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Peter Cook

Peter Edward Cook (17 November 1937 – 9 January 1995) was an English satirist, writer and comedian. He is widely regarded as the leading figure in the British satire boom of the 1960s. He has been described by Stephen Fry as 'the funniest man who ever drew breath'.

Cook is closely associated with the anti-establishment style of comedy that first emerged in the late 1950s.

Life

Cook was born at Shearbridge, Middle Warberry Road, Torquay, Devon, the only son and eldest of the three children of Alexander Edward (Alec) Cook (d. 1984), a colonial civil servant, and his wife (Ethel Catherine) Margaret, née Mayo (d. 1994). He was educated at Radley College and later Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read French and German. Cook was meant to become a career diplomat, but unfortunately Britain "had run out of colonies", as he put it. It was at Pembroke that he performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the prestigious Cambridge Footlights Club, of which he became President in 1960.

While still at university, Cook wrote professionally for Kenneth Williams, for whom he created a successful West End revue show called "One Over the Eight", before finding fame in his own right as a star of the satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, together with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

The show included Cook impersonating the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: this was one of the first occasions that political mimicry had been done in live theatre, and caused some shock amongst audiences. During one performance, Macmillan himself was in the theatre, and having spotted him Cook departed from his script and directly attacked him verbally.

With his star in the ascendant, he opened the The Establishment Club at 18 Greek Street in Soho which gave him the opportunity to present fellow comedians in a nightclub setting, including the highly controversial American Lenny Bruce. Cook befriended and supported Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British solo career at the club. Humphries would comment in his autobiography "My Life As Me" that he found Cook's lack of interest in art and literature rather off-putting. Cook's chiselled looks and languid manner led Humphries to observe that whereas most people take after their father or mother, Cook reminded one of one's auntie. Dudley Moore's jazz trio (which included Australian-born drummer Chris Karan) played at the club regularly for many years during the early 1960s.

Not Only... But Also and other 1960s television

In 1962, the BBC commissioned a pilot for a television series of satirical sketches based on The Establishment Club, but it was not picked up straight away and Cook and the other regulars went to New York for a year. When he returned, Cook discovered that the pilot had been refashioned in his absence as That Was The Week That Was and had made a star out of David Frost, something that Cook later admitted resenting. The 1960s satire boom was coming to a close and Cook quipped that Britain would "sink into the sea under the weight of its own giggling". He later complained that David Frost's success was largely based on copying Cook's stage persona and remarked that his only regret in life had been once saving Frost from drowning (an actual event).

He married the socially well-connected Wendy Snowden in 1963, with whom he had two daughters, Lucy and Daisy. The marriage ended in divorce in 1970, due in part to Cook having various affairs. Along with others such as Eleanor Bron, John Bird, and John Fortune, he broadened the scope of television comedy and pushed out the restricted boundaries of the BBC. Cook's first regular television spot was on Granada Television's Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured his most enduring comic character: the static, dour, and mono tonal E.L. Wisty, whom Cook had conceived for the school's Marionette Society while still at Radley College.

His comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to the popular and critically feted television show Not Only... But Also. This was initially intended by the BBC as a vehicle for Dudley Moore's musical talents, but when Moore invited Cook to write sketches and appear with him, the show suddenly became hugely popular. Using few props, they created a unique style of dry and absurd television which was instantly successful and found a place in the mainstream, running for three seasons. Here Cook showcased his characters, such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and the pair's Pete and Dud. Other memorable sketches include "Superthunderstingcar", a send-up of the Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows and Cook's pastiche of 1960s trendy arts documentaries — satirised in a spoof TV segment on Greta Garbo.

Despite the show's cult status, in the mid 1970s the BBC decided to erase most of the archive master videotapes of the series, with a view to re-using the tapes due to the expense of the format. This was common UK television practice at the time, when agreements with actors' and musicians' unions limited the number of repeats. (This policy ceased in the late 1970s.) When Cook learned the series was to be destroyed, he offered to buy the tapes from the BBC but was refused due to copyright issues. He then suggested that he purchase new tapes, so that the Corporation would have no need to erase the originals, but inexplicably this was also turned down.

Of the original programmes, only eight of the twenty-two complete episodes survive whole. These comprise the entire first series with the exception of the fifth and seventh episodes, the first and last episodes of the second series, and the Christmas special. Of the 1970 third series, only various short film inserts which were not shot on videotape still survive. The BBC later recovered some of the shows by approaching overseas television networks and buying back copies that had not yet been destroyed. A compilation of six half-hour programmes, The Best of What's Left of Not Only...But Also was shown on television in 1990, and was released on VHS and DVD.

