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A MESSY HAMPSTEAD living-room in the early hours of a mid-Eighties morning. Stacks of hippie records and yellowing newspapers line the walls. Cigarette ash is scattered on the stained shag pile. The television blinks. Peter Cook sits tired-eyed on a G-Plan sofa with his back to a floor-to- ceiling mural of an autumn forest. His friend and neighbour George Weiss, whose house this is, sits opposite him, smoking a joint and tugging at his straggly grey beard. A reel-to-reel tape-recorder in an alcove across the room turns as they talk. There is a knock on the door. Weiss goes to answer it, returning with a local tramp called Bronco John. He is wet - rain falls heavily outside in the mews - and carrying his habitual teabags. He is breathless and excited.

"I was about to have beans on toast," John says, "when out came this really heavy guy. So I didn't get beans on toast."

"How heavy was he?" says Cook in a dry, half-amused voice. "Half a ton?"

Weiss, eager to help, goes into the kitchen: "I've got some Alpen. We could try again with the beans."

John turns to Cook: "I think you're great. I think you're fantastic." Cook snorts with laughter. John presses on: "I saw you in the cinema, and on television with another person."

"This is Peter Cook," shouts Weiss from the kitchen.

"That's not Peter Cook," says John.

"It is Peter Cook," says Weiss. "Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Peter played a character similar to you - EL Wisty."

"That's familiar," says John. "Dudley Moore. That name's very familiar to me." Cook is silent. John jabbers on regardless: "My name's John. Pleased to meet you. I've seen you on the street."

Cook ignores him and shouts towards the kitchen: "George, are you going to cook those beans, or do I have to do it?" There is a clattering. "I've got to discover how to turn the cooker on first," Weiss shouts back. "What does one do with the beans? Just drop them in the saucepan as they are?"

Wearily, Cook issues instructions. "Have you got some butter and pepper? Yes, that's butter. Stick a bit of butter in, stir it around - like it says on the instructions." After several minutes Weiss gets the beans bubbling. "Things are going well here," says Cook.

"They should be, or we'd be fasting," says Weiss.

"Fasting or farting?" says Cook. "I don't know why beans have that mythological effect. Does it say in the Bible, 'If you have beans, you will start farting?' "

John does not react, and Cook's joke fizzles out as the beans arrive, in mugs. John complains about his portion. Cook is more grateful; 47 years old and formerly the most brilliant comedian in Britain, he has grown rather fond of baked beans and trying to make strangers laugh in the middle of the night.

NINE YEARS LATER, in November 1994, when an ailing Cook appeared on television for the last time, his Pebble Mill interviewer cut straight to this point. "Do you feel," he asked, "as is sometimes levelled at you, that you've never achieved your potential?" Cook stirred. His eyes flashed under his thick, chaotic, grey fringe, and his chat show laugh faded away. "I have never attempted to achieve my potential," he bellowed. "What could be worse than to achieve one's potential so early in life?" Within six weeks, Cook was dead, aged 57, killed by a gastrointestinal haemorrhage that was probably brought on by years and years of heavy drinking. His potential was never to be achieved, but any doubts about the depth or endurance of his creative reputation were quickly dispelled by a flood of tributes: from the year's fondest obituaries and a paean of a leader in the Times in January to a second wave of eulogies from friends and colleagues like John Cleese and Alan Bennett at a memorial service in Hampstead in May. But, at the same time, the Pebble Mill interviewer's question acquired a new resonance: how had the genius who had dominated British comedy since the early Sixties ended up as he did, not pushing back the frontiers of comedy still further but baggily haunting neighbours and chat shows and tabloids like another Oliver Reed?

Friends and admirers skated round the question, cramming Cook's last 20 years into a sentence or two under the euphemism "disappointing". Alan Bennett spoke politely of Cook's "later years when some of his talent for exuberant invention deserted him". And Stephen Fry, who had grown close to Cook, felt obliged to go on to The Late Show and tell viewers not to feel sorry for Cook: "He had his friends, his Private Eye [Cook was the majority shareholder], his television to watch, his newspapers to read, and fun little jobs to do every now and again..." Perhaps. But even these small pleasures have fed the melancholy myth: Cook's widow, Lin Chong, is reported to have found the relaxed work ethic of the Private Eye staff not to her liking; and the thousands of hours of living-room tapes recorded by George Weiss flesh out the image of Cook bloating in Hampstead like Elvis at Graceland.

