When Pete joked and Dud laughed, we witnessed the climax of a great love affair

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The Independent Online

Alas, poor Dudley. If his death pricks our tears more keenly than did Peter Cook's, that is only because he was the cuddly one, and his dying was the more cruelly protracted. Now it is as though Peter Cook has died again. A double sorrow. Or maybe it amounts to more sorrows than that even. For I think we watched Peter Cook die several times in the course of his separation from Dudley Moore. And we certainly watched Dudley as good as give up the ghost when he succumbed to Hollywood, playing the jackass for Americans who can only take their Englishmen that way.

We don't as a rule do obsequies for the famous in this column. We are uncomfortable showing too much feeling for those we never knew personally. Maybe that's wrong of us. Maybe it is a sign of our humanity that we can accept celebrities – those walking shadows – into our hearts and miss them as our own.

I remember watching a lady schoolteacher break down in front of the class when the news came through that George VI had died. I couldn't understand it. What's she to Hecuba, I wondered. Or words to that effect. When I went home I asked my mother if she thought Miss Venvell could have been related to the Royal Family. My mother explained that King George VI had been an important symbol to us throughout the war. And besides, she added, he was a lovely man.

How did my mother know that, I asked myself. For I was a sceptic early. I also doubted whether anyone with a public image could be lovely.

I still have a streak of that puritanism in me. Succeed and you must have sold your soul to the devil, I think, fame being a harlot, money being the root of all evil and a moving image being a contradic- tion of God's wishes and intentions.

Dudley, though, was an exception to all this. He was intelligent, for a start, in the Cambridge way, and I make allowances for Cambridge intelligence. One of the reasons I failed to get on with the alternative comedians of the Eighties was that they came from redbrick universities.

I don't doubt you can be funny if you have a degree from Manchester or Leeds, but you can't be philosophically funny, you can't make the heart itself laugh. You can do knockabout and you can do polemic but you can't do heart. Don't ask me why that is. Something in the Cambridge water. Something sad about the place. Some excruciating anti-climax from which you never recover.

Whatever the cause, Dudley Moore touched the heart effortlessly before he went to America – which is sad in another way – both as a musician and a comedian. Though no sooner do I say comedian than I feel I must retract the word. What he was best at was not raising mirth but being the cause that mirth was in others.

I know what it is that has long upset me about the break-up of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and I will resist saying that they are together again, now, in comedic Elysium, at last. Like all the best double acts, theirs was a love affair. Did you see that film footage of Jerry Lewis breaking down in a limousine, remembering his days with Dean Martin? Did you see Ernie Wise on television after the death of Eric Morecambe? Widows, both of them. Their grief unbearable to behold.

But Peter Cook and Dudley Moore seemed to be entwined even tighter still. And that was because Dudley Moore appreciated Peter Cook's genius to the depth of his soul, got him as no one would ever get him again. And the sign of that appreciation was his laughter, his failure, no matter how hard he struggled, to keep his face straight, his divine incapacity, once his partner was in full flight, to hold himself together.

There, I think, you have the story of Peter Cook's life. He had the fortune (maybe the misfortune) to meet someone who broke up more spectacularly, more profoundly – I will even risk saying more erotically, for there is undeniably a sexual component to such disarrangement – than any other person on the planet.

Thereafter, what else was there to live for but to go on cracking Dudley up, splitting him asunder, dissolving him, tearing his very heart out with laughter. You can hear it on that sublimely filthy record, Derek and Clive Live – Peter Cook scaling wilder and wilder heights of scatological absurdity and invention, in order to try what condition of hysteria he could reduce Dudley to next. Sex? Yes, but even better than sex.

And there was the tragedy of it – because finally Dudley left. Finally, no doubt, Dudley had to leave. Put yourself in his place. He wasn't the stooge. His role was always more active than that. But he was the convulsed sea to Peter Cook's controlling moon. There comes a time when you want to exert your own magnetic force.

For a while – and Peter Cook malevolently encouraged this view himself – it looked as though envy was the engine house of their estrangement. The contrast in their fortunes was too great: Dudley getting off with beautiful women twice his height in Hollywood, and Peter Cook getting pissed at Private Eye lunches in Soho, no disrespect meant to the latter. But I know in my bones it wasn't primarily envy, though envy will insist its way into everything. It was heartbreak. You can't enjoy such complete and cultivated admiration, then have it stolen from you. Not in the matter of your jokes, you can't. Alas, poor Peter.