Peter Cook

 

Tragically I was an Only Twin:

The Complete Peter Cook

(William Cook – Ed.)

 

I suppose this book is a bit like Peter Cook – ultimately it promised so much more than it delivered. For a start, why call it ‘complete’ when overtly it’s a selection? A good, representative selection, sure, but not even an attempt at being complete. Secondly, in an important sense it’s ill-conceived. Much of Cook’s comedic effect was based on his delivery: a set of audio recordings would be a big improvement; a video collection is really what makes sense. The scripts are funny, occasionally hilarious – but they’re only a poor reflection of why Cook was so popular. It’s not like, say, Sophocles, where we’re left with fragments and can only imagine the whole: many of Cook’s performances were for the camera. Why limit yourself to transcriptions? Why? Maybe because like me you had access to the book but not the films, shows and albums. But if I was deliberately seeking out Cook material, I’d start by looking for what was available on DVD.

 

This is not a biography, but there are brief biographical introductions to various phases of Cook’s output. His life is less than inspiring but, something like a car accident, it’s hard to look away. (Some of my musings here will be coloured by having seen a bioflick of his life more recently than having read the book. Rather than interspersing events in his life with footage of actual performances, the film used doppelganger actors to carefully copy ‘Pete ‘n Dud’. The film did more effectively convey his prototypical public school/Oxford uni stream of consciousness surreal pants-wettingly funny verbosity. It included the nice line something like, “Whereas other people breathe, Peter talks,” and it seems that in Oxford days Cook’s mind raced in barely controllable flights of fantasy and wit). The biographical snippets are helpful and interesting – if somewhat apologetic: the author seems keenly aware of the huge drop in quantity and (generally) quality of his work. The myth of Cook has him plummet from being a Mozart of comedy, effortlessly improvising lines that seasoned professional writers could only dream of – to being a dull, lazy, acerbic git who sat at home watching a lot of bad TV. Along the way his wit morphed from enchanting and ebullient through bitter and superlatively offensive to obscurely introspective.

 

Sure Cook deserves his trailblazer status – Monty Python (is Eric the half-a-bee some sort of tribute?), Steven Fry, Rowan Atkinson, a host of comedians have knelt at his robe – and he delivered following generations from the restrictions of formula music hall traditions (Spike Milligan aside). However after the most incandescent beginnings Cook’s riches to rags experience seems to have taken a heavy toll. To his credit he didn’t tart himself around endlessly replaying the couple of big hits from his glory days, but the muse seems to have largely flown. Later he has brilliant moments, but they are too few and far between to be called a career: his 1968 article about getting punched at a football game, for example, is a conscious attempt to amuse that fails – whereas I suspect in his Oxford days he couldn’t have helped being funny if given a random topic with half the comic potential. Some would say that the pairing with Dudley Moore was inspired, and doubtless they chimed at times, but I’m not so sure that it took Cook to a better professional place. Still, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered who he was or wasn’t partnered with.

 

Enough of this ill-informed psychological analysis, I was talking about the book, wasn’t I. In print, for me some of the El Wisty monologues worked best – one of the few places I found myself regularly laughing out loud (although I still would rather have heard them). Several articles were originally for print anyway, such as the eccentrically lurid tales of ‘The Seductive Brethren’. I suppose it’s also helpful to know I’m not missing out on some vast treasure trove of comic gold – I’ve got a good impression of what is available in the surprisingly small Cook archive, most of which would be better viewed than read. 

 

February 2007