Still, the question of his dereliction remains: how had the young blade of Beyond The Fringe, deadpan and slicked-back as a Kray Twin, ended up - to quote some of the unkinder descriptions written in the years leading up to his death - "shrouded in blubber", "eyes swimming in pink gin"? Of the Beyond the Fringe team, Dudley Moore went to Hollywood, Jonathan Miller to direct opera, and Alan Bennett to every bookshop in the country; only Cook, apparently, went to seed. Did Cook just lose his comic demon, his days listless after breakfasts of lager and vodka, or did he consciously decide against "achieving one's potential"? And if he did reject success, what took its place?

COOK'S LAST YEARS started around 1980. He had, it seemed, ended the Seventies as he had begun them, in famous, hilarious partnership with Dudley Moore. The Derek and Clive personae they adopted in 1979 were foul- mouthed, more aggressive versions - to suit more aggressive times - of the droll-but-puzzled proles they had played to such acclaim as Pete and Dud in 1969. Cook had had his problems during the decade - a disastrous chat show axed in 1971; a Daily Mail column that stalled in 1977; a failing second marriage to actress Judy Huxtable - but he was still a brilliant improvisational comic, capable of unfurling great strings of compelling nonsense about whales making records or great barrages of mocking insights into the Jeremy Thorpe trial, barely moving his long, imperious head while all collapsed laughing around him. Above all, Cook had influence: from the Monty Python team to every student revue in the country, comedians followed up the innovations of Not Only But Also.

But the truth was that Cook's career had stalled. Most of the viewing public had no idea that it was Cook and Moore who had inspired Python's mix of the crude and the arcane; worse yet, Moore had left Cook for Hollywood in 1975, and Derek and Clive was more of a one-off virtuoso reunion than a new beginning. Cook saw their split as "a divorce". Of course, he mocked Moore's new life in "a ghastly place full of factories, freaks and health fascists", but behind his quips - "It's OK if you're an orange" - there was sadness, and fear about the loss of his favourite collaborator. "It produced a gap in my life which is probably still there today," he said in 1991. "I wasn't envious because I didn't want that life. But when people asked, 'What are you going to do now?', I really didn't know - I still don't really."

He cast around for a role. In 1981, he agreed to take a bit part in an American sitcom called The Two Of Us, flew over to New York, played a supercilious butler for 20 episodes, and found America "ridiculous". His show was axed by CBS. He tried Hollywood, appearing in a bad pirate film called Yellowbeard and a feeble "feminist" version of Superman called Supergirl, where, he said, he "sat around on the set for 16 weeks".

"Sat around on the set" - it's a telling admission; Cook had, finally, stopped trying. This was no sudden decision, more the culmination of a slowdown that had been happening for years. Cook said he "ran out of ambition at 24" - in 1961, when he had a revue in the West End as a Cambridge undergraduate; certainly, by 1981 his comedy had reached an impasse. Partly, this was technical: "He was only good at being Peter," says his friend and Private Eye co-writer Barry Fantoni. "He wasn't good at being anyone else, so there was no chance of him being an actor." Moreover, Cook's comedy was about improvisation, about "saying something silly" by plucking rants and characters from his imagination. It was not a discipline; when he lost interest in the early Eighties, he simply stopped writing. And what funny things were there left to say? With Derek and Clive, Cook had rubbed up against the limits of acceptable comedy, making jokes about cancer and suicide and the Holocaust that were barely jokes at all. And how was a comedian whose best work was based on characters with a baffled acceptance of the world and their fate supposed to take his own life and career seriously? As the novelist Jonathan Coe has said, "The very factor that gave his comedy universal appeal also meant it was fated to become a cul-de-sac... It was based on a view of the world developed at a frighteningly young age that saw right to the heart of its absurdities."

