Peter Cook

From Academic Kids

This article is about the English comedian Peter Cook, for the architect, see Peter Cook (architect)
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Peter Edward Cook (November 17, 1937January 9, 1995) was an English satirist, writer and comedian who is widely regarded as the father of the British satire boom of the 1960s. He is closely associated with an anti-establishment style of comedy that emerged in the late 1950s in the depths of the Cold War.

Early career

Cook was himself 'establishment' educated, at Radley and Pembroke College, Cambridge where he read French and German, and it was at the latter that he first performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the Cambridge Footlights.

On graduation, he wrote professionally for Kenneth Williams for whom he created the famous "One legged Tarzan" sketch, before finding fame in his own right as a star of the satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

With his star firmly in the ascendant he opened The Establishment Club in Soho which allowed him to associate with the big stars of the day. He became a friend and supporter of Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British career at the Establishment Club, and Dudley Moore's acclaimed jazz trio (which included Australian-born drummer Chris Karan) played there regularly for many years in the Sixties.

Not Only... But Also and other 60's 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 straight away 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".

Cook married the socially connected Wendy Snowden in 1963 with whom he had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1970 due to Cook's various 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 monotone E. L. Wisty.

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 televison which found a place in the mainstream. Here Cook showcased characters like Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and Pete and Dud. Other memorable sketches include "Superthunderstingcar", a send-up of the popular Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows and Cook's parody of film star Greta Garbo.

Although the show is now recognised as one of the classics of TV comedy, the BBC erased most of the videotapes of the first two 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 expensive and took up space to store, tapes would often be wiped and re-used.

When Cook learned the series was to be destroyed he offered to buy the tapes of the series from the BBC but was refused due to copyright. Cook then offered to buy new tapes for the BBC so that they would not need to overtape but this was also turned down by management as there was no established procedure at the BBC for this.

Of the series, eight out of twenty-two complete episodes survive, although many of the soundtracks, which were commercially released on record, also exist. The BBC obtained some of these episodes by approaching television networks in other countries and buying back tapes which had not been subjected to such stringent destruction policies. The surviving episodes 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 third series survive, but various film inserts do still exist. A compilation, The Best Of... What's Left Of... Not Only... But Also was shown on television and released on VHS in later years.

In 1968 Cook and Moore switched to Lew Grade's ATV to produce a series of four one hour programmes Goodbye Again based on the "Pete and Dud" characters. Cook and Moore knew they were the rationale for the series and as a result ignored suggestions from the series Director and other cast - as a result sketches were often drawn out to fill the running time. Cook would also rely on prompt boards and as a result garbled 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 Cook and Moore mostly play themselves discussing the breakdowns of their respective marriages. The series was not a popular success due in some part to 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 series of the next year.

Both Peter Cook and Dudley Moore acted in films, and Cook worked with Moore in such films as The Wrong Box (1966). Their best work on film was probably the cult comedy Bedazzled (1967), now widely regarded as a classic. Directed by Stanley Donen, it was co-written by Cook and Moore and starred Cook as George Spigot (The Devil) who tempts frustrated short-order cook Stanley Moon (Moore) with the promise of gaining his heart's desire -- the love of the unattainable 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 trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivers in a monotonous, deadpan voice, and which includes his classic putdown "You fill me with inertia". Moore went on to Hollywood stardom in the 1970s and 1980s, which was a cause of some bitterness to Cook.


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 but is notable for the cast containing 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 show business friends and colleagues. For a time the magazine was produced from the premises of The Establishment Club.

Towards the end of the sixties Cook's developing alcoholism placed a strain on his personal and professional relationships. Cook and Moore fashioned sketches from 'Not Only....But Also' and 'Goodbye Again' with new material as the stage review 'Behind the Fridge' that toured Australia in 1972 before transferring to New York in 1973 as 'Good Evening'. During the extended stageshow runs Cook frequently appeared on stage drunk and incapable to the consternation of Dudley Moore. in spite of this 'Good Evening' won the pair Tony and Grammy Awards. When the run of 'Good Evening' 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 risque humour of the Pete and Dud characters was taken to excess on long-playing records whereon the names "Derek and Clive" were used. The first 'Derek and Clive' recording was initiated by Cook to relieve the boredom of a long Broadway run of 'Good Evening' and used some material conceived years before for Pete and Dud but was 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 gained a cult following. Three Derek and Clive albums of varying quality were released.


