Alex Games: A much nicer man than Derek - or Clive

Related Topics

There are many ways to view the life of Peter Cook, who has been voted by Channel 4 the world's best comedian, but few have dared to attempt what Terry Johnson did in Not Only But Always. Screened last week, this factually based play showed Peter Cook at his lacerating and self-destructive worst, hitting out verbally at wives and, in particular, Dudley Moore. The emotionally searing drama was unblinking in its portrayal of Cook's alcoholic fall from grace and beauty. It took the line - frankly credited to Harry Thompson's biography - that Cook wasted away in London, pining for the friend he most loved to bully, humiliate and degrade, while Dudley, like a puppy slipping the leash, was having a ball on Venice Beach with big-breasted blondes. There were times in the film, as in life, when Cook's attacks on Dudley beggared belief. Rounding on your partner as an over-ambitious club-footed dwarf is not the ideal way to engender cast unity. The image many people take away might be of a man too caustic to live: like a real-life Edward Scissorhands, whenever he reaches out to stroke someone, he ends up cutting them. All rather unlovable, yet Cook seems to have been hugely loved by those who knew him. Why so?

Admirers from Jonathan Miller through John Cleese and Stephen Fry have said that being funny was as natural to him as breathing, that it just bubbled forth from him. So too was an innate or public school-acquired sense of fair play which belies the acerbic striking at pomposity of the early 1960s. His favourite West End shows, he said, were precisely those which the satire boom saw off. And his famously sharp tongue may have been a prop behind which he hid a soft and sensitive heart.

Not so hidden, in fact. Peter Cook has never been known to have aimed a single insulting word at any of the vast army of pretenders who followed him into the circus ring and he enjoyed nothing more than the sight of Dudley Moore having to stuff sandwiches into his mouth to cover up the fact that he was corpsing. But within 10 years, as their collaboration darkened from Pete and Dud to Derek and Clive, we saw another side of Cook: rage, paranoia and browbeating, but always and forever projected through the prism of humour.

Cook once set out on a riff about how "my old man's got cancer" at precisely the same time that Moore's own father had been diagnosed with that condition. Dudley, once he had gulped at the sheer nerve of it, was more than happy to go along with Peter: they were creative artists searching for new outlets. When Peter harangues Dudley, or buys an inflatable doll for him, we are seeing laughter operating in places where we didn't think laughter was meant to be admitted. It's deeply shocking, but at the same time, rather exhilarating.

Auberon Waugh once told me how surprised he was to be invited to Cook's 50th birthday party. "I was pleased to be invited, obviously, but I sat there among this rather small group of people thinking, 'Are we really his best friends? I hardly know him at all.'"

There was a solitariness at the heart of Cook, something perhaps to do with his remote, colonial governor parents, which no human being could reach. He might have stepped out with a few women but at heart he wanted to be a family man. He might have been shy of demonstrating love, but he could generate it on a large scale, mitigating any offence his caustic wit might give.

Cook would visit a neighbour's house to ask them to party more quietly, and make such warm human contact that he'd end up staying until daybreak. John Wells recalled his "impeccable, old-fashioned manners" at dinner parties in his concern that everyone was having enough to eat - not drink. And any one of the scores present at his memorial service would agree: they were there to pay tribute to a kind and generous man.

Alex Games is the author of 'Pete & Dud: An Illustrated Biography'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Science Teacher - Maternit...

Systems and Network Administrator

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: We are recruiting for a Systems and ...

English Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album