In the early Eighties, Cook retreated from these absurdities into a Hampstead cul-de-sac called Perrin's Walk. Tumbling downhill away from the traffic and tourists of Heath Street, it is a private mews of half-a-dozen 18th- century coach houses, screened from the outside world by faded high walls and curtains of drooping budleia. Cook had moved into a three-storey house halfway down to the sleepy foot of the mews (where Weiss lives in a rented house painted DayGlo green) a decade earlier; but it was only now that Perrin's Walk became the centre of his existence. With royalties coming in from two decades of performances on record, tape, and film, Cook didn't really need to work. With his drinking - which reputedly started in earnest on a tour to Australia with Moore in 1974 - he often didn't really feel like it. Moneyed indolence is a common enough aspiration; Cook had the means and the will to achieve it. He was, he said, "born to be on holiday".

Cook's days would start when he liked, often late and often with a drink. Then he would read every single newspaper, starting with the Sun - for long a habit which had given him comic material but which now, more often, just gave him the slacker's fascination with watching outside events drift by in newsprint. And there was television. Cook watched whole flickering indoor days of it: Brazilian soaps, beauty contests, boxing, comedy, golf, football, satellite porn from Holland. "His life took on a whole new proportion when Sky was invented," says Harry Enfield, who used to be invited round to share the screen. But Cook didn't just watch his television; he taped it, talked to it, anticipated its lines, did running commentaries on it, rang friends to discuss what had been on, what was on as they spoke. And he combined it with his other interests: "I'd go round there," says Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, "and you'd bet on who was going to win a particular round of Miss Universe on cable."

Cook had always loved popular, "trashy" things. Now he could indulge himself full-time. He ordered random items by mail; he played with his fax machine, which he named Betty (the day he bought it he sent nonsense messages to every world leader he could think of); he scattered papers everywhere and never cleaned the house - Cook enjoyed slobbish pleasures with the gusto of a Martin Amis lowlife. Beyond Perrin's Walk, the chi- chi village of Hampstead made these pleasures surprisingly available, with its pubs, its Pizza Hut and, later, its McDonalds. And beyond Hampstead there were Cook's season ticket at White Hart Lane and his occasional trips to Soho massage parlours.

Most days, though, Cook kept to a small orbit. At the top of the mews was La Sorpresa, a little Italian restaurant where, once or twice a week, he had lunch and mocked the owner for supporting Arsenal. (When he didn't feel like walking the 30 yards, the food would be brought round to his house.) After lunch, he might walk a couple of doors up Heath Street, often in his slippers, and rent a video in a shop with a shelf for Woody Allen tapes but not for Peter Cook ones. And twice or three times a day he would go a bit further, up to Hampstead Food Hall, ignore the deli counter and the vegetable racks, and buy vodka and Superkings.

But Cook was not a terminal introvert. He played golf. His nextdoor neighbour was Lawrence Levy, a golf photographer who died recently; Cook, Levy, and a golf fanatic friend of Levy's called Howard Baws would go up to the course in Highgate or, says Baws, "anywhere we could get a cart and not have to walk too far". Cook got his handicap down to 16; he was invited to play in celebrity tournaments abroad. Disappearing without warning, he would call his Hampstead friends in midwinter from some sunny South Carolina golf course, Bruce Forsyth and friends in the background, glowing with expenses-paid bonhomie.

Cook liked being king of this little kingdom. The uneven cobbles of Perrin's Walk offered him a place to be funny without the compromises and stresses of public performance. "The most ordinary thing like appearing on Clive James fills me with panic," said Cook. "I don't much enjoy being on television. I'd rather be sarcastic to myself. I'd rather do it for a few people socially, but it would be a bit rude to take up a collection after dinner."

