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Peter Cook 1937-1995
 


Country : Torquay, Devon, England
Profession : Comic, TV Personality, Actor
Date of birth : 1937-11-17
Date of death : 1995-01-09
Cause of Death : Abdominal Hemorrhage

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peter-cook1

Peter Edward Cook (17 November 1937 – 9 January 1995) was an English satirist, writer and comedian. He is widely regarded as the leading figure in the British satire boom of the 1960s. He has been described by Stephen Fry as 'the funniest man who ever drew breath'.

Cook is very closely associated with the anti-establishment style of comedy that first emerged in Britain and the US in the late 1950s.

Life

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), a colonial civil servant, and his wife (Ethel Catherine) Margaret, née Mayo (d. 1994). He was educated at Radley College and later Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read French and German. Cook meant to become a career diplomat, but unfortunately Britain "had run out of colonies", as he put it. 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 a successful West End revue show called One Over the Eight, before finding prominence in his own right as a star of the satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, together with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

The show included Cook impersonating the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: this was one of the first occasions that satirical political mimicry had been attempted in live theatre, and caused some considerable shock amongst audiences. During one performance, Macmillan himself was in the theatre, and having spotted him Cook departed from his script and directly attacked him verbally.

With his star in the ascendant, he opened the The Establishment Club at 18 Greek Street in Soho which gave him the opportunity to present fellow comedians in a nightclub setting, including the highly controversial American Lenny Bruce. Cook befriended and supported Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British solo career at the club. Humphries would comment in his autobiography My Life As Me that he found Cook's lack of interest in art and literature rather off-putting. Cook's chiselled looks and languid manner led Humphries to observe that whereas most people take after their father or mother, Cook reminded one of one's auntie. Dudley Moore's jazz trio (which included Australian-born drummer Chris Karan) played at the club regularly for many years during the early 1960s.

1960s

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 in his absence as That Was The Week That Was and had made a star out of David Frost, something that Cook later admitted resenting. 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 copying Cook's stage persona and remarked that his only regret in life had been once saving Frost from drowning (an actual event). He married the socially well-connected Wendy Snowden in 1963, with whom he had two daughters, Lucy and Daisy (now working as an abstract painter) The marriage ended in divorce in 1970, due in part to Cook having various affairs.

Cook expanded the scope of television comedy with associates such as Eleanor Bron, John Bird, and John Fortune, and pushed the previously restricted boundaries of the BBC. Cook's first regular television spot was on Granada Television's Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured his most enduring comic character: the static, dour, and monotonal E.L. Wisty, whom Cook had originally conceived for Radley College's Marionette Society.

His comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to the popular and critically feted television show Not Only... But Also. This was initially intended by the BBC as a vehicle for Dudley Moore's musical talents, but when Moore invited Cook to write sketches and appear with him, the show suddenly became hugely popular. Using few props, they created a unique style of dry and absurd television which was immediately successful and found a place in the mainstream, ultimately lasting for three seasons. 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 Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows and Cook's pastiche of 1960s trendy arts documentaries — satirised in a parodic TV segment on Greta Garbo.

Despite the show's cult status, by the early 1970s the BBC had decided to erase most of the master videotapes of the series, with a view to reusing the tapes due to the expense of the format. This was common UK television practice at the time, when agreements with actors' and musicians' unions limited the number of repeats. (The policy of wiping recordings ceased in 1978.) 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 BBC would have no need to erase the originals, but inexplicably this was also turned down.

Of the original programmes, only eight of the twenty-two complete episodes survive complete. 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. Of the 1970 third series, only the various film inserts (usually of outdoor scenes) still survive. 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 was released on VHS and DVD.

In 1968, Cook and Moore briefly switched to the commercial channel 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. With no real interest in the show and a developing problem with alcohol, Cook would also rely on cue cards and ended up garbling parts of the script, forcing Moore to ad-lib. Nonetheless, 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.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore acted in films together, beginning with The Wrong Box in 1966. Their best work in the medium was the cult comedy Bedazzled (1967), now widely regarded as a comedy classic but which was not financially successful at the time. 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 put-down, "You fill me with inertia". Moore's Hollywood stardom in the 1970s and 1980s prompted occasional barbed comments from his former comedy partner.

1970s

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.

