Inside the secret world of Peter Cook

Two decades after he died we uncover a treasure trove of his comedy gold

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I was privileged to meet Peter Cook many times, and usually when I did, I would hear him before I saw him.

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The very last time was outside the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, when I discerned the familiar sound of a human wind chime, and turned to see him clutching his trusty carrier bag, from within which emanated the sonorous tinkling of a vodka bottle, tonic bottle, ice cubes and a couple of glasses, just in case a sudden thirst overtook him during his perambulations.

Searching for a gag that might amuse my lifelong comedic hero, I glanced at the bag and said, “You know Peter, I just joined the AA and Gamblers Anonymous. I phoned them both up this morning and said, ‘I bet you 10–1 that I’m p*****’.” Fortunately he roared with laughter.

Shortly after that meeting came Peter’s sadly premature death in January 1995, aged just 57. I wrote a note of sympathy to his widow Lin, she replied, and we gradually struck up a friendship, which strengthened after she saw my 2001 BBC1 documentary about Dudley Moore, After the Laughter.

She asked me then (and many times thereafter) to make a companion programme about Peter, but there had already been so many documentaries made about “the funniest man who ever drew breath” (as Stephen Fry famously described him) that I couldn’t see the point of making one more.

Until last year, when Lin told me that she planned to sell Peter’s house – which had remained uninhabited and untouched for 20 years – and I realised that I could make a different kind of programme about Peter, one that revealed the man through the contents of his private world.

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On my first visit to the large town house, situated on a secluded side street that gives it a decidedly rural feel, I was struck by a sign in the window. “Anyone parking car here will be egged”, Lin had written. She meant it, too, because I soon witnessed her making Omelette à la Maserati when one driver foolishly ignored the sign.

Lin’s fiery spirit was surely a major attraction for Peter, although she’s actually one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met.

Yet perhaps because of her Asian background, she’s suffered from what she describes as a certain “Yoko Ono-fication” over the years at the hands of biographers and journalists, a sort of casual British racism that implies she was only attracted to Peter because of his money (most of the time, she was financially better off than Peter) or his fame (she actually had no idea who he was when they first met, but soon detected a kindred spirit).

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Indeed, it was partly to correct what she calls the media’s “hundreds of lies and inaccuracies” about Peter and herself that she wanted the documentary to be made.

Feeling like Howard Carter entering the tomb of Tutankhamun, I stepped inside, and soon uncovered a treasure trove of hitherto unseen gems: diaries, letters, private recordings, unpublished manuscripts, and much more.

The sitting room was full of gifts from rock music icons, and photos including a head-turning picture of Peter and Dudley with David Bowie.

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Engrossed by what lay all about me, I tripped over a tall wooden butler (given to Peter by John Cleese, who Lin describes as his closest friend) and almost smashed an exquisite Tiffany lamp, presented to Lin by Dudley.

Turning to Peter’s eclectic collection of LPs, I was surprised to see Some Enchanted Evening by Mantovani, a cheesy but presumably effective romantic aid in his pre-Lin bachelor days.

And there were deeply moving handwritten notes from Peter to Lin, many of them too personal to make public. Peter’s devotion to Lin was beyond question, and she expected no less, having told him at the outset that “marriage, like insanity, means commitment”.

I spent several fascinating weeks in Peter’s private world, perhaps the single most memorable find being a boxful of quarter-inch audiotapes. Many were marked “demo”, and included one of a “tone-deaf Peter” (Dudley’s witheringly accurate description of his partner) attempting to sing Peggy Sue, the only possible defence for this travesty being that he wasn’t sharp but the entire band was flat.

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Peter Cook (right) and Dudley Moore

I was about to put the box aside, when I noticed a ten-inch reel with the label “Bell Studios, New York, 1964” on it, so I took it home to France to find out what it might be.

The reel-to-reel tape clearly hadn’t been played for 50 years, and when I threaded it onto my ancient Revox, the splicing tape that held the edits together fell apart, and lengths of audio tape spooled perilously onto the floor.

That was scary, but thanks to my early BBC training, I was able to reassemble it, and realised I had discovered a missing link in the history of British comedy. Here were the “Dead Sea Tapes” – long believed lost, even by Peter – a semi-improvised collection of Bible sketches that Peter and Dudley intended to release in the US in 1964.

The project was even announced in the American press in March of that year: “Peter Cook and Dudley Moore of Beyond the Fringe have edited a satire record in which they play reporters reminiscing of ‘the good old days’.”

But the mooted LP was withdrawn at the last moment over fears that the performers might fall foul of blasphemy laws in the US and UK. Such laws were still strictly enforced in those days, although now the religious satire seems fairly mild, even affectionate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0Z1QGpTZSo?list=PLtNKSDk9G-9Rkd2XjkZ-54ZCzOcSRcCeR

There’s no shocking language of the kind found on their 70s Derek and Clive records, just Peter and Dudley playing – for example – tailors recalling how Jesus liked to have his clothes cut (“immaculate”) and discussing the miracles that their customer had performed.

One sketch features Dudley complaining to Peter that he’d just been to Lazarus’s house to certify that the occupant was dead, only for Jesus to turn up and make Dudley look a fool.

Peter later suggested (with some justification) that Monty Python had adapted this idea for their celebrated “one minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone” scene in their Life of Brian film.

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I’m presently in discussions with Radio 4 over plans for a programme that fully celebrates the rediscovery of these remarkable Dead Sea Tapes. Another momentous find was a videotape of Peter’s memorial service (which I attended), held on 1 May 1995.

Dudley had phoned me the night before, and asked me what he should play, so I suggested Three Blonde Mice. That’s what he did, referring to me in the introduction as his confrère.

The usually congenial Dudley seemed distant; his hitherto impeccable piano playing also faltered, something I put down at the time to booze, as did Hollywood gossip-mongers when he was sacked shortly afterwards on the set of The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Only later did we learn that he was in the early stages of progressive supranuclear palsy, the cruel degenerative illness that was soon to kill him.

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This programme wasn’t entirely painless for any of those involved in its production, because exploring the arc of anyone’s life, and rummaging through their possessions, inevitably reminds us of our own mortality. And although Peter’s life contained much joy (which he generously shared with the rest of us), there was also a good deal of sadness (which he mostly kept to himself).

Above all, I came to realise that beneath the rapier wit and the hard-edged satire, Peter was a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, and that in Lin he had found his soulmate.

But although our team shed many tears of laughter during the production process, in amazement at Peter’s unfailing wit, this exploration of the inner life of Britain’s funniest man was ultimately no laughing matter.

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The Undiscovered Peter Cook is on BBC4 at 10pm on Wednesday 16th November