George Weiss's G-Plan living-room was often Cook's arena. Weiss is an ex-diamond dealer who lost his job and his money in the mid-Seventies, went to live in Ireland to pursue his girlfriend and write his autobiography and then, having become "a visionary", moved back to Perrin's Walk in 1984. At that time, Cook was toying with the idea of forming a political party called the What Party, based on the whimsical banalities he used to utter as EL Wisty in the Sixties; he appointed Weiss "Minister for Con-fusion". Weiss in turn founded Captain Rainbow's Universal Party (CRUP), explaining himself thus: "Midway through our earthly association... I found myself being directed by 'The Wizard' [Cook] to venture out into the world beyond 'The Magic Mountain'... to cause as much confusion as humanly possible..."

CRUP contested the Enfield/Southgate by-election in Dec-ember 1984 on a platform of abolishing parliament. It lost to Michael Portillo by 16,684 votes to 48, developed links with the Monster Raving Loony Party, and launched Weiss on a series of bizarre schemes, including an attempt to raise money by charging people 1p to get into the Camden Palais and pounds 3 to get out. Cook had mixed feelings about all this. He liked Weiss enough, but was alarmed when Weiss started turning his comic whims into political reality. Weiss schemed on regardless, seeing Cook "without any direction whatsoever... in need of a dream or two."

This strange friendship, of a comic fantasist and an actual fantasist, was at its strangest in Weiss's living-room. "He was a regular visitor," says Weiss. "I was gathering a crowd of attractive young people and Peter liked attractive young people, so he had that magnet to come down the mews and see what was going on." What was going on was mostly talk - locals and minor actors and activist friends of Weiss's chatting while the tapes rolled and marijuana smoke drifted out of the wide living-room window. Sometimes Cook just listened, but often he played the comic eminence, betting a tedious guest pounds 50 that she couldn't shut up, and trapping visiting Americans with drawled one-liners. (Amer-ican: "Is your basic interest work, or work in theatre or work in TV?"; Cook: "Couldn't possibly be work - that's for grown-ups"; laughter.) Cook's contributions sound sad now, a great intelligence hardly trying. "I got pounds 30,000 for doing Night Of A Thous-and Stars at Radio City Music Hall," he says, his voice disdainful. "All I'd do was fly back from LA to New York - I was going back to London in any case - walk down some stairs and walk up again, pull up at a posh hotel in New York. My last meal was caviare, caviare, caviare, caviare..." But he had his audience.

PERRIN'S WALK was not Cook's only kingdom. His apparent loss of nerve for public performance concealed the fact that he was still being a comedian, after a fashion. There was the odd joke for Private Eye - "Cook never lost it," says Hislop - and there were the radio phone-ins; in particular, an LBC programme fronted by Clive Bull in the eerie radio no-man's-land of 2am to 6am. Cook was a bad sleeper, a keen listener and, soon, a fanatical caller. He often pretended to be a lugubrious Norwegian fisherman called Sven. Sven would call, throaty and tearful, to talk about fish, his unfaithful girlfriend - even, on one occasion, his girlfriend running off with a fish. Sometimes he was lecherous ("I've been to see naughty Nancy at the launderette"); sometimes he was bizarre ("In Norway we have very little hooliganisms [sic] because we have so many fish programmes"); nearly always Bull let him mutter on. To disguise his identity, Cook would leave friends' phone numbers at the radio station; when Bull found out who his caller was, Cook invited him to tea - and kept calling. "The thing he enjoyed was to take a telephone... and lead people, willing or unwilling, in and out of fantasies," says Fantoni.

Cook's comic energy still existed; it was the outlets that were unorthodox. There were the running jokes ("He had a record called Hitler's Inferno, a collection of the music Hitler used to like," says Howard Baws, who is Jewish. "He used to have it blasting out when he knew I was coming round... I'd love to have been left it in his will"); the grand projects - Cook formed a spoof Hampstead Ryder Cup Golf Committee with Baws, Levy and Weiss to lobby for the competition to be played on the Heath; and the inspired lunacy of his new form of water polo - "I went round to Peter's one evening," says Harry Enfield, "and a friend of mine who designs board games was there. Cook had asked him to design a game where you had to kick a ball through the loop at the top of those handrails you get on swimming-pool steps. He had thought of it on holiday with John Cleese and had made a long, boring holiday video to show how it would work."

