As always, he left us laughing
For more than three decades his savage and spontaneous wit pointed the way for British comedy. Clive Anderson offers an appreciation of the funniest m an in England, who died yesterday He was a satirist out to poke fun at the powers that be, not always out of a se nse of moral outrage but because they are funny
Tuesday 10 January 1995
As he himself remarked, at the height of their success in Beyond the Fringe, his fellow performers rather doubted what they were up to. Alan Bennett was a shy academic, not comfortable looning around, poking fun at politicians and priests; Jonathan Miller was really a medic who wanted to be an opera director (or vice versa); Dudley Moore was a musician with ambitions to be a Hollywood sex symbol. Only Peter was really happy to be on stage playing it for laughs.
With Beyond the Fringe he was in at the rebirth of British satire in the Sixties, and implicated in the death of the gentler West End revues that had gone before. With what was to become his typical lethargy, he was beaten to the founding of a satirical magazine by others but was pleased to rescue and become the owner of Private Eye when it fell into financial difficulties.
He was, though, the first to found a satirical nightclub, the Establishment, which anticipated by about 20 years the Comedy Store and thousands of other comedy venues which now dot the country. He brought Lenny Bruce and Barry Humphries to the attention of London audiences and breathed new life into Frankie Howerd's flagging career.
With Dudley Moore he enjoyed a comedy partnership made in heaven. Did Dudley genuinely corpse more or less every time Peter took off in a flight of fancy in their sketches in Not Only But Also? Who cares? He could be forgiven for finding everything that Peter said hysterically funny. Everybody else did.
In 1979 he was the best thing in the Amnesty International benefit, appearing as the judge directing the jury to acquit in the Jeremy Thorpe trial, capturing again the authentic voice and figure of the Establishment, caught with its trousers down.
But without wishing to trample on Peter's reputation as a savage wit and satirist, I am bound to say that I found him to be not only one of the funniest men in England, but also one of the nicest. This may seem an odd thing to say of someone who once described David Frost as the "Bubonic Plagiarist" and who kept up an endless string of insults at the expense of Dudley Moore's size, class and physical condition, for no real reason except that it was amusing. But there was no malice in his method.
I was always a fan, but I first met him when he was one of several big name stars appearing in a special radio programme that I had written with Rory McGrath. As no-account young scriptwriters, we were treated with appropriate disdain by all the other performers, but Peter was unfailingly courteous. Occasionally suggesting sparkling improvements to the lines we had written for him, he assumed no airs or graces but diffidently helped things along without condescension or rudeness.
Years later I found he was a brilliant guest to interview on television, as had many others before me. Not that he chose to reveal much of the inner man. He just made very good jokes about the week's news. About what he had been up to. About anything, really. But a chat show that he had once presented himself had been dreadful, he admitted. "Even worse than this one".
Just before Christmas, Channel 4 repeated a special edition of Clive Anderson Talks Back, which we made a year ago, in which all four guests were fictional characters played by Peter (a football manager, a rock star, etc). I suggested the idea as a way of demonstrating Peter's ability to be spontaneously funny, a difficult quality to capture on television. Especially when most producers expect spontaneity to be practised in advance. Mind you, what I really wanted was to be Dudley Moore for a day. In theevent, I think he was fantastic, even if the Dudley Moore he was working with might not have been up to scratch. I wish we had done more now.
A university revue performer with genuine popular appeal, Peter pointed the way for Monty Python, Not the Nine O'Clock News and the others that came after. As one of the writers of Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith's Head to Head conversations, I could scarcely deny the influence of Pete and Dud's Dagenham dialogues on later generations. No doubt another aspect of his style is reflected in the sophisticated presentations of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
But it does not stop there. The publishing sensation of a couple of years ago was the outrageous vulgarity of Viz magazine and its imitators. On the comedy circuit, stand-up comedians vie with each other to be more shocking, more graphic, more explicit in their language. But Peter had been down that avenue, been round that U-bend already. With Dudley he recorded the Derek and Clive tapes - the names were chosen as the naffest they could think of - foul-mouthed versions of their Dagenham duo, to the delight of schoolboys of all ages.
Naughty, then, but nice. He was a satirist out to poke fun at the powers that be, not always out of a sense of moral outrage but because they are funny. He was not a revolutionary seeking to change the whole world. Perhaps he was too content with his place in it for that. His impersonation of Harold Macmillan was not aimed at bringing down the government any more than his EL Wisty really had it in for spotty people, or coal miners who did not have the Latin for the judging. But no one was going to escape his sharp wit for all that.
The last time I spent any time with him was watching the World Cup Final: Brazil v Italy, decided on a missed penalty, after a goal-less match and extra time. Barry Davis did his best to keep us entertained, but I think Peter did better. Some time duringthe match Peter came up with the idea that instead of pro-celebrity golf matches, there ought to be pro-celebrity boxing, with, say, Jimmy Tarbuck taking on Mike Tyson. It would be so much more fun. But then the world seen through Peter's eyes always would be.
There, I expect most that will be written about him is the sort of stuff he would consign to Great Bores of Today. But at least I have got through this appreciation of Peter Cook without once using the G-word. Genius.
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