One of Cook's best comedy projects in the Seventies, which is unfortunately little known today, was his tour-de-force performance playing multiple roles on the 1976 concept album Consequences, written and produced by former 10CC members Kevin Godley and Lol Creme.

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 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 1978 Cook was invited to perform at the Secret Policeman's Ball a charity event for Amnesty International. Reviews of the first night complained that it was mostly recycled "Beyond the Fringe' and "Monty Python" material so on the second night Cook largely improvised a parody of the biased summing up by the Judge in the case of Jeremy Thorpe which continues to be hailed as a comedy classic by critics.

Cook goes to Hollywood

In 1980 spurred by Dudley Moore's growing film star status Cook moved to Hollywood to capitalize. He appeared as an uptight English Butler in a short-lived sit-com and made cameo appearances in a couple of undistinguished films. Always a favourite on the chat show circuit his own effort at hosting a chat show lasted two programmes. By 1986 he was reduced to playing second string to Joan Rivers on her chat show and even had to endure being pleasant to Dudley Moore on Rivers' show while he promoted his last film. This turned out to be the last occasion that the two appeared on screen together. According to Lin Chong Cook was deeply affected by Moore refusing to get in contact with him when he came to the UK to promote films.

Cook was an avid media follower, reading nearly all the British newspapers every day and following TV and radio programmes with vigour. He even gained a regular slot on a night-time London radio programme, where he would phone in using a pseudonym (Sven from Swiss Cottage) and entertain listeners with his complaints and musings. In the last ten years of his life Cook's drinking lead him to an isolated life in his house in Hampstead with only infrequent contact with friends.

The end and his death

In 1989 Cook married Lin Chong and this brought a change in the direction of his life as he reduced his drinking and for a time was teetotal. With Chris Morris he revived a variant of the "Arthur Streeb-Greebling" character and in 1994 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 year his mother died causing him to return to drinking.

Cook is an acknowledged influence on a long stream of comedians who have followed him from the amateur dramatic clubs of British universities to the Edinburgh festival and from thence to the radio and television studios of the BBC. Notable fans include the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and, more recently, the controversial satirist Chris Morris with whom Cook worked briefly in his final years.

Many people feel that along with Spike Milligan, Cook broke so much new ground in the 1950 to 1965 period that some feel later comics had relatively little ground left to break. Some have seen Cook's life as tragic, insofar as the brilliance he exhibited in his youth did not lead to the recognition many thought he deserved.

His death in 1995 was as a result of internal haemorrhaging caused by alcoholism.

In January 2005, he was ranked number one in a list entitled The Comedian's Comedian, a poll voted for by fellow comedians and comic writers 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 and Woody Allen. Coincidentally, the same week the Comedians' Comedian programme was shown, Channel 4 broadcast Not Only But Always, a television movie dramatising the relationship between Cook and Moore, with Welsh actor Rhys Ifans portraying Cook.

UK chart singles:-

  • "The Ballad Of Spotty Muldoon" (1965)
  • "Goobye-ee" (1965) with Dudley Moore


  • The Wrong Box (1966)
  • Alice in Wonderland (1966)
  • Bedazzled (1967)
  • Monte Carlo Or Bust, also called Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969)
  • The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970)
  • Find the Lady (1976)
  • The Secret Policeman's Private Parts (1981)
  • Yellowbeard (1983)
  • Supergirl (1984)
  • The Princess Bride (1987): The Impwessive Clergyman
  • Whoops Apocalypse (1988)
  • Getting It Right (1989)
  • The Best of Amnesty: Featuring the Stars of Monty Python (1999)

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