How had it come to this? He had turned in some tepid-to-funny film cameos which had been well paid and quickly forgotten. He had hosted the odd comedy special. But his one substantial programme had been a disaster: as co-host to the brassy American chat queen Joan Rivers on Can We Talk? in 1986 he had looked washed out and nervous, and had ended up like a spare guest at the Siberian end of the sofa.

This was the signal for the world beyond Perrin's Walk to see Cook as a mess. Given a new car for his birthday, he crashed it into a police car while over the limit; the next year, 1987, he ended up in the Star in a kiss-and-tell story by a former girlfriend, alleging group sex at Weiss's house. Weiss threatened to sue the paper, but more damaging than the story was the photograph of Cook: sweaty-haired, flush-faced and not dissimilar to others that were starting to appear in the gossip columns. Admirers worried for his gift: "You wanted him to be good," says the writer Craig Brown, "whereas up to the age of 35 there was an effortless madness to him. He could say anything and it would be funny."

Cook always wanted to be a rock singer (Keith Moon once dragged him to an LA studio to make it happen - it didn't); now he seemed like an ageing one. When John Hind interviewed him for his book The Comic Inquisition, Cook suggested he retitle it Fuck 'Em All, and ranted: "I used to be cynical when I was young. But, by God - it's worse now. I dislike going along with what's going on. I hate this current attitude of, 'Oh, grow up, join the real world, don't be so stuuupid!' I can't bear those awful ideas."

"Everyone who really loved Peter also on occasions really hated Peter," says Weiss. "He could be very sharp." Alcohol fuelled other mood swings too. "On a very lonely night he might ring up all his Private Eye mates," says Fantoni, "and I'd speak to Ian [Hislop] and say, 'Did Cookie phone last night?', and he'd say, 'Yes. He was quite pissed. I didn't say much.' "

MOST OF the time, however, Cook's friends did not see him as pathetic. And there were plenty of them: "One of the good things about not being ambitious is that you make a lot of friends," says Craig Brown. "You have a lot of time, while everyone else is beetling about." When, for example, Spurs bought Jurgen Klinsmann, Cook could act out a schoolboy fantasy and invite him to lunch. He came. And it is extremely difficult to find anyone with an unkind word for Cook; his friendliness and generosity are remembered with unanimity. Brown recalls a party at Graham Chapman's house, when the owner of the local bakery found herself in a roomful of drunk celebrities: "This little lady was looking lost. My girlfriend said that no one was talking to her. Cook heard, and went and talked to her - for an hour."

Indeed, there are those who attribute Cook's comic slackening to this, to the fact that he wasn't unhappy enough in his last years. He had money, a nice big house, his daughters Lucy and Daisy, his friends, and little need to work - the fiftysomethings' dream. And Cook had fallen in love, too, with Lin Chong, a Malaysian-Chinese woman far younger than himself; they married in 1989. It was a success: Cook "genuinely loved and cared for her", says Weiss, "and were it not for her devotion to him he wouldn't have lived to enjoy his 47th birthday, never mind his 57th."

Predictably, Cook and Chong's relationship was unconventional. They did not live together; she kept to her rather tidier house in rather tidier Flask Walk, 200 yards from Cook's - and further away from his Heath Street haunts. Chong was less than keen on the Perrin's Walk gang. Weiss remembers at least one "starlet" at Cook's house; and that, to Chong's intense irritation, Cook still kept pictures of his previous wife, Judy Huxtable, together with "her clothes and shoes and things like that".

"Stormy" rows or not, Cook made it to the end of the decade. His drinking was still not continuous, and there were signs that his kind of comedy was coming into favour again. People started ringing Cook up, and he started saying yes. He did the voice-over for a televised version of Viz comic's Roger Mellie, a foul-mouthed chatshow host who spent a lot of time playing celebrity golf. He got to ramble on about his hatred of rabbits as a guest on BBC 2's Room 101. He twice went on Have I Got News For You and nearly out-deadpanned Paul Merton. And Cook buried the ghosts of previous talkshow disasters by appearing, triumph-antly, as four different guests on Clive Anderson Talks Back.

