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The Independent Culture
At Cambridge he was the "funniest man in the world", the inspiration to a whole generation of satirists. Thirty years on he was an unpaid expert on daytime television and wiled away the small hours by calling late-night phone-ins in the persona of Sven, a melancholy Norwegian. Sven could be very funny - his solution to hooliganism was to display giant posters of North Sea fish at football grounds - but even so it is difficult to look at the trajectory of Peter Cook's career and not think that there had been some horrible malfunction in the second-stage booster. While his friends and colleagues went on to different, occasionally greater things, Cook stalled. His own ventures into television as a chat-show host were, by common consent, disastrous, so he ended by spilling out his undoubted brilliance as a superlative chat-show guest. And yet he claimed, according to Alan Bennett, that he regretted nothing in his life but for the fact that he had once saved David Frost from drowning.

That may be because, despite the pieties of modern journalism, a career is not synonymous with a life. Some contributors to Omnibus (BBC1) argued that Cook's final marriage had made him happy and relaxed. Indeed, when he died earlier this year there was an indignant reaction from his friends to all the "Wasted Life" headlines generated by his sudden and early death. Watching Omnibus, though, it was clear that the sense of a great talent dissipated wasn't simply the creation of lazy hacks. The ugliest scene in the film was a sequence taken during one of the Derek and Clive sessions, when the partnership with Dudley Moore was breaking up. The atmosphere of jokey rancour, only a fingernail away from a punch, suggested a great frustration trying to pass itself off as insouciance.

Louis Heaton's film strained rather hard to dig up the roots of Cook's comedy, and snipped the routines a little too energetically into neat symmetries with his own footage. At the beginning, too, you had the feeling that Cook himself would have had some fun with its observance of the rituals of the television profile, from the signs of early promise ("he dominated that year's review 'Pop Goes Mrs Jessop'") to the knotty precision of Jonathan Miller's recollections ("it's very hard to say where Peter's comic conventions came from..."). But it was a small price to pay for so many clips.

It would have been nice, given that it's Christmas, if The Limit's (BBC2) programme about a robot interplanetary driller could have begun with something other than the words "Space - the final frontier" (perhaps the producers could add an additional episode to the alliterative superlatives they have been using for titles - "The Corniest Cliche" say). Such minor lapses apart, though, this has been an intriguing series - celebrating the intellectual challenge of engineering through examples with real mud on their boots. This was the most rarefied project of all - one where the building site is some 600,000 kilometres away and moving at a fair lick too. The idea is to land a robot drill on the surface of a comet in order to take samples of its core. Those competing to build the device have to design a machine which can cope with any consistency of material, from shaving foam to granite. It also has to drill without the assistance of gravity, somehow anchoring itself to the surface so that the first thrust downwards doesn't send it flying off into space, and it must weigh less than two kilograms and use less than five watts of power.

Experts in robotics have applied themselves to these cosmic challenges with enormous enthusiasm, despite the fact that the consummation of all the work is at least 18 years away (the probe will travel for nine years and complete its task in two minutes, provided it still works). Perhaps when they've finished they could turn their attention to a problem closer to home - and engineer a drill that turns itself off before plunging through the cold water pipe.

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