turned David Frost into the most famous satirist of them all overnight. Peter Cook and John Bird had spent the early part of 1962 trying to get the BBC to buy a packaged television satire show based on the Establishment routines. They had devised formats, wrote sample scripts and had endless meetings with the executives at Auntie. However, as John Bird later stated, this was a doomed project. The men from the BBC “nodded, made notes, and eventually came up with their own show” with David Frost as the anchor. Frost had been an admirer of Cook’s from his Cambridge days and had often copied Cook’s routines. Christopher Booker used to joke “D.Frost and leave to Cook for five minutes”. Whilst touring Beyond the Fringe in America David Frost had come to visit Peter and fell into the swimming pool. He appeared to be drowning and Peter jumped in and saved him, Frost said later that he was making a satirical poke at drowning! Peter said on the Dick Cavett Show in the 1970s that he didn’t know if “he should apologise or what” for saving his life, and he said jokingly on another occasion “My biggest regret in life is saving David Frost from drowning”. Peter Cook and David Frost always remained acquaintances throughout his life though, with Frost financing a film of Cook’s.

“She does anything for nothing your Aunt Dolly”

Cook reunited with Moore for Offbeat, a comedy show on the infant BBC2. Here they developed the famous “Dagenham Dialogues” where two cloth-capped, mackintosh wearing working class philosophers discuss world affairs in a uniquely uninformed monotone. From this came their own series, the classic “Not Only…But Also”, beginning in January 1965. Successful and successive series established them as a comic institution. Joe McGrath had been asked by Frank Muir and Bill Cotton at the BBC to produce a comedy special. He approached Dudley, who in turn suggested Peter being involved. Up until the point of Peter being involved it was just be the Dudley Moore Show starring Not Only Dudley Moore, But Also His Guests . The special was to have John Lennon on it and so the title was to be Not Only Dudley Moore and Peter Cook But Also John Lennon. However the title then got reduced to what we know it as today.

Through this they became a comedy double act. 1966 saw their first feature film, “The Wrong Box” and the following year came “Bedazzled”, in which Cook undertook the role of the Devil, who comes to earth in the unlikely shape of a traffic warden, George Spiggot. Also starring in Bedazzled as the love interest was former university friend Eleanor Bron.

The story for Bedazzled was by Peter and Dudley, with the screenplay being written by Peter and all the music by Dudley. Although at the time it didn’t set the box office on fire it is now considered a classic, and deservedly so. If Bedazzled had fared better at the cinema at the time who knows what films Peter may have written. The film includes many memorable scenes and the stand out song of the Film “Bedazzled” by Drimble Wedge and the Vegetation, Cook speak/singing such lines as “I’m self-contained” and “You fill me with inertia”. The basic story is an updated/comedy version of Dr Faustus with Cook as the Devil giving hamburger cook Stanley Moon (Moore) seven wishes in the return for his soul. Stanley’s seven wishes are inevitably to try and get Eleanor Bron, a waitress in the hamburger bar, to fall in love with him. The Devil says of the seven wishes for his soul “it’s a standard contract. Gives you seven wishes in accordance with the mystic rules of life. Seven days of the week, Seven Deadly Sins, seven seas, seven brides for seven brothers.” Within the wishes Dudley becomes different characters.

 In 1969 they made “Monte-Carlo or Bust” and “The Bedsitting Room”, which had been a stage play written by Spike Milligan, formerly of The Goons. Moore went on to make some films separately from Cook, and Cook wrote with John Cleese and Graham Chapman “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer”. It was a spoof on politics and masterminding your way to the top, it was also a bit of a send-up of David Frost, whose company Paradine Productions was financing it! It was Peter’s first solo starring vehicle, and due to the release of it being delayed until after the British 1970 election it did damage it at the box-office. If it had been released before it may have fared better but unfortunately he had another flop, it is now seen as a cult classic and rightly so.

Before the 1960s were over his marriage to Wendy was over, the divorce would come through in 1971, and he had started a new relationship with Judy Huxtable. They had met several times in the 1960s but by 1967 both their marriages were failing and they finally started seeing one another, they would be married in 1973. This was a busy time for Peter with writing and filming Bedazzled and also writing and performing in the Goodbye Again for ITV. This was a comedy show in a similar style as Not Only But Also but a bit more slick under Lew Grade which would be aired in 1968. And then the 1970s came and times they were a changing….



2 Responses

  1. Outstanding piece of writing, my good man!!!

    • geekforce30

      Thank you Sherpa, too kind!

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