Today is the birthday (1937) of Peter Cook who is widely regarded as the leading light of the British satire boom of the 1960s. Cook had an enormous influence on legendary British comedians who achieved worldwide prominence including his partner Dudley Moore and the Monty Python group (many of whom started on Cook’s shows). He was also a major player in the rise to fame of the likes of David Frost whose stage presence was actually modelled on Cook’s. I want to focus on Cook today because he was both brilliant and completely misunderstood in his personal life and ambitions. On his death some critics chose to see Cook’s life as tragic, insofar as the brilliance of his youth did not translate into a lifetime of international fame and fortune as it did for so many people he got started in the business. However, Cook himself always maintained he had no ambitions at all for sustained success. He assessed happiness by his friendships and his enjoyment of life. Eric Idle and Stephen Fry said Cook had not wasted his talent but rather that the newspapers had tried to waste him. Some put his lack of fame and ambition down to alcoholism or bad luck or poor choices or whatever. It’s all nonsense. Cook lived the life he wanted and I admire him greatly for that.
In 2005 The Guardian called Cook “the father of modern satire” and he was ranked number one in the Comedians’ Comedian, a poll of over 300 comics, comedy writers, producers, and directors throughout the English-speaking world. He was the master of the dry, laconic, one-line comment that perfectly summed up the absurdity of his era and of life. A very small sample:
All in all, I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. And what’s more, being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with judges.
What terrible sins I have working for me. I suppose it’s the wages.
As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are.
We believe this to be the work of thieves, and I’ll tell you why. The whole pattern is very reminiscent of past robberies where we have found thieves to be involved. The tell-tale loss of property — that’s one of the signs we look for.
Here’s a classic clip of Pete and Dud in a pub scene from Not Only . . . But Also. It’s such a period piece that you’ll never see the likes of it again. You can tell that Cook and Moore are not using a script, but are just working on a dialogue impromptu, based on a general idea they thought up. Cook also “corpses” in the sketch, that is, breaks character with a faint laugh when he is amused by his own banter. Nowadays such scenes would be consigned to blooper reels. In later life Cook readily admitted that one of his favorite things in the world was to sit and chat with friends. It shows.
Cook was born at his parents’ house, “Shearbridge,” in Middle Warberry Road, Torquay, Devon. He was the only son and eldest of the three children of Alexander Edward “Alec” Cook (1906–1984), a colonial civil servant, and his wife Ethel Catherine Margaret, née Mayo (1908–1994). He was educated at Radley College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German. As a student, Cook initially intended to become a career diplomat like his father, but in later life he claimed that he couldn’t because “Britain had run out of colonies.” Cook was a good student and was awarded an upper second in his final tripos. He could have achieved first class honors, but in his final year at Cambridge he was also running reviews in London’s West End. He always considered himself an amateur comedian, and would have sat the Foreign Office exam and joined the diplomatic service if he’d attained a first. Just as well. He did say in later life, though, “I’d still say yes if the governorship of Bermuda came up. I’ve always wanted to wear a plumed hat.”
At Pembroke Cook performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the Cambridge Footlights Club, and became president in 1960. Whilst still at university, Cook wrote for Kenneth Williams, providing several sketches for Williams’ hit West End comedy revue Pieces of Eight and much of the follow-up, One Over the Eight, before finding prominence in his own right in a four-man group satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore. Beyond the Fringe became a great success in London after being first performed at the Edinburgh Festival and included Cook impersonating the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. This was one of the first occasions satirical political mimicry had been attempted in live theater and it shocked audiences. During one performance, Macmillan was in the theater and Cook departed from his script and attacked him verbally.
In 1961, Cook opened The Establishment, a club at 18 Greek Street in Soho in London, presenting fellow comedians in a nightclub setting. Cook said it was a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” As a members-only venue it was outside the censorship restrictions. Cook befriended and supported Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British solo career at the club. Dudley Moore’s jazz trio played in the basement of the club during the early 1960s.
In 1962, the BBC commissioned a pilot for a television series of satirical sketches based on the Establishment Club, but it was not immediately picked up and Cook went to New York City for a year to perform Beyond The Fringe on Broadway. When he returned, the pilot had been refashioned as That Was the Week That Was and had made a star of David Frost, something Cook resented. He complained that Frost’s success was based on copying Cook’s own stage persona and Cook dubbed him “the bubonic plagiarist.” Cook said that his only regret in life, according to Alan Bennett, had been saving Frost from drowning. This incident occurred in the summer of 1963, when the rivalry between the two men was at its height. Cook said he realized at the time that Frost’s potential drowning would have looked deliberate if he had not been rescued.
Around this time, Cook provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, supporting it through difficult periods, particularly in libel trials. Cook invested his own money and solicited investment from his friends. For a time, the magazine was produced from the premises of the Establishment Club. Cook expanded television comedy with Eleanor Bron, John Bird and John Fortune. His first regular television spot was on Granada Television’s Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured his most enduring character: the static, dour and monotonal E. L. Wisty, whom Cook had conceived for Radley College’s Marionette Society.
