Interview: The top ten pleasures of Peter Cook: What does the arch wit get up to these days? Chitchat (especially over lunch) is a favourite occupation, and pedantry. Sex is not included, and certainly nothing too stretching . . .

Hunter Davies
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:20

Midday, and Peter Cook is up and about. Glass of champagne in hand, industrial-size ashtray full of smouldering butts in front of him, all the morning papers spread out, television on, faxes the length of wallpaper on the floor, a box of unopened correspondence in the hall. 'No point in opening them. Strangers seldom write with welcome news.'

Nasty-looking swollen elbow, black and blue, which he'd injured in the middle of the night. No, not drunk, he'd got up at four to watch a boxing match, forgot the builders had been working on his bathroom and, still half asleep, he'd walked into a slab of marble. 'It was a marble-related incident.'

His hair, thick and lushly grey, as it has been since he was 28, appears not to have been combed for some time. Generous paunch, pasty complexion. 'I would like to be even fitter than I am,' he says, lighting another cigarette.

Pinned on the wall is a newspaper cutting of his third wedding. Over it he has scribbled in black felt pen: 'Wonderful Woman Weds Dreadful Man - World Rejoices.' Elsewhere on the wall appears the word 'Oxymoron'. He's put it there because it's a word he's always forgetting.

Our hero is wearing tracksuit bottoms, green shoes, Oxfam-looking shirt, suit jacket. Not exactly a well-dressed sight. 'What are you saying? I'm fascinated by clothes and have thousands. It took me all morning to choose these. I know you have sporting interests, hence my tracksuit bottoms.'

The easy, oft-made observation about Mr Cook is that he has a brilliant future behind him, the only Beyond the Fringer who did not move on and develop. Nice bloke, wittiest man of his generation, shame about his sloth. He must feel pretty bitter about life, hence the drinking and smoking and lying around. Or have the know-alls got him wrong?

He stands up, says he's in perfect health. He only has 53 cigarettes a day and as for the booze, he doesn't count it. 'It's only obsessives who watch their intake.' On top of the telly is a cup he recently won for golf, some charity match in South Carolina. He can still play tennis. And on a good morning, he can manage the 100-yard walk to see his wife, Lin Chong, who works in property. They have been together for 11 years. Why do you have different homes? 'Out of choice.' Are you still married? 'Very much married.'

While not pondering his wardrobe, he'd done an hour's work that morning on a script for some characters in a Clive Anderson show. 'I've got too much work, really. I'm in a remake of the film Black Beauty, in which I'm a cruel Lord. I play a scumbag in Victor Meldrew's Christmas special, One Foot in the Algarve, and the Derek and Clive Get the Horn video is just out. And on Saturday I'm in Arena's Radio Night. I'd be perfectly happy doing less, and playing more golf in the sun.'

He'd just been down to Hampshire to see his mother, aged 85, and change her curtains. 'One of my little filial duties. Every year at this time I hang up her winter curtains.' His father, who died 10 years ago, was in the Colonial Service, mostly in Nigeria and Gibraltar. Peter was sent to Radley and then Cambridge where he got an upper Second in modern languages - pretty good, considering that while still an undergraduate he'd had a show on in the West End, Pieces of Eight. If he'd got a First, he'd have sat the Foreign Office exam, as he'd always fancied the sort of life his father led. 'I'd still say yes if the governorship of Bermuda came up. I've always wanted to wear a plumed hat.'

His contemporaries at Cambridge included many who became Tory cabinet ministers. 'I spoke at the Union once, and I thought: I can do this, but I don't want to do this. The people who went into politics were those who couldn't get in the Footlights or were no good at journalism. I remember people like Leon Brittan at 22, running around like a 44- year-old, making the same sort of debating points they're still making.'

He managed to avoid National Service by saying he had hay fever. 'But I wrote to them saying you will call me up if there's an emergency.' In his mind, he'd always seen being a comedian as an amateur, part-time occupation. The success of Beyond the Fringe in London and on Broadway changed all that.

'My agent advised against going to Edinburgh with a little amateur review, as I'd already been in the West End. It would ruin my professional reputation.' So you changed your agent? 'No, still got the same one. He's very interested in golf.'

Looking back, he can't remember looking forward. He never thought of who might be the most successful. 'I can remember thinking that me and Dudley liked showing off best. Jonathan was agonising about being a doctor. Alan was thinking should I be a don. Dudley felt guilty musically. Deep down he really wanted to be Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner. All three of them had other talents - unlike me. I only had a talent for comedy. Still have.'

Over the years, he's done many successful TV comedy series and been in about 20 films and had three marriages. By his first wife he has two daughters, Lucy, 29, and Daisy, 28. Lucy is married. Neither has any children. He doesn't talk about his daughters and now, he remembers, he doesn't like giving interviews in his house either, as snoopy people see too much. He's even refused Hello]. 'Let's go and have lunch.'

Into Hampstead High Street where he bought more cigarettes and the racing edition of the evening paper, heading for his favourite Italian restaurant. I hate interviewing people over lunch. It becomes social, not work, and you miss quotes, they become distracted. John le Carre was at the next table, so there was a bit of chat. 'Charming man,' said Peter. You think so? I said. Let me tell you some stories.