In 1968, Cook and Moore switched to the commercial channel ATV to produce a series of four one-hour programmes entitled Goodbye Again, based on the "Pete and Dud" characters. The duo knew they were the rationale for the series and as a result, ignored suggestions from the director and other cast. Sketches were therefore often drawn out to fill the running time. With no real interest in the show and a developing drink habit, Cook would also rely on cue cards and ended up garbling parts of the script, forcing Moore to ad-lib. Nonetheless, the series does contain some notable items, including a reprise of the Pete and Dud "Greta Garbo" routine and a sketch in which the pair mostly play themselves, discussing the breakdowns of their respective marriages. The show was not a popular success due in part to the publication of the ITV listings magazine, TV Times, being suspended due to a strike. John Cleese was a supporting cast member and elements of the series can be seen in the early Monty Python programmes of the following year.

Both Peter Cook and Dudley Moore acted in films, e.g., The Wrong Box (1966). Their best work in this medium was the cult comedy Bedazzled (1967), now widely regarded as a classic. Directed by Stanley Donen, the film's story is credited to Cook and Moore jointly, and its screenplay to Cook alone. A comic parody of the Faust story, it starred Cook as George Spigott (The Devil) who tempts a frustrated, short-order chef called Stanley Moon (Moore) with the promise of gaining his heart's desire — the love of the unattainable beauty Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron) — in exchange for his soul, but repeatedly tricks him in a variety of ways. The film features cameo appearances by Barry Humphries ('Envy') and Raquel Welch ('Lust'). Moore's jazz trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivers in a monotonous, deadpan voice, and which includes his now classic put-down, "You fill me with inertia". Moore went on to Hollywood stardom in the 1970s and 1980s, which prompted occasional barbed comments from his former comedy partner.

1970s

In 1970, Cook took over a project initiated by David Frost for a satirical film about an opinion pollster who rises to become President of Great Britain. Under Cook's guidance, the character became modelled on Frost himself. The resulting film, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, was not a great commercial success, although the cast contained many notable names of the period.

Though he was eventually to become a favourite on the British chat show circuit, his own effort at hosting one in 1971, entitled "Where Do I Sit?" was generally agreed by the critics to have been a disappointment. The BBC seem to have agreed: he was replaced after two episodes by a (then) little known TV presenter Michael Parkinson (for the next series the show bore Parkinson's name, and was the beginning of his career as a chat show host). Cook would take sweet revenge when Parkinson asked him what his ambitions were (schoolboyishly inquiring whether he had any "big ones") by replying "Well, my main ambition in life is to shut you up".

Cook provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, supporting the publication through a number of difficult periods, particularly when the magazine was punished financially in the wake of a number of high-profile libel trials. Cook both invested his own money and solicited for investment from his showbusiness friends and colleagues. For a time, the magazine was produced from the premises of The Establishment Club. Towards the end of the 1960s, Cook's developing alcoholism placed a strain on his personal and professional relationships. He and Moore fashioned sketches from Not Only....But Also and Goodbye Again with new material into the stage revue Behind the Fridge. This toured Australia in 1972 before transferring to New York in 1973 as Good Evening. In front of audiences during the extended stage runs, Cook frequently appeared drunk and incapable, to the consternation of Dudley Moore. However, Good Evening won the pair Tony and Grammy Awards. When its run finished, Moore announced he was staying in the U.S. to pursue a solo career. In 1973, Cook married the actress Judy Huxtable. They were married for sixteen years and she was the love of his life.

Later, the more risqué humour of the Pete and Dud characters was taken to its furthest extent on long-playing records under the names "Derek and Clive". The first such recording was initiated by Cook to alleviate the boredom of a long Broadway run of Good Evening, and used material that was conceived years before for the two characters but was then considered far too outrageous. One of these audio recordings was also filmed, and the long-running tensions between the duo are seen to rise to the surface. Originally intended for their own amusement, Chris Blackwell circulated bootleg copies to friends, and they soon gained a cult following. The popularity of the bootleg recording convinced Cook that it would be profitable to release it commercially, although Moore was initially reluctant to agree to this, fearing that his recently achieved fame as a Hollywood movie star would be undermined by the tape's outrageous content. Two further Derek and Clive albums were released, the last accompanied by a film.

In 1979, Cook recorded comedy-segments which were released as b-sides to the Sparks 12" singles Number One In Heaven and Tryouts For The Human Race. The combination was not so surprising, for the latter's main songwriter Ron Mael would often start off with a banal situation in his lyrics, and then go off at surreal tangents a la Cook and the even zanier S.J. Perelman.

