Why I love Peter Cook

As the BBC screens a documentary featuring new material from the comedy master who died in 1995, Ben Dowell salutes a legend

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I first remember Peter Cook from childhood. The real Peter Cook, Peter Cook the flesh and blood man, not the wit and satirist who kept popping up on the television (though I do remember that one too).

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This Peter Cook lived near me in north London when I was growing up in the 1980s and was usually seen shuffling around the place, sometimes in his pyjamas and dressing gown. Truth be told he was often seen visiting the off licence and once chasing my terrified teenage sister round a churchyard (for a laugh, I think); anyway he was a familiar presence.

“Who is that funny man?” I would ask my Mum not realising how right I was (he was a very funny man). She’d speak about in hushed, reverential tones about him being “someone who makes people laugh”. And quite right too. Peter Cook is possibly the funniest man who has ever drawn breath, and not just because Stephen Fry has famously said so.

I got into him when I was a student and shared bootleg recordings of Derek and Clive and Pete and Dud recordings with a couple of friends who liked comedy as much as I did. It’s probably hard to shock most students (at least in those pre-no-platforming days) but I recall being terribly blown away by what I heard; not just the c and f words, but those surreal flights of fancy which imagined Cook’s Clive having a job retrieving lobsters from Jayne Mansfield’s fundament were utterly extraordinary.

Derek and Clive is known for its untrammelled swearing, its joyous improvisation of two sour and horrible people. The best bits are probably when they themselves crack up, unable to contain their laughter. It’s at these moments that a flicker of humanity creeps in (which is something of a relief).

As RadioTimes.com has already pointed out, The Undiscovered Peter Cook features a 70-second piece of dialogue between Cook and his comedy co-conspirator Dudley Moore that uses the c-word 12 times and the f-word 15 times.

But there is so so much more to him of course, most of which would take long to detail here. As the founder of The Establishment comedy club in the 1960s Cook is widely regarded as the “father of of modern satire” even before his work with Dudley Moore took hold, most notably in Not Only…But Also which introduced the world to the flat capped duo Pete and Dud. Another personal highlight is the much underrated 1967 film Bedazzled in which Cook’s George Spigott (The Devil) tempts Stanley Moon (Moore), a frustrated, short-order chef, with the promise of gaining his heart’s desire.

Of course the narrative about Peter Cook is that he never fulfilled his potential. And – thanks to his heavy drinking – lost his creative powers as well as his looks.

Well, his looks did go, but his creative powers? Never. Listening to his late night phone ins to Clive Bull’s talk radio station as “Sven from Swiss Cottage” and reflecting on love, loneliness and herrings in a mock Norwegian accent and tell me that. That happened between 1988 and 1992. And that diagnosis rather seems to miss the point. The amblings, the occasional appearances were what he was always all about.

And the funny thing is, he was never bitter. A drunk, often, never a nasty one. Not even when David Frost purloined a lot of his comedy when he was on Broadway to start That Was the Week That Was, and younger comedians always spoke about how joyfully encouraging and collaborative he was. (Although, as Alan Bennett memorably said, his only regret in life was not saving Frost from drowning when he had the chance in 1963).

His last TV appearances, the four character he created for Clive Anderson’s talk show (especially the motivational speaker Alan Latchley and “rock legend” Eric Daley) are superb.

He was naturally funny. It was like a gift, he couldn’t do anything about. You don’t make a career of that.

And in terms of his legacy, he has left behind Private Eye, the satirical magazine where he was the ultimate hands-off proprietor, encouraging and supportive, intervening only to pop by to the offices to offer a brilliantly funny joke for the front page.

I could go on, and of course I am not alone. So here’s another Cook fan, Shane Allen, the controller of BBC comedy commissioning.

“I think he was probably the most naturally funny and inventive English performer way ahead of his time. I say that because Robin Williams has a claim, and even Billy Connolly at the height of his powers. He perhaps never left behind a sitcom or film that stands the test of time as I think he loved being funny in the moment, hence the brilliant Pete and Dud improvs and latterly Derek and Clive. He was so hugely successful and prolific at a young age it was hard to keep being a pioneer all his life but in terms of pure twinkly-eyed comedy brilliance he’s hard to touch.”

I quite agree.

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