Not only frozen in time ... but also unfunny

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The Independent Online
Was Peter Cook so very funny? Reading the extravagant tributes to his comic genius this week, I've felt like an outsider at a select media club, listening to people raving about something which had become a semi-private phenomenon. Watching the sh ort clips on television news from the Pete and Dud routine has been equally unilluminating. Did they make you laugh?

The writer Francis Wheen, a staunch friend of Cook's, explains that this let-down is because his humour did not depend on punch lines and is therefore unsuited to sound bites: "He was not so much a jokesmith as a weaver of long, spiralling fantasies." But I also wonder whether there are trends in humour, and whether some sorts survive more easily than others. I don't find the Goon Show funny at all, nor can I understand what Derek and Clive, the ruder version of Pete and Dudley, are saying most of the t ime. Monty Python and Fawlty Towers repeats, however, still work for me.

Many of those writing such eloquent appreciations (most, though not all, are white, male and public school) knew Peter Cook personally, chiefly through his shareholding in Private Eye; and most crucially, they had seen him perform, either on stage, ad-libbing at private functions, or executing some scam, such as invading Mirror Group Newspapers when Private Eye was being pursued by Robert Maxwell. A friend who heard him give an after-dinner speech at a Private Eye ball recently confirmed that he had been absolutely brilliant.

But the rest of us outside thesatire circuit are not old enough to have seen Beyond the Fringe in its 1959-64 heyday, do not go to Private Eye lunches or gatherings, and have to rely on television and his mainly anonymous hand in the pages of the Eye to make our assessments of Peter Cook. His long absence from mainstream television, give or take the odd recent appearance with Clive Anderson, means that he had become an unknown, frozen in time.

What I do remember watching were the famous Dud and Pete routines on BBC2: first time round, I found them funny only in small doses. I don't know if this is a question of gender - although I am sure that some comedy appeals very differently to men and women: I personally loathe the crude humour of Viz, for instance. But I didn't then, and still don't, enjoy watching two men dressed up as blue-collar workers in flat caps speaking to each other in funny (odd) working class accents. And I kno w most women warmed more to Dudley Moore.

Of course, there were some great moments and lines which overcame my distaste. But against that you have to weigh the fatuous and imitative way in which young males used to team up to do Pete and Dud routines for much of the Seventies as a form of exclusive running joke among themselves. The format was greatly devalued by its imitators.

It will be instructive to see how much can be exhumed from the archives and reused. I'd like Peter Cook to be given a fair run, to see whether there is a genuine fan club out there and whether a new generation can be interested. I noticed, however, that my 12-year-old daughter sat through those clips of his humour with a glum face.

Her reaction contrasted vividly with the reception my daughters gave to a Christmas BBC2 programme composed of vintage clips of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. As a small child I had enjoyed their songs and television appearances, but turned on this show expecting a teeny-boppers' revolt: the comic songs are light years away from Take That. At first my children wore "oh my God" expressions, which gave way to the odd chuckle, but they sat it out to the end with great enjoyment. Now, three wee ks later, they are humming snatches of the "Hippopotamus Song" - "mud, mud, glorious mud" - and we are going to buy a BBC tape for the next long car journey.

The one television classic that surely has been begging to be revived is The Prisoner: this week's news that Polygram intends to make a feature film to Hollywood standards has me smiling in anticipation. I'm a total fan and have stayed at Portmeirion, w h ere the series was shot, three times in the past two years, returning because the whole family simply love the place and the story.

We don't go to the annual conventions which are staged there, or belong to the Prisoner fan club, but the videos get regular screenings and are great family entertainment: the plot of a mad totalitarian society from which escape is impossible and human beings are simply numbered is timeless: the human chess game is a particularly unforgettable scene, Kafka crossed with Alice in Wonderland.

This Sixties ITV series has extraordinary staying power, not least because of the high quality, expensive production which Lew Grade's ITC, in the lush years of ITV monopoly, was able to mount. But it also gains from the extreme care and devotion lavished on the small mock Italian-style village by Portmeirion's creator, Sir William Clough Ellis. In an age when so much is shoddy, it is interesting to see how a variety of talents fused to make something worthwhile and lasting.