Over lunch, as we rubbished various celebrities, discussed Spurs injuries, he became a different person. More relaxed. He said he was perfectly content. He had no ambitions. None at all. Acting was OK, the vital thing being to make friends with the make-up people and learn to eat and act at the same time. 'For years I used to think I can't really act. Now I think I can, but don't want to stretch myself.'

How about a novel? All today's teenage comedians have written or are writing a bestseller. 'I can manage dialogue, but I always worry about prose, imagining I've read it somewhere else before.'

There was a time when he appeared about to diversify, and become a mogul. In the Sixties, he opened The Establishment Club, which at first was a great success, in Soho and in New York, and in New York he also created a theatre and got Mike Nichols to put on The Knack. 'Oh yes, I was quite a hectic young man, for a while. It wasn't that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I just thought why hasn't someone opened a satirical club, or a theatre, or a satirical magazine. It all seemed so obvious. I was furious when Private Eye started, as I'd had the same idea, so I was pleased when they had money problems and I was able to buy 70 per cent.' He still has the major share, and takes an active interest, but has no wish to start another business. 'I haven't the time or the interest. There is no greater pleasure in life than pleasures.'

You go on about your pleasures, so tell us what they are. He lit another cigarette, pushed his plate away, leaving untouched a side dish of spinach. I said huh, what about the spinach? 'What are you, some sort of nanny? I always order spinach when I'm here. I hate spinach. I get my own back by leaving it.'

Right, Peter Cook: His Top Ten Pleasures in Life.

l) Casual chitchat. 'That's what I enjoy best in life: good gossipy conversation, preferably over a meal.'

2) Reading. He always has a hardback on the go, usually American thrillers; currently it's Carl Hiassen. He's also enjoyed Alan Clark. 'He looks like a spoilt Pekinese. I love the way he pretends he's from one of the great aristocratic families, instead of sausage makers.'

3) Sport. Football, golf, tennis, boxing, watching most sports really. 'I played football at school, but wasn't any good. Running into space was my best thing. Every sport has its reasons. Men must amuse themselves. That's the prime purpose of sport, and of life.'

4) Radio. 'I love late-night phone-ins. People say what they really think at that time. You can listen to them without having to go out to the pub and meet them.'

5) TV. 'The best thing about TV is that you can form the most awful hatreds of people without affecting them physically.'

6) Someone Funny. Doesn't have to be very funny, even someone remotely funny will amuse him, but given the choice, Harry Enfield is his favourite.

7) Newspapers. 'I read every paper, every day, starting with the Sun. It's absolutely hammering the Mirror, which doesn't know where it's going. I like the struggle between the Mail and the Express. The Express keeps trying to be efficient and failing. The Mail has been the most efficient paper for the last 20 years at doing what it sets out to do. The Times has gone down the tube. I like Matthew Parris and Alan Coren, but editorially, it's all over the place. The Guardian is also all over the place, but I like it, sentimentally. I used to know where the Telegraph was, but I'm not sure now. I hated the Independent's 'We are, are you?' Insufferably smug, but I do read it. What I like best in any paper is the misprints.'

8) Food and Drink. 'Food is so simple. You go out, buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it. What could be simpler? But they will muck it up. My favourite food is asparagus.'

9) Cigarettes. 'They don't really count as a pleasure. They're a necessity. I never smoked till quite late in life. I was in a film once where I had to smoke and I grew to like it.'

10) Pedantry. 'I'm a latent pedant. I don't do anything about it. I just love other people's pedantry, people in Wiltshire getting steamed up in the Spectator. 'Dear Sir, the word asparagus is from the Greek, not the French, as your previous correspondent wrongly asserted . . .' Or the letters the BBC gets after a period play. 'Dear Sir, LNER did not have lamps on Pullman carriage tables in 1923.' '

He was enjoying himself, putting on the voices, making up stupid facts. No mention of work, Peter, in your top ten pleasures? Many people would put work as their greatest pleasure. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled, looked coy.

And what about sex? 'I've never had it, that's why I didn't include it, though I've heard it's rather good. Perhaps later in life, when I've more wisdom, I might get round to enjoying sex . . .'

Peter Cook is a terrible liar. He once did a radio show in the United States in which he reminisced about his days as a boy actor with Doris Day. But I believe he was telling the truth about his pleasures. The omissions were also true. Why should the world try to impose its values on him?

'I don't give a toss if people say I haven't fulfilled my promise. I think my values are right, but I don't want to impose them on other people. I've been lucky enough to be a born in a democratic country where I can say what I like, with parents who were decent, intelligent people, where I'm reasonably well off, and where I've met a lot of interesting people and been to some interesting places. How much luckier can you get?

'Life is a matter of passing the time enjoyably. There may be other things in life, but I've been too busy passing my time enjoyably to think very deeply about them. Even if I did, they would be pretty obvious thoughts, so I'd certainly keep them to myself. All right, I will try a little bit of the spinach . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments