Remembering Peter Cook: 'The Funniest Man Who Ever Drew Breath'

The actor, comedian and Private Eye proprietor passed away 20 years ago today. We talked to Ian Hislop and Clive Anderson about his legacy.

by Ralph Jones
09 January 2015, 2:30pm

Dudley Moore (pictured left) and Peter Cook (pictured right). Photo via Wiki Commons

I have been living in a world of nostalgia for over ten years, and it is the fault of one man. Since 2003 Peter Cook has soared above all others as my favourite comedian, someone who has magnetised me in a way I find it difficult to exaggerate. Had I a time machine I would ask in a heartbeat not to meet Mozart, nor to be shown Shakespeare's plays as they were first performed; I would choose Greek Street, on the 5th of October, 1961, the opening night of Cook's satirical nightclub The Establishment, so that I could watch the man Stephen Fry called "the funniest man who ever drew breath" at the height of his beautiful fame.

January 9th marks 20 years since Peter Cook's death. What remains of his legacy, and what was he about?

My very first foray into the strange world of Peter Cook was aged 14 when on a family holiday we listened to a tape of he and Dudley Moore performing six sketches. I must by now have heard sections of that tape hundreds of times. Looking out of the window in the back of the car, I was in total, mesmerised bliss. Eric Idle said of watching Cook's stage revue Beyond the Fringe for the first time, "I simply had no idea you were allowed to be that funny." This is exactly how I felt when I discovered Peter Cook.

Fascinated, I went on to sit for hours in Waterstone's reading Cook's biography, written with grace and exceptional skill by Harry Thompson. As though reading a novel, I cried when Cook died, particularly moved by the description of how his comedy partner Dudley Moore was affected: "His first act was to pick up the phone and ring the answering machine in Peter's empty house, thousands of miles away in the middle of the night, just to hear his partner's laconic drawl once more."

Cook's triumphs were predominantly in live entertainment and a lot of his television work was destroyed by the BBC, meaning that he is not a familiar name to the man on the street in the way someone like Eric Morecambe is. When I speak to Robin Ince about Cook, he says – and I agree – that this is why Cook's fans are so devoted: his work has to be sought out, its author therefore more of a precious, hard-won secret.

For a man so fêted by his peers, Cook's legacy is difficult to define. Received (and inevitably simplistic) wisdom is that he achieved so much by the age of 28 –lavishly praised for his West End and Broadway shows, founder of a comedy club, proprietor of a satirical magazine, and star of a BBC show – that he all but ran out of steam, relying increasingly on alcohol and on doomed attempts to rekindle former glories rather than invest time and energy in new challenges.

Good comedy is like music; it's as precise and it's as difficult. Cook's comedy has always enthralled me because of how beautifully rhythmic it is, how smooth its cadences and how satisfying its beats. When Cook says, "Frog à la pêche is basically a large frog – covered in boiling cuantro... with a peach ... stuck in its mouth . It's one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen," it is so astonishingly perfect that a response to it is conscious only on one level. Of course the image is exquisitely odd but beyond that, the words have a profoundly physical effect on the listener. As John Cleese said of Cook performing, "After a few seconds perfectly sane, sensible people would start moaning and pawing the air and emitting strange wounded-animal noises."

Peter Cook memorial issue of Private Eye, Ian Hislop's office

Private Eye, the magazine of which Cook was the proprietor as well as long-time contributor, survives as a testament to the type of comedy for which he was so perfect a fit: satirical, incredibly well informed, often surreal. Ian Hislop tells me, "He was a great proprietor because he didn't interfere. He'd come in in bursts and just be very funny, and then disappear again." On the wall behind the editor hangs a framed and enlarged copy of the Eye's memorial issue printed after Cook died, and the esteem in which Hislop holds Cook is touching.

