Not only a comic genius ...

... but also the founder of a Soho venue where subversive humour flourished in the 1960s. And yesterday a plaque was finally unveiled in honour of Peter Cook and the Establishment Club. Andy McSmith reports

A heritage plaque unveiled in honour of Peter Cook would not be complete without a joke. "Peter Cook 1937-1995, comedian and 'only twin', co-founded and ran the Establishment Club here 1961-1964", reads the green disk mounted on the wall of the building in Soho where he opened London's first satirical nightclub. Now the bar Zebrano's, the Establishment Club, which Cook opened with his business partner Nick Luard almost 50 years ago, was the realisation of the comedian's dream ever since his university days. This was the venue where a young Australian comic, Barry Humphries, first took to the stage as his alter-ego, Dame Edna Everage. Dudley Moore danced The Twist in the basement. It also revived the career of Frankie Howard.

Yesterday, a motley crew of family and friends, including fellow comedian Barry Cryer and a female Lord Mayor in turquoise tights gathered to honour Cook with his own plaque from the Heritage Foundation. One of the Bee Gees, Robin Gibb, was due to unveil the memorial but withdrew after newspaper revelations that he fathered a child with his housekeeper. The DJ Mike Read did the honours instead.

"Peter Cook recreated British humour as we know it. He can never be imitated or replaced," said Read. "We don't appreciate people until we lose them and that's a very British trait," added David Graham, of the Heritage Foundation. "I remember when Peter died. The next day the papers were full of what a great genius he was but why weren't they saying that when he was alive?"

Cook was the first and possibly the greatest of a long line of Oxford or Cambridge-educated comics that has included John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry. He formed a duo with an Oxbridge contemporary, Dudley Moore, who was his polar opposite. Cook was descended from colonial civil servants, was brought up by nannies, educated at public school and was over 6ft tall. Moore was 5ft with a club foot, brought up in Dagenham and educated at state school but secured a music scholarship to Oxford. He and Moore starred with Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett in the revue Beyond The Fringe, which Cook wrote in the year he graduated from Cambridge, and which kicked off the satire boom of the early 1960s. Its longest surviving feature is Private Eye magazine, which Cook part owned.

Before Cook's time, it was unheard of for comics to mimic or ridicule politicians. But one day, Harold Macmillan came to the theatre to hear the young comedian who had the temerity to impersonate him on stage. Instead of showing respect, Cook wandered off his script to direct a string of derogatory jokes at the prime minister. Cook's first television appearances were in the role of EL Wisty, a monotonous, homespun philosopher in a raincoat whose life was an uninterrupted story of disappointment. Wisty wanted to be a judge but, having no Latin, became a coal miner. He and his friend Spotty Muldoon formed the World Domination League, and would ask people politely if they would mind being dominated, always taking "no" for an answer.

In the late 1960s, Cook wrote and starred in Not Only Peter Cook, But Also Dudley Moore, a show made up of a series of sketches that took familiar situations and rendered them absurd. Possibly the best-known sketch they performed was one Cook wrote when he was 18, in which a one-legged man auditions for a part as Tarzan. Another,now forgotten, was a live report from "The Most Boring Man in Britain Competition", when the contestants were of such a high standard that they almost emptied the Albert Hall. The winner was, of course, Moore, who was brought backstage to be interviewed about how he could be so boring. The act Cook and Moore later developed, as the characters Derek and Clive, could not be broadcast because the language was obscene, but the records were popular. In the 1970s, the partnership broke up, largely because of Cook's drinking, and Moore went off to Hollywood.

"Peter was one of the most inventive funnymen I ever knew," Cryer, the writer and broadcaster, said yesterday. "It poured out of him. When he was on television or in private, it was just the same. We used to say that if he went into an empty room where there was just a cardboard box, he would be funny about the cardboard box.

"The word 'satirist' is much abused. It became a bland, catch-all definition. Peter was not a satirist, he was in the great nonsense tradition of Edward Lear and the Goon Show – taking real life and turning it upside down. When he started insulting Macmillan, it was all off script. The audience was hypnotised and Macmillan just had to sit there taking it all.

"But there was a great mournfulness in there. I don't think Peter ever came to terms with Dudley becoming a Hollywood star. It wasn't jealousy: it was just incomprehension. Hey, this was Dudley from Dagenham. It broke his heart when Dudley went off. Peter was funny on his own, but the pure comedy in Peter would come out when he was with Dudley."

Despite having become reclusive, and despite his heavy drinking, Cook re-emerged shortly before his death with four new characters, all created with an extraordinarily convincing attention to phraseology, intonation and body language. Each character was interviewed in turn on Clive Anderson Talks Back. One was a coin collector describing how he was abducted by aliens, another was a judge temporarily suspended for shooting dead a defendant, the third a football manager whose watchwords were "motivation, motivation, motivation – the three m's", and finally there was an old Sixties rock star.

Nicholas Parsons, host of Radio 4's Just A Minute, said: "Peter was a one-off. He was unique. He expressed himself while he was still very young. He wrote a whole review for Kenneth Williams while he was still very young. I think he just got bored, funnily enough. It was almost as if he had expressed his total self early on and there was nothing more he wanted to do – except that those appearances on Clive Anderson were what he liked doing, because they didn't take much preparation, and he loved ad-libbing and being very clever off the top of his head."

Cook died in 1995, aged 57. In 2005, 300 comedians took part in a poll to choose "The Comedian's Comedian" and Cook came top. He was, according to Stephen Fry, "the funniest man who ever drew breath".

Peter Cook: Wit and wisdom

*As a director auditioning a one-legged actor (Dudley Moore) for the role of Tarzan, 1964

"I like your right leg, a lovely leg for the role. That's what I said when I saw it come in. I said, 'A lovely leg for the role.' I've got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you."

*As EL Wisty, 1964:

"We shall move into people's rooms and say 'Excuse me, we are the World Domination League. May we dominate you?' Then if they say, 'Get out', of course we give up."

*As the judge summing up in the trial of Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party, 1979

"We have been forced to listen to the pitiful whining of Mr Norma St John Scott – a scrounger, parasite, pervert, a worm, a self-confessed player of the pink oboe, a man or woman who, by his own admission, chews pillows. It would be hard to imagine, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, a more discredited and embittered man... You may on the other hand choose to believe Mrs (sic) Scott – in which case I can only say you need psychiatric help."

*As the restaurateur Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, 1990

"I have travelled widely, but not well. I think it's better to travel widely than to arrive. Travel widens the world, as they say in the Sahara."

As Alan Latterly, football manager, 1995

"You've got to be in a rage to bring out the best in yourself. What I do to my players, one of the tactics I did, an early tactic, was to kidnap their wives."

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