Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 2: Peter Cook, Comic Actor

HARRY THOMPSON'S magisterial biography of Peter Cook runs for 500 pages. Cook's version of the story - produced at the suggestion of a publisher in 1993 - was a few sheets of writing-paper covered in rough scribble. "I thought we might flesh it out with a few photographs," suggested Cook typically.

To those of us who admire and sometimes envy blithe spirits, this kind of behaviour, of which Cook's life was full, makes him truly heroic in a way that eager beavers like Thompson, however admirable their work, will never be.

We know, of course, from the acres of newsprint and videotape expended on Cook since his death in 1995, that his spirit was anything but blithe below the surface. But what a surface Cook constructed to hide his demons.

There was the brilliance of Pete and Dud, Derek and Clive, and the characters he created for Clive Anderson Talks Back; there was his benign and guiding influence at Private Eye, his wit and his charm; but in this age of the slacker what makes him a true hero is the jokes he created just for fun.

Just for fun. If Peter Cook had a coat of arms, those would have been the words upon it. When the Tonight programme in the Sixties featured near-naked African women performing a tribal dance, Cook telephoned the programme claiming to be a Mr Sydney Darlow of the Sydney Darlow Dance Ensemble and insisted that his troupe of white ladies be allowed to dance topless on the BBC to the same sort of music. Years later, he phoned the BBC duty office to complain of a pornographic film being shown too late for his children to watch it.

The funny phone calls - and entire radio careers have been built upon less - were purely for the amusement of a few mates and became particularly prevalent during what we might call the drinking years, the period in the Eighties and Nineties when our hero was less busy than previously.

Those years, from Cook's mid-forties to his mid-fifties, were presented in the wake of his death as some sort of Greek tragedy, and there is more than a little truth in that. On the evidence of Thompson's book, the seeds of Cooks self-destruction were fairly comprehensively sown in an emotionally stunted upbringing: distant father, English public school and so on. But then look at what Cook did in his destructive years, compared to all the other millions of men who go through a mid-life crisis.

He livened up a few unworthy chat shows, sleepwalked through some desperately unfunny movies, contributed to Private Eye, and created three of the funniest characters ever seen on British television for Clive Anderson's show, all while apparently sitting at home watching Brazilian soaps and truck- racing from Idaho on satellite television, and attending orgies in Muswell Hill. There is a view that finding an orgy in Muswell Hill is an achievement.

He did, of course, drink himself to death. Which was the point about Cook. He could be cruel, but mostly he hurt himself. And where he wounded others, it was often forgiven as his barbs were invariably funny. When David Frost phoned him to invite him to a party for Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, Cook consulted his diary before replying, "I'm sorry, I can't on Wednesday. I find I'm watching television."

More typical of Cook in his latter years is this joke directed at his own indolence: "We could make a non-broadcast pilot," Jonathan Ross said to him of some television project. "I was rather hoping we could make a non-broadcast series," replied Cook, the slacker's slacker.

Peter Cook by Harry Thompson (Hodder & Stoughton pounds 18.99)

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