Too many Cooks?

Cold, cruel, enigmatic, a genius: a decade after his death, Peter Cook continues to fascinate. So can a new television film shed more light on the madcap comedian? Gerard Gilbert reports

For a comedian who, early next month, will have been dead for a decade, and whose career was widely considered a bit of a failure, Peter Cook still generates heated passions and strong allegiances. To his admirers, he is a comic genius without whose flights of fancy there would have been no
Monty Python, no
Fast Show and, perhaps, no modern British satire. For his detractors - and they belong in a Communist Party of Belgravia-sized minority - he was an Oxbridge-educated wastrel with a limited number of funny voices and an over-inflated sense of his own funniness.

For a comedian who, early next month, will have been dead for a decade, and whose career was widely considered a bit of a failure, Peter Cook still generates heated passions and strong allegiances. To his admirers, he is a comic genius without whose flights of fancy there would have been no Monty Python, no Fast Show and, perhaps, no modern British satire. For his detractors - and they belong in a Communist Party of Belgravia-sized minority - he was an Oxbridge-educated wastrel with a limited number of funny voices and an over-inflated sense of his own funniness.

Either way, it's a brave writer who attempts to dramatise the life of Peter Cook. Terry Johnson was asked to do so after the success of Cor Blimey!, his play about the relationship between Carry On stars Sid James and Barbara Windsor - and news that Johnson was making a film about the relationship between Cook and Dudley Moore was greeted with immediate hostility. In an article decrying the trend for instant biopics, the Independent's David Lister wrote: "However good [the actors] are, they will be wrong, because the memory of the real Cook and Moore is too vivid. No actors will be able to perform the deadpan comic dialogues between Pete 'n' Dud with the timing tension and humour of the originals."

In the event, the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans does give a remarkable performance as Cook, but more of that later. Johnson's television film, Not Only But Always, follows Cook from precocious undergraduate at Cambridge to his early death in 1995, by way of Beyond the Fringe, Not Only... But Also, Derek and Clive Get the Horn, late-night maunderings on local radio stations and three marriages. Ah, yes, the marriages.

The secondary broadsides aimed at the film have come from Cook's former wife, Judy Huxtable, and widow, Lin Cook. The latter's criticism was that Not Only But Always (which is based on Harry Thompson's biography of Cook) portrays her late husband as too much of a bad-tempered drunk. The ending of the film was apparently changed to accommodate Lin's objections (and rather smells of hagiography as a result). But Huxtable, Cook's second wife, didn't even know the film was being made, she told The Mail on Sunday after having been invited along to an advance screening by the newspaper. Huxtable didn't like what she saw - attacking Johnson for his artistic licence and for turning her "genius" former husband into a "village idiot". You can see why Johnson, who wrote and directed the film, is keeping his head down - preferring to take questions by e-mail.

When I ask him about the criticism that his drama can only be second best to footage of Cook and Moore themselves, he replies: "I would say that's true of all biography. But that doesn't pertain to the purpose of it, which is to abstract a life and extract from its details, if possible, some universal truths. To step into another's shoes is an act of imagination. Its purpose? To enhance our capacity for empathy."

But our capacity for empathy has a fat chance of being engaged if Johnson got the casting of Cook wrong. And he could easily have got it cringe-makingly wrong. In the event, his long wooing of Ifans (Hugh Grant's slob flatmate in Notting Hill and, more recently, the stalker in Enduring Love) has been richly rewarded. "Casting Peter was, on the whole, two years of chasing Ifans", says Johnson. "There were some valiant attempts by other actors to try him on for size, but Rhys was my first instinct."

Ifans' own recollection - or interpretation - of his desirability is more prosaic. "I'm tall, like Cook," he says. "Also, one of the producers saw me on Jay Leno, and I was on this chat show arsing about, and he thought, 'Yeah, yeah, that's Cook'." Being asked to play such a British comedy icon must have seemed a godsend to a young actor still making his mark, but Ifans wasn't so sure. "I said 'no' to it several times, because I felt that Cook, although he had passed away, wasn't dead, in a sense. Then I kept reading the script and thinking, 'This is an amazing script'. I was really torn - there was a part of me that was gagging to do it and part of me that was frightened." Having finally secured Ifans, the Irish theatre actor Aidan McArdle was chosen to play Moore. "I did two days round the table with them both", says Johnson, "and left to set up filming in New Zealand, at which point Cook was uncompromisingly Welsh and Moore disarmingly Irish."

Not Only But Always was filmed in and around Auckland last spring. Back in a London autumn, the morning on which I met Ifans and McArdle happened to be the first time the two actors had met since the end of filming, and they're quickly into their allotted roles. It's easy to see why Johnson was so excited by their very Pete 'n' Dud-like chemistry. "It became rather muddied", admits McArdle. "Half the time I didn't know whether I was McArdle or Dudley. Was I talking in an Irish accent or not?"

To get into character, both actors looked for visual clues. "You have to latch on to something", says Ifans. "It was Terry that said to me, 'Think of the cigarette' - it helps that aloofness. For me the way the smoke moves is the way Cook's eyes move." McArdle adds: "For Dudley, it was the eyebrows. He always seemed to be frowning. He didn't really want to be a clown - he wanted to look more serious." But what neither actor wanted to do was to meet people who knew Cook and Moore. "Everyone has their own opinion of Peter," says Ifans. "You can't play somebody's opinion."

As it happens, I was interviewing Dick Clement (of the Clement-Ian La Frenais writing partnership) last week about another matter, and asked him - since he produced the second series of Not Only... But Also - for his take on Cook. "I found him a little cold," says Clement. "He liked to find out what made you wince."

And the Cook of Johnson's film does seem relentlessly cruel to Moore; but Johnson, and his lead actors, also capture the mutual dependency between the two comedians - a dependency, it seems, that was stronger in the end for Cook. Did Ifans feel he came close to Cook while playing him? "What I discovered about Cook was an inexplicable loneliness," he says. "No one ever addressed the man's suffering." But Johnson is just as baffled by Cook as when he began his film. "Peter was an enigma," he says. "We pursued him, I hope, honestly and vigorously. At one point it surprised me that, after all our hard work, he remained as unexplained as ever."

Cold, cruel, enigmatic... why then do we hold Cook so closely to our hearts? Of course, he was also famously generous and, well (lest we forget), brilliantly funny. Johnson has another theory. "Maybe Cook represents a spirit of rebelliousness to those who felt it only for a short few golden years of their lives," he says. "The arc of Cook's life - youthful aspiration, a certain success, a mid-life stalling, a deepening sense of futility or failure - is the arc of all our lives, writ large."

'Not Only But Always', Thursday 30 December, 9pm, Channel 4

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