Performances for Amnesty International

Cook made noteworthy appearances at the first three of the fund-raising galas staged by John Cleese and Martin Lewis on behalf of Amnesty International. The series of benefits were retrospectively dubbed The Secret Policeman's Balls though it wasn't until the third show in 1979 that the Secret Policeman's Ball title was used. He performed on all three nights of the first show in April 1976, A Poke in the Eye (with a Sharp Stick), both as an individual performer and as a member of the cast of Beyond The Fringe, which reunited for the first time since the 1960s. He also appeared in a Monty Python sketch taking the place of Eric Idle who did not partake in the performances. Cook was prominently featured on the cast album of the show (which carried the same title) and in the film of the event, which was titled Pleasure At Her Majesty's. He was similarly prominent in the second Amnesty gala held in May 1977, An Evening Without Sir Bernard Miles. (It was retitled The Mermaid Frolics for the cast album and TV special.) Cook performed monologues and skits with Terry Jones.

In June 1979, Cook performed on all four nights of The Secret Policeman's Ball - memorably teaming for a skit with John Cleese. Cleese was quoted as saying that he was thrilled to be working with someone he admired so much, and can be seen nearly "corpsing" at Cook during much of the "Interesting Facts" sketch, which opened both the stage show and the resulting film. Cook performed a couple of solo pieces and a skit with old friend Eleanor Bron. He also led the ensemble in the grand finale - the "End Of The World" sketch from Beyond The Fringe.

In response to a critical barb in the Daily Telegraph's review of the show's first night - complaining that the show consisted mostly of recycled material, Cook wrote a savage satire of the summing-up by the Judge (Mr Justice Cantley) in the just-concluded trial of former Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe — a summary that had attracted almost universal condemnation for its blatant bias in favour of Thorpe. Cook performed it for the first time that same night (Friday 29th June - the third of the four nights) and reprised it the following night. The nine-minute opus — subsequently titled Entirely a Matter for You — is considered by many fans and critics to be one of the finest works of Cook's career. Cook and show producer Martin Lewis rushed out a 12" mini-album on Virgin Records titled Here Comes the Judge: Live of the live performance together with three specially-recorded studio tracks that further lampooned the Thorpe trial.

Although unable to take part in the 1981 gala, Cook supplied the narration used over the animated opening title sequence of the 1982 film of the show. With Martin Lewis, he co-wrote and voiced a series of radio commercials used to advertise the film in the UK. He also hosted a spoof film awards ceremony that was part of the World Première of the film in London in March 1982.

Following Cook's successful 1987 stage reunion with Dudley Moore for the annual U.S. benefit for the homeless, Comic Relief (not related to the UK Comic Relief benefits), Cook repeated the reunion for a British audience by performing with Moore at the 1989 Amnesty benefit The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball. The crowd's positive reaction to seeing Cook and Moore reunited was evident in each of their appearances together during the show.

Consequences album

There is a cult following among some Cook fans for a little-remembered project that he was involved with in the 1970s. This was his participation – playing multiple roles – on the 1977 concept album Consequences, written and produced by former 10cc members Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. A mixture of spoken-word comedy and progressive rock music with an environmental subtext, Consequences started out as a single that Godley and Creme planned to make to demonstrate their new invention, an electric guitar effect called The Gizmo. The project gradually grew into a triple LP boxed set. The comedy sections of the album were originally intended to be performed by an all-star cast including Spike Milligan and Peter Ustinov, but after meeting Peter Cook, Godley and Creme realised that he could perform most of the parts himself. The storyline centres on the impending divorce of ineffectual Englishman Walter Stapleton (Cook) and his French wife Lulu (Judy Huxtable). While meeting with their respective lawyers — the bibulous Mr Haig and overbearing Mr Pepperman (also both played by Cook) — the proceedings are interrupted by a series of bizarre and mysterious happenings that are somehow connected with Mr Blint (Cook), a musician and composer living in the apartment below Haig's office, both of which are connected by a large hole in the floor.

Released just as punk was sweeping the UK, the hugely ambitious concept album was a total commercial failure and was savaged by critics, but it gathered (and retains) a small but dedicated cult following. Interestingly, the script and storyline contain many elements that appear to be drawn from Cook's own life – his second wife, actress Judy Huxtable, plays Walter's wife, Lulu. Cook's own problems with alcohol are comically mirrored in Haig's constant drinking, and there is a clear parallel between the fictional divorce of Walter and Lulu and Cook's own messy divorce from his first wife, Wendy. The voice and accent Cook used for the character of Stapleton are remarkably similar to that of Cook's former Beyond the Fringe colleague, Alan Bennett and a recent book on Cook's comedy, How Very Interesting, speculates that the characters Cook plays in Consequences are broad caricatures of the four Beyond The Fringe cast members – the alcoholic Haig represents Cook, the tremulous Stapleton is Alan Bennett, the parodically Jewish Pepperman is Miller, and the pianist Blint represents Moore.