Though he was eventually to become a favourite on the British chat show circuit, his own effort at hosting one in 1971, entitled Where Do I Sit? was generally agreed by the critics to have been a huge disappointment. The BBC seem to have agreed: he was replaced after only two episodes by Michael Parkinson (for the next series the show bore Parkinson's name, and was the beginning of his career as a chat show host). Cook would take sweet revenge when Parkinson asked him what his ambitions were (schoolboyishly inquiring whether he had any "large ones") by replying "[...] in fact, my ambition is to shut you up altogether".

Cook 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 revue 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 U.S. to pursue a solo career. In 1973, Cook married the actress Judy Huxtable.

Later, the more risqué humour of the Pete and Dud characters was taken to its furthest extent on long-playing records under the names "Derek and Clive". The first such recording was initiated by Cook purely 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.

In 1979, Cook recorded comedy-segments which were released as b-sides to the Sparks 12" singles "Number One In Heaven" and "Tryouts For The Human Race". The combination was not so surprising, for the latter's main songwriter Ron Mael would often start off with a banal situation in his lyrics, and then go off at surreal tangents a la Cook and the even zanier S.J. Perelman.

Performances for Amnesty International

Cook made noteworthy appearances at the first three of the fund-raising galas staged by humourists John Cleese and Martin Lewis on behalf of Amnesty International. The series of benefits were retrospectively dubbed The Secret Policeman's Balls though it wasn't until the third show in 1979 that the Secret Policeman's Ball title was used. He performed on all three nights of 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 reunited for the first time since the 1960s. He also appeared in a Monty Python sketch taking the place of Eric Idle who did not take part in the performances. Cook was prominently featured on the cast album of the show (which carried the same title) and in the film of the event, which was titled Pleasure At Her Majesty's. 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.) Cook performed monologues and skits with Terry Jones.

In June 1979, Cook performed on all four nights of 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. Cook performed a couple of solo pieces and a skit with old friend Eleanor Bron. He also led the ensemble in the grand finale - the "End Of The World" sketch from Beyond The Fringe.

In response to a critical barb in The Daily Telegraph's review of the show's first night - complaining that the show consisted mostly of recycled material, 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 blatant bias in favour of Thorpe. Cook performed it for the first time that same night (Friday 29 June - the third of the four nights) and reprised it the following night. The nine-minute opus — "Entirely a Matter for You" — 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" mini-album on Virgin Records titled Here Comes the Judge: Live of the live performance together with three specially-recorded studio tracks that further lampooned the Thorpe trial.[2] [3]

Although unable to take part in the 1981 gala, Cook supplied the narration used over the animated opening title sequence of the 1982 film of the show. With Martin Lewis, he co-wrote and voiced a series of radio commercials used to advertise the film in the UK. He also hosted a spoof film awards ceremony that was part of the World Première of the film in London in March 1982.

Following Cook's successful 1987 stage reunion with Dudley Moore for the annual U.S. 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 the 1989 Amnesty benefit The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball. The crowd's positive reaction to seeing Cook and Moore reunited was evident in each of their appearances together during the show.

Consequences album

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 1977 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 (also 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, both of which are connected by a large hole in the floor.

Released just as punk was sweeping the UK, the hugely ambitious concept album was a total commercial failure and was savaged by critics, but it gathered (and retains) a small but dedicated cult following. Interestingly, the script and storyline contain many elements that appear to be drawn from Cook's own life – his second wife, actress Judy Huxtable, plays Walter's wife, Lulu. Cook's own problems with alcohol are comically 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. The voice and accent Cook used for the character of Stapleton are remarkably similar to that of Cook's former Beyond the Fringe colleague, Alan Bennett and a recent book on Cook's comedy, How Very Interesting, speculates that the characters Cook plays in Consequences are broad caricatures of the four Beyond The Fringe cast members – the alcoholic Haig represents Cook, the tremulous Stapleton is Alan Bennett, the parodically Jewish Pepperman is Miller, and the pianist Blint represents Moore.

1980s

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 U.S. television sitcom The Two of Us, also making cameo appearances in a couple of undistinguished films. In 1980, Cook starred alongside a host of celebrities in the LWT special Peter Cook & Co.. The show included several comedy sketches, including a Tales of the Unexpected spoof "Tales Of The Much As We Expected". This involved Cook as Roald Dahl, explaining that his name had actually been Ronald before he dropped the "n". The cast included John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Beryl Reid, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. The show has never been repeated since its first airing.

