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'
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