"He was always larger than life. My only regret is that I think we sometimes indulged him, collectively." The comparatively tee-total Hislop means that they could have taken a harder stance on Cook's drinking, rather than seeing it as an inextricable part of him. At the Eye people tended, in fact, not to ask about Cook's private life, and vice versa. "He didn't say, 'Ooh, how are the kids?' Like a lot of Englishmen of a particular vintage and time, that was not how he communicated," says Hislop. When his personal life was perhaps in turmoil, or when professional projects were not working out, the Eye was the place to which Peter could turn for a room full of admirers and plenty of hands willing to write down his every word.

"The best thing he did towards the end of his life, for a very long time," says Hislop, "was Clive [Anderson]'s show. And I think it's because Clive's quite a Puritan and basically made Peter work."

Hislop is referring to a 1993 episode of Clive Anderson Talks Back , in which a 56-year-old Cook shone as four typically enchanting weirdos, proving himself capable of reaching the highs he enjoyed as a young man. This was about a year before he died. "At that stage he was a very easy person to get on with; very amiable," Anderson tells me. "He was a hero to me from afar but he remained a hero, having both met him and worked with him." When I ask Hislop what Cook might have been up to had he been alive at 77, he says, "I have a feeling that after the Clive thing he might have got his act together personally."

This an optimistic assessment of a man about whom people are now reluctant to speak ill. But saying anything about Cook with any certainty is difficult. Getting the measure of the man is excruciatingly hard, like trying to catch sand. To me he is a series of endless contradictions: though Hislop says Cook never inquired about people's well-being, others say the total opposite; where some claim him to have had multiple and diverse skills, others say he could do nothing other than comedy.

To illustrate the contention that the image of him as unfailingly, effortlessly funny is a rose-tinted one, I would choose a fascinating moment in Cook's 1989 performance on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Despite his prodigious gifts, he is an awkward improviser in this format. After a series of short scenarios Cook and Stephen Fry have had to act out, Cook assumes the game to be over; it is apparent that he would rather be smiling laconically from a seated position. At this point Clive Anderson calls out one final request. Cook is tangibly angry – "Oh good grief. We've done three" – and one realises in that totally genuine reaction that this is no longer fun, this is hard. He reacts in exactly the way that a passer-by might if called on to do improv: he panics and he feels awkward. "His appearing on that wasn't as happy an experience as the four-character chat show," Anderson admits to me. Hislop says: "I saw him perform live often enough to know that it was just terrific when he turned it on. I also worked with him enough times to know he could come up with unfunny ideas just like anyone else."

To examine Cook's life in any depth is to learn that, genius though he certainly was, he was not a "professional comedian" in the same sense as many of those who cite him as seminal. He had a very particular set of skills, and in areas like sketch-writing or appearing on chat shows he was never bettered. But what he had couldn't really be packaged, nor could it be stretched much beyond his comfort zone. "Something like fire" , a throwaway phrase in a monologue of his, was also the title of an anthology of contributions from friends about his life. The title was beautifully appropriate as a reflection on his gifts: where did it come from, this bizarre way with words? What made it so difficult to harness?

Peter Cook picture right. Photo via Wiki Media.

Helped by his Clive Anderson performance, there is no doubt that Cook's status as of the country's most influential comic minds is pretty damn solid. There are plenty of people working to preserve his legacy, and even to extend it. "I think his reputation is secure," says Anderson. In the square mile of Soho that was Cook's professional playground for many years, Mike O'Brien, founder of comedy record label Laughing Stock Productions, is trying with others to resurrect Cook's Establishment club. He says the aim of the club, to which Cook's widow Lin has conferred her blessing, is to fit "all the best elements of Soho under one roof". There have been several performances already, predominantly at Ronnie Scott's jazz club, featuring an eclectic range of performers, as the original Establishment club would have done.

Given that shortly before he died, Cook was thinking of resurrecting his short-lived club, this venture seems like one of which he would have approved. That people constantly feel the need to associate themselves with Cook's enigmatic genius, to commemorate and to emulate him, is a moving tribute to the impact he had when he was alive. Nobody has had a greater impact on my life. I would encourage you to devour as much information as you can about him, and find yourself similarly enchanted.


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