Cook seemed to be on song, to be fitting in with bright young things. It was a fit Cook was keen to make; despite all his defiant slacking, Cook still cared for his reputation: "I remember him having a birthday party and him being rather nervous," says Enfield, "because Julian Clary was coming. He admired him, and hoped that Clary would admire him." And, says George Weiss, "The most brilliant I ever saw him was at his place once when Jonathan Miller came round. When he was with any of the old crowd, he was trying to be at his best."

Cook's last performance before his peers came in 1993. After being judged just too offensive for 14 years, the video of Derek and Clive Get The Horn was finally granted a release. Moore flew back from Los Angeles to do the old routines, and a launch party was held at the Cobden Working Men's Club in west London, a favourite venue for fashionable celebrity parties. On the night, the wide, weird panoply of Cook fans was on display - David Gower, Dave Stewart, Sam Torrance and the Rolling Stones all in the same room. The party continued at Perrin's Walk, where a sopping wet Cook greeted guests, having jumped in his fishpond after setting himself on fire lighting candles. "Everyone there said they'd never seen so many celebrities at one party," says Weiss. It ended at 7am with Cook charging up Perrin's Walk with a video camera, commentating at speed as Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood headed for the top of the mews. "It was probably the happiest I ever saw Peter," says Weiss. "He'd have been quite happy to die that evening."

The next time Cook's friends all got drunk together would be after his memorial service. His mini-revival had continued during 1994, with a well- observed piece of video whimsy called Peter Cook Talks Golf Balls and some droll radio chats with new prankster Chris Morris, but Cook's health was growing fragile. He put on weight and stopped seeing Weiss. "Often I'd go round and ring on his buzzer and say, 'Hello Wizard, it's Wicked,' " says Weiss. "And he'd say, 'Oh Wicked, I'm tired. I'm going to bed.' " Over the summer, Cook's mother died; it hurt him badly. At times, he seemed fine; he kept his end up in interviews and enjoyed evenings out with Stephen Fry. But when Weiss saw him in the street in December, he thought, "I've never seen Peter look as bad." Early in the morning on 4 January, Chong rushed down to Weiss's house to ask him to help her get Cook into her car. "He was on the top floor of the house," says Weiss. "He was weak; he was stretched out; he was vomiting blood." Cook was too heavy to move; an ambulance came, and he was taken away.

Later that day at the Royal Free Hospital he seemed better. The internal bleeding stopped, and he made a point of listening to the fifth day of the England-Australia test match; the Daily Record printed a "Cook Recovers" story. By the next day, Cook was in a coma from which he never emerged. He died on 9 January.

VISIT Perrin's Walk now, and Cook's last years seem sad, deluded. The houses with their towers and tubs of flowers form a melancholy little Portmeirion. Cook's house is shuttered, ancient paint peeling. The view from Weiss's living-room window is of budleia tossing in the breeze, nothing of the rest of London, the rest of life. And Weiss's living-room is bare, G-Plan sofas and tape-recorders long gone to pay off debts for long-dead schemes. All that's really left are his tapes, covering his mantelpiece in precise stacks eight deep, a mad archivist's sediment. You think: for all his and the others' posthumous affection, why didn't they tell Cook to stop drinking, to indulge his self-destruction a little less?

Then Weiss, slowing his ramble for a moment, says that his last words to Cook were "I love you"; and, looking at him sitting sadly on the carpet, 11 years of rent unpaid, you see that people at least cared about Cook, and he about them. And you remember that a month after Cook's memorial service, the Daily Telegraph ran a chilling interview with Dudley Moore, marooned back at his empty celebrity restaurant in Los Angeles, knowing no one and musing, "Who would have thought I would end up going to die in Newport Beach?" Moore said some brutal things about his late colleague in the interview - Cook was, Dud said, "like a beached whale" - but, you thought, at least Cook didn't end up like this. For, in a strange way, Cook did something rather brave; he defied the spirit of the times and gave up on a famous career, condemning himself to decades of sanctimonious press. But he also gave himself the freedom to do precisely what he wanted. It meant that he died early; he also died loved. !