Cook’s comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to Not Only… But Also. This was originally intended by the BBC as a vehicle for Moore’s music. The working title was Not Only Dudley Moore, But Also His Guests. But Moore was unsure about going it alone, so he invited Cook along to guest in the pilot (along with Diahann Carroll and John Lennon). The studio audience loved their double act, in particular the first “Dagenham Dialogue,” “A Spot of the Usual Trouble,” and so Cook was invited to become a permanent fixture and the show became Not Only Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, But Also Their Guests, though it was only ever really referred to as Not Only… But Also. Cook played characters such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and the two men created their Pete and Dud alter egos for which old gits like me will always remember them. Other sketches included “Superthunderstingcar”, a parody of the Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows, and Cook’s pastiche of 1960s trendy arts documentaries – satirized in a parody segment on Greta Garbo.
When Cook learned a few years later that the videotapes of the series were to be wiped, a common practice at the time, he offered to buy the recordings from the BBC but was refused because of copyright issues. He suggested he could purchase new tapes so that the BBC would have no need to erase the originals, but this offer was also turned down. Of the original 22 programs, only eight still survive complete. With The Wrong Box (1966) and Bedazzled (1967) Cook and Moore began to act in films together. The underlying story of Bedazzled is credited to Cook and Moore and its screenplay to Cook. Bedazzled is a comic version of the Faust story, starring Cook as George Spigott (The Devil) who tempts Stanley Moon (Moore), a frustrated, short-order chef, with the promise of gaining his heart’s desire – the unattainable beauty and waitress at his cafe, Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron) – in exchange for his soul, but repeatedly tricks him. The film features cameo appearances by Barry Humphries as Envy and Raquel Welch as Lust. Moore composed the soundtrack music and co-wrote (with Cook) the songs performed in the film. His jazz trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivered in a monotonous deadpan voice and included his familiar put-down, “you fill me with inertia.” The Brendan Fraser 2000 remake of Bedazzled is – mercifully – completely re-written, and is funny in its own way. But it pales in comparison with the original.
I won’t wear you out with reams of biographical stuff from the late 1960s until Cook’s death in 1995. You can look it up. While you’re at it, find his old routines on YouTube. Cook died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on 9 January 1995, aged 57. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were buried in an unmarked plot behind St John-at-Hampstead, not far from his house in Perrins Walk. Dudley Moore attended Cook’s memorial service at John-at-Hampstead on 30 April 1995. He and Martin Lewis presented a two-night memorial for Cook at The Improv in Los Angeles, on 15 and 16 November 1995, to mark what would have been Cook’s 58th birthday.
Stephen Fry had this to say in memoriam because he was so disgusted with the mainstream obituaries treating Cook as a man with “undeveloped potential” and “unfulfilled promise” (and such):
Being British in this part of the century meant living in the country that had Peter Cook in it. There are wits and there are clowns in comedy, I suppose. Peter was a wit, it goes without saying, but he was funny in an almost supernatural way that has never been matched by anyone I’ve met or even heard about. It wasn’t to do with facial expression or epigrammatic wit, or cattiness or rant or anger or technique: he had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty or dancers have line and grace. He had an ability to make people gasp and gasp and gasp for breath like landed fish.
Fry also said that Peter Cook was, “The funniest man who ever drew breath.”
There’s a certain ironic pleasure in finding a recipe to suit a man called Cook. In a newspaper interview he remarked, “Food is so simple. You go out, buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it. What could be simpler? But they will muck it up. My favourite food is asparagus.” I’m not sure you can take him seriously, but it’s a start. In that same interview is this:
He lit another cigarette, pushed his plate away, leaving untouched a side dish of spinach. I said huh, what about the spinach? “What are you, some sort of nanny? I always order spinach when I’m here. I hate spinach. I get my own back by leaving it.”
I love asparagus too, so this is not hard. I had an asparagus patch in my garden for 20 years and loved harvesting great handfuls and cooking it simply: steamed and served with butter or hollandaise sauce. If you grow it at home you can be sure to cut only the tender parts of the stalks, but commercial growers harvest the stalks below ground level and you end up with a lot of useless woody ends. If you buy your asparagus, bend the stems before cooking them. They will naturally snap at the point that divides the edible tender tops from the woody bottoms.
I agree with Cook’s general point – “buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it” – but I don’t know what he means by mucking it up. Does he mean cooking it badly, or making too complex a dish? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Asparagus is dead easy to cook badly. Drowning it in water and boiling it for too long will do it. Light steaming for 5 to 10 minutes is all it takes. If you burden asparagus with too many other ingredients you can also lose its subtle flavor. It does not need herbs or spices, and will get lost if you use them. Butter and eggs are fine partners, though. I’m fond of asparagus omelets, for example. Lightly steam the asparagus first, make an omelet and then add the asparagus as a filling when serving.
My favorite sandwich, without question, is grilled ham and asparagus. Butter two slices of good white bread. Make a sandwich, with the butter on the outside, with a layer of ham and a layer of steamed asparagus stalks. Cook the sandwich in a hot, dry skillet browning both sides evenly.