Cook made an appearance as Richard III in 1983, both before and after death, in "The Foretelling", the first episode of Blackadder. In 1986 he appeared as a sidekick to Joan Rivers on her UK talk show. He appeared as Mr Jolly in 1987 in The Comic Strip Presents' Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, playing an assassin who covers the sound of his murders by playing Tom Jones records at full volume. Cook also appeared in The Princess Bride that year, as the "Impressive Clergyman". Also that year he spent time working with Martin Lewis on a political satire about the upcoming 1988 U.S. presidential elections for HBO, but the script went unproduced. During this production, Lewis suggested that Cook team up with Dudley Moore for the U.S. "Comic Relief" telethon for the homeless. The duo successfully reunited and performed their classic "One Leg Too Few" sketch. 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 Cook's birthday.

In 1988, Cook appeared as a contestant on the popular improvisation comedy show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Cook was declared the winner of the episode, his prize being to read the end credits in the style of the host's choosing, which was that of a New York cab driver. He 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 the 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 his 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. According to Cook's biographer Harry Thompson, Weiss tried repeatedly to persuade Cook to stand for parliament, but Cook always refused. 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..."

Revival

In late 1989 Cook married the Malaysian-born property developer Chiew Lin Chong in Torbay, Devon. This marriage brought a beneficial change in the direction of his life, as he reduced his drinking and for a time was a teetotaler. 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 (91 m) away.

On 17 December 1993, Cook appeared on Clive Anderson Talks Back showcasing four completely new characters, and the following day appeared on BBC2 performing links for Arena's "Radio Night". He also appeared, on 26 December, in the 1993 Christmas special of One Foot in the Grave ("One Foot in the Algarve"), playing a muckraking tabloid journalist. Many hoped these high-profile appearances marked the beginning of a revival for Cook, but before the end of the next year his mother died, and Cook returned to a life of heavy drinking. His own death, 13 months later at the age of 57 was officially reported as resulting from internal haemorrhaging. Eric Idle and Stephen Fry commented that Cook had not wasted his talent but rather that the newspapers had tried to waste him.

Legacy

Cook's significance to modern British comedy is immense, and persists today: 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 Fringe, and thence to the radio and television studios of the BBC. Notable fans include all the members of Monty Python and The Goodies, and, more recently, the aforementioned Chris Morris. Some have seen Cook's life as tragic, insofar 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.

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 English speaking world 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. At the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe a stage play, written by Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde and examining the relationship from Moore's point of view, Pete and Dud: Come Again, was a sellout hit at the Assembly Rooms, before transferring to The Venue in London's West End in March 2006. English actor Tom Goodman-Hill played Cook.

At the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Goodbye - the (after)life of Cook & Moore by Jonathan Hansler and Clive Greenwood was presented at the Gilded Balloon. The play imagined the newly dead Moore meeting the already deceased Cook in Limbo which was also inhabited by other comic actors with whom they had worked, including Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, and Kenneth Williams. In May 2009 the play was seen again in London's West End at The Leicester Square Theatre (formerly "The Venue" and home to Pete and Dud: Come Again) with Jonathan Hansler as Cook, Adam Bampton Smith as Moore, and Clive Greenwood as everyone else.

A green plaque was unveiled jointly by Westminster City Council and The Heritage Foundation at the site of Cook's "The Establishment Club" in February 2009.

Filmography

  • The Wrong Box (1966)
  • Alice in Wonderland (1966)
  • Bedazzled (1967)
  • A Dandy in Aspic (1968)
  • Monte Carlo Or Bust (released in the US as Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies) (1969)
  • The Bed-Sitting Room (1969)
  • The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970)
  • Find the Lady (1976)
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)
  • Derek and Clive Get the Horn (1979)
  • Yellowbeard (1983)
  • Supergirl (1984)
  • The Princess Bride (1987): The Impressive Clergyman
  • Whoops Apocalypse (1986)
  • Without A Clue (1988)
  • Getting It Right (1989)
  • Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

Amnesty

  • Pleasure at Her Majesty's (1976)
  • The Mermaid Frolics (1977)
  • The Secret Policeman's Ball
  • The Secret Policeman's Private Parts (1981)
  • The Best of Amnesty: Featuring the Stars of Monty Python (1999)

UK chart singles:

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

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