1980s

In 1980, spurred by his former partner Dudley Moore's growing film star status, Cook moved briefly to Hollywood and appeared as an uptight English butler in a short-lived U.S. television sitcom "The Two of Us", also making cameo appearances in a couple of undistinguished films. In 1980, Cook starred alongside a host of celebrities in the LWT special "Peter Cook & Co.". The show included several comedy sketches, including a "Tales of the Unexpected" spoof titled "Tales Of The Much As We Expected". This involved Cook as Roald Dahl, explaining that his name had actually been Ronald before he dropped the "n". The cast included John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Beryl Reid, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. The show has never been repeated since its first airing.

Cook made an appearance as King Richard III in 1983, both before and after death, in "The Foretelling", the first episode of Blackadder. In 1986 he appeared as a sidekick to Joan Rivers on her UK talk show — a role that disappointed many of his fans who felt that such a role was beneath him. He appeared as Mr Jolly in 1987 in The Comic Strip's Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, playing a dishevelled and aggressive assassin who covered the sound of his murders by playing Tom Jones records at full volume. Cook also appeared in The Princess Bride that year, as the "Impressive Clergyman". Also that year he spent time working with Martin Lewis on a political satire about the upcoming 1988 U.S. presidential elections for HBO, but the script went unproduced. It was during this production that Lewis suggested that Cook team up with Dudley Moore for the U.S. "Comic Relief" telethon for the homeless. The duo successfully reunited and performed their classic "One Leg Too Few" sketch. Contrary to popular misconception and media speculation, close friends recall that Cook and Moore maintained contact through the years and though there was always sparring between them, the bond was unbroken. Moore attended Cook's memorial service in London in May 1995 and he and Lewis teamed up to present a two-night memorial for Cook in Los Angeles the following November, scheduled to mark the anniversary of Cook's birth.

In 1988, Cook appeared as a contestant on the popular improvisation comedy show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Cook was declared the winner of the episode, his prize being to read the end credits in the style of the host's choosing, which was that of a New York cab driver. He was an avid media follower, reading nearly all the British daily newspapers and following TV and radio programmes with vigour. He was an occasional caller to Clive Bull's night-time phone-in show on LBC in London, where, using the pseudonym "Sven from Swiss Cottage" he would entertain listeners with his complaints and musings on love, loneliness and herrings, all delivered in a mock Norwegian accent.

Following his death, some recordings were issued of him chatting with his Hampstead neighbour and fellow Clive Bull regular, the London eccentric Rainbow George Weiss, mostly about George's political plans for Peter within his Vote for Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket party, which Cook tolerated with amused disdain. According to Cook's biographer Harry Thompson, Weiss tried repeatedly to persuade Cook to stand for parliament, but Cook always refused. In the last few years of his life, Cook had a lower public profile but maintained a robust social life. He was far more concerned with simply enjoying his life than in pursuing traditional career goals. He once famously said, "I ran out of ambition at the age of 27..."

Revival

In late 1989 Cook married the Malaysian-born property developer Chiew Lin Chong in Torbay, Devon. This marriage brought a beneficial change in the direction of his life, as he reduced his drinking and for a time was teetotal. He lived alone in an 18th-century house in Hampstead, once owned by H.G. Wells. His third wife lived in another house away. Cook speculated that their kind of domestic arrangement would be much more popular if more people could afford it. The comedian recounted his favourite pleasures in life – casual chit-chat, reading, sport, radio, television and the newspapers, food, drink and cigarettes, and pedantry. Writing and performing went unmentioned.

Cook returned as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling for an appearance with Ludovic Kennedy in A Life in Pieces. The series of twelve ten-minute interviews saw Sir Arthur recounting snippets of his life loosely based on The Twelve Days of Christmas. A set of unscripted interviews with Cook as Streeb-Greebling and satirist Chris Morris were recorded in autumn of 1993 and broadcast as Why Bother on BBC Radio 3, less than a year before Cook's death. In a later interview (), Morris described them as follows:

"It was a very different style of improvisation from what I'd been used to, working with people like Steve Coogan, Doon Mackichan and Rebecca Front, because those On the Hour and The Day Today things were about trying to establish a character within a situation, and Peter Cook was really doing 'knight's move' and 'double knight's move' thinking to construct jokes or ridiculous scenes flipping back on themselves, and it was amazing. I mean, I held out no great hopes that he wouldn't be a boozy old sack of lard with his hair falling out and scarcely able to get a sentence out, because he hadn't given much evidence that that wouldn't be the case. But, in fact, he stumbled in with a Safeways bag full of Kestrel lager and loads of fags and then proceeded to skip about mentally with the agility of a grasshopper. Really quite extraordinary."

