Peter Edward Cook (17 November 1937 – 9 January 1995) was an English satirist, writer and comedian who is widely regarded as the leading figure in the British satire boom of the 1960s.
He is closely associated with an anti-establishment style of comedy that first emerged in the late 1950s, and he is cited by many subsequent and current comedians as their main comic influence.
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), colonial civil servant, and his wife, (Ethel Catherine) Margaret, nee Mayo (d. 1994). He was himself 'establishment' educated, at Radley and Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, where he read French and German. 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 the famous "Not an Asp" sketch, before finding fame in his own right as a star of the hugely successful satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, together with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore. The show included Cook impersonating Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: this was one of the first occasions that this had been done and during one performance, Macmillan himself was in the audience.
With his star firmly in the ascendant, he opened The Establishment Club at 18, Greek Street in Soho which gave him the opportunity to present fellow comedians in a nightclub setting, including the controversial American Lenny Bruce. Cook befriended Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British career at the club, and Dudley Moore's acclaimed jazz trio (which included Australian-born drummer Chris Karan) played there regularly for many years during the 1960s.
Not Only... But Also and other '60s 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 straightaway and Cook and the other regulars went to New York for a year. When he returned, Cook discovered that the pilot had been refashioned as That Was the Week That Was and had made a star out of David Frost. 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 him copying Cook's screen persona and said that his only regret in life had been once saving Frost from drowning (an actual event).
He married the socially-connected Wendy Snowden in 1963, with whom he had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1970, reportedly due in part to Cook having affairs.
Along with others such as Eleanor Bron, John Bird, and John Fortune, he broadened the scope of television comedy and pushed out the hitherto restricted boundaries of the BBC.
Peter Cook's first regular television spot was on Granada Television's Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured perhaps his most enduring comic character: the static, dour, and monotonal E.L. Wisty, whom Cook had conceived while still at Radley College.
His comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to the popular and critically feted television show Not Only... But Also. Using few props, and with musical interludes performed by Moore, they created a new style of dry, absurdist television which was instantly successful and found a place in the mainstream. 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 popular Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows and Cook's pastiche of 1960s-era trendy arts documentaries — satirised in a spoof TV segment on film legend Greta Garbo.
Although the show is now recognised as one of the classics of TV comedy, the BBC had erased most of the videotapes of the series. This was common UK television practice at the time, when agreements with actors' and musicians' unions meant that only a certain number of repeats within a limited timescale were permitted, and the VHS or DVD home sales market was decades away. As videotape was then expensive and took up valuable storage space, tapes would often be wiped and re-used. (This policy was eventually seen as foolish and ceased in the 1970s — but not before a lot of British television from the 1960s had been wiped permanently, including much of Peter Cook's early work.)
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 this was also turned down on the grounds that there was no established BBC procedure for such circumstances.
Of the programmes, only eight of the twenty-two complete episodes survive. 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. No complete episodes of the 1970 third series survive, apart from various film inserts. Some of the soundtracks also exist, having been released commercially. 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 highlights were released on VHS.
In 1968 Cook and Moore switched to Lew Grade's 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. Cook would also rely on cue cards and ended up garbling parts of the script, forcing Moore to ad-lib. 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 putdown, "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.
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.
Peter Cook also 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 review 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 US to pursue a solo career. In 1973, Cook married the actress Judy Huxtable, but this also ended in divorce.
Later, the more risqué humour of the Pete and Dud characters was taken to excess 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.
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 benefits were retrospectively dubbed The Secret Policeman's Balls though it wasn't until the third show in 1979 that that title was used.
He appeared in 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 had reunited for the first time since the 1960s. Cook appeared doing monologues and also in skits with other comedic performers. He also made a cameo in a Monty Python sketch substituting for Eric Idle — the sole Python who declined to take part. Cook was prominently featured on the cast album of the show (which bore the same title) and in the film of the event, which was called Pleasure At Her Majesty's. This was the first time that Cook worked with producer Martin Lewis, with whom he would work again in the 1970s and 1980s.
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.)
In June 1979, Cook performed at 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.
A review in the Daily Telegraph of the first of the four shows complained that it was mostly recycled Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python material. This appeared in print on the morning of the penultimate day of the run (29 June 1979).
As a response to this critique, that day 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 bias in favour of Thorpe. Cook performed it for the first time both that night and during the following (final) show. The nine-minute piece 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" single of the live performance together with three studio tracks that further lampooned the Thorpe trial.
Following Cook's successful 1987 stage reunion with Dudley Moore for the annual US 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 another Amnesty benefit in 1989. The crowd's positive reaction to seeing Cook and Moore reunited was evident in each of their appearances together during the show.
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 1976 concept album Consequences, written and produced by former 10CC members Kevin Godley and Lol Crème.
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 (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, and which is connected to it by a large hole in the floor.
The hugely ambitious triple album was a total commercial failure and was savaged by the critics, but it gathered (and retains) a small but dedicated cult following. Interestingly, the script and storyline contain many elements that appear to parallel Cook's own life: his second wife, actress Judy Huxtable, plays Walter's wife, Lulu; the voice and accent Cook used for the character of Walter are remarkably similar to that of Cook's former Beyond The Fringe colleague, Alan Bennett.
Cook's own alcoholism is 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.
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 US television sitcom "The Two of Us", also making cameo appearances in a couple of undistinguished films.
Always a favourite on the British chat show circuit, his own effort at hosting one, entitled "Where Do I Sit?", lasted just two programmes after the BBC surprisingly ditched the show after it was thoroughly panned by critics. 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.
In 1983, Cook made a memorable appearance as King Richard III in "The Foretelling", the first episode of Blackadder. The show was a brilliant blend of Shakespeare, history, and total comic nonsense and Cook's dry intensity complemented it as he played the king both before and after death.
In 1987, Cook appeared as Mr Jolly in The Comic Strip's Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, playing a dishevelled and aggressive assassin who covers the sound of his murders by playing Tom Jones records at full volume. His co-stars Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson (of The Young Ones) play lunatic alcoholics who never seem to notice that he's covered in blood, but are annoyed that he's constantly borrowing their soap to clean it up.
Also in 1987, he spent time working with Martin Lewis on a political satire about the upcoming 1988 US presidential elections. The project was written for HBO. Co-writer was John Lloyd, producer of Not the Nine O'Clock News, Blackadder and Spitting Image. (The script remained unproduced.) During a trip to Los Angeles to work on it, Lewis suggested that Cook team up with Dudley Moore for the US "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.
Cook 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 a 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 Cook's 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. 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..."
In 1989 Cook fell in love with and married the Malaysian-born property developer Lin Chong. 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 100 yards away. Cook speculated that their domestic arrangement would be much more popular if more people could afford it. The comedian recounted his favorite 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. Another set of 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. The interviews were unscripted. In a later interview (), Morris described them as follows:
In December 1993, Cook appeared with Clive Anderson showcasing four completely new characters. Many hoped this marked the beginning of a revival for Cook, but before the end of the next year his mother died, and 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.
Cook's significance to modern British comedy is regarded as immense: 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, more recently, the aforementioned Chris Morris.
Many people feel that, like Spike Milligan, Cook broke so much new ground during the 1960 to 1965 period that later comics had relatively little left to break themselves. Some have seen Cook's life as tragic, in so far 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. A constant refrain from his friends is that he was as funny off-camera as he was on. For Cook, making people laugh was not a job, but a reason to live.
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 Anglosphere 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.
A bar at the Melbourne Town Hall, frequently visited by comedians and fans during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, is named the Peter Cook Bar.
Craig Ferguson was mentored early in his career by Cook.
UK chart singles:-