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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests