David Lister: Peter, Jackie, and questions never asked

Bennett said he was sure Cook was having an affair with Jackie Kennedy

Tuesday 08 December 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Alan Bennett once told a poignant little story concerning the comic revue Beyond The Fringe, in which he starred, while still a student, with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. Bennett told how a few years later he met the then prime minister Harold Wilson and mentioned the show. "Oh, I saw that," Wilson said. "It was very good indeed. But I don't remember you in it."

"I assure you I was, Prime Minister," replied a bewildered Bennett.

"No," said Wilson shaking his head, "I don't remember you."

Bennett said afterwards that he realised how Trotsky must have felt when he was written out of history.

I had thought this was the best story to come out of Beyond The Fringe until a couple of days ago when it was trumped by Bennett himself. In an interview on BBC4, he recalled how the Kennedys came backstage after one of the shows when it was playing in New York. Bennett remarked in the interview almost en passant: "I'm sure Peter was having an affair with Jackie Kennedy." This, after nearly 50 years, is quite a revelation. Just how it has not emerged in the millions of words written about both protagonists is beyond me.

I was a little less puzzled, though, when Bennett gave his one piece of evidence for this dramatic conclusion. "I vividly remember her stroking and stroking his arm."

I'm not sure this would quite hold up in a court of law. I once interviewed Dame Helen Mirren and she absentmindedly stroked my arm at one point. I trust it will be given out in 50 years time that we had an affair (please).

Bennett did add that Cook and Mrs Kennedy, went to a number of parties together, but I still think this falls short of a Tiger Woods situation. What I did find equally fascinating was that it was put to Bennett in the interview that he surely must have asked Cook about it. For the only time he looked genuinely startled. They never talked about such things, he replied.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. When Moore died, I rang Miller to get a tribute from him for this paper. I asked what Moore was like. Miller replied: "I didn't really know him very well." This struck me as odd, and I said to him that Beyond The Fringe ran for three years and surely when the four of them went out for a meal after a show they must have chatted and opened up to one another. There was a long pause before he replied: "Do you know, I don't think we ever did go out for a meal after the show."

They were a strange bunch, the Beyond The Fringe lot. But then again in thinking of them as radical, cutting-edge satirists we forget that they were also a bunch of Oxbridge students, quite repressed in some ways, and of a generation that did not kiss and tell or inquire into the private lives of others, even when you saw those others every day, and twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

A part of me thinks, what a waste. A romance between the most celebrated, glamorous and enigmatic First Lady of all time and one of the 20th century's greatest and most acerbic wits could have produced such a rich seam of reminiscences, novels, television documentaries and sheer downright scurrilous gossip. Fifty years' worth.

What did they talk about? Did Cook entertain her with satires on the great and the good, including perhaps her husband? Did he try out ideas for future sketches with her? Could an embryonic version of the cloth-capped Pete and Dud have been, in a secret New York boudoir, Pete and Jack? It could all still produce a memorable play. And Alan Bennett is the man to write it. Doing so might even help him get to know his late colleague a little better.

Don't judge a book by its cover ... just the title

I take my hat off to the writer Bonnie Greer. Her new book is called Obama Music, and in it she links herself to the American President by discussing the music that was apparently formative influences on them both. It's a canny literary move.

With due respect to Ms Greer, pictured, a book about the music that inspired just her might not have found that many readers. But put the name "Obama" in the title, and (no matter whether she actually has discussed music with him, or even met him at all) the book catches the eye.

I am working on two books, John Lennon And Me: The Rock 'n' Roll Years, to be followed by Laurence Olivier And Me: Our Love Affair With The Stage. I'm still deciding whether to share the movies that shaped my adolescence with Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. It's hard to know which one to remove from the book's title. I don't really want to let either of them down.

All hail the new-look Neil

Can one in mid-life completely change one's persona? That is the question that is in my mind whenever I watch the politics programme This Week, hosted by Andrew Neil.

The Andrew Neil who presents This Week is something of a cheeky chappie, a jovial and avuncular figure who one can imagine donning a Santa Claus outfit and doing the round of children's parties at Christmas.

But it is not the Andrew Neil I recall from the days when he was the editor of The Sunday Times, and I was one of his underlings. He cracked few jokes then. He was a strong disciplinarian who certainly inspired respect – but also fear. Being summoned to see Neil never felt anything like a visit to Santa's grotto.

So how did this character transformation come about? Does the BBC run a media training course with modules on humour, affability and mischief? Whatever they did with him, they should bottle it.

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