On 17 December 1993, Cook appeared on Clive Anderson Talks Back showcasing four completely new characters, and the following day appeared on BBC2 performing links for Arena's "Radio Night". He also appeared, on 26 December, in the 1993 Christmas special of One Foot in the Grave ("One Foot in the Algarve"), playing a muckraking tabloid journalist. Many hoped these high-profile appearances marked the beginning of a revival for Cook, but before the end of the next year his mother died, and Cook returned to a life of heavy drinking. His own death, 13 months later at the age of 57 was officially reported as resulting from internal haemorrhaging. The papers lamented the passing of a comic genius who had failed to live up to his promise. A lone voice countered that he gave every impression of a man who had enjoyed life entirely on his own terms with no compromise to the opinions of others. Eric Idle commented that Cook had not wasted his talent but rather that the newspapers had tried to waste him.

Legacy

Cook's significance to modern British comedy is immense, and persists today: he is acknowledged as the main influence on a long stream of comedians who have followed him from the amateur dramatic clubs of British universities to the Edinburgh festival, and thence to the radio and television studios of the BBC. Notable fans include all the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Goodies, and, more recently, the aforementioned Chris Morris. Some have seen Cook's life as tragic, insofar as the brilliance he exhibited in his youth did not fully lead to the recognition many thought he deserved. In his lifetime, Cook himself was constantly aware that some thought that he had not achieved or continued his early potential. He was disdainful of this view, and had no particular desire to achieve sustained career success as traditionally measured. Instead, Cook assessed his own happiness by the quality of his personal friendships and his overall enjoyment of life.

Ten years after his death, in January 2005, Peter Cook was ranked number one in a list entitled The Comedian's Comedian, a poll of more than 300 comics, comedy writers, producers, and directors throughout the English speaking world 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, Bill Hicks and Woody Allen. Coincidentally, the same week that programme was shown, Channel 4 broadcast Not Only But Always, a well-received television movie dramatising the relationship between Cook and Moore, with Welsh actor Rhys Ifans portraying Cook. In August 2005 a stage play, written by Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde and examining the relationship from Moore's point of view, Pete and Dud: Come Again, was a sellout hit at the Assembly Rooms as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, before transferring to The Venue in London's West End in March 2006. English actor Tom Goodman-Hill played Cook.

Further reading

  • Harry Thompson (1998). Biography of Peter Cook. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-64969-0.
  • Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (2003). Dud and Pete: The Dagenham Dialogues. Eyre Methuen Ltd. ISBN 0-413-77347-7.
  • Robert Hewison (1983). Footlights!: A Hundred Years of Cambridge Comedy. Methuen London Ltd. ISBN 0-413-51150-2.
  • Roger Wilmut (1980). From Fringe to Flying Circus: Celebrating a Unique Generation of Comedy 1960–1980. Eyre Methuen Ltd. ISBN 0-413-46950-6.
  • Peter Cook Appreciation Society (2006). How Very Interesting!: Peter Cook's Universe And All That Surrounds It. Snowbooks. ISBN 1-905005-23-7.
  • Alexander Games (1999). Pete & Dud: An Illustrated Biography. Andre Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-99642-7.
  • Wendy Cook (2006). So Farewell Then: The Biography of Peter Cook. HarperCollins Entertainment. ISBN 0-00-722893-7.
  • Lin Cook (2003). Something Like Fire: Peter Cook Remembered. Arrow Books. ISBN 0-09-946035-1.
  • Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde (2006). Pete and Dud: Come Again. Methuen Drama. ISBN 0-413-77602-6.
  • William Cook (2003). Tragically I was an only twin: the complete Peter Cook. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-31891-X ISBN 0-09-944325-2.

Filmography

Amnesty

  • Pleasure at Her Majesty's (1976)
  • The Mermaid Frolics (1977)
  • The Secret Policeman's Ball
  • The Secret Policeman's Private Parts (1981)
  • The Best of Amnesty: Featuring the Stars of Monty Python (1999)

UK chart singles:-

  • "The Ballad Of Spotty Muldoon" (1965)
  • "Goodbye-ee" (1965) with Dudley Moore


References

External links

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