Laurie Taylor recalls Peter Cook's genius with laughter and sadness
Back in the 1970s, I accepted an invitation from a regional television company to appear as an "expert" in a series of daytime programmes. The allegedly "distinctive" format was in fact a reshuffle of the standard elements of a discussion show: a well-known presenter (here, David Frost), several time-serving experts (myself and two other rent-a-mouths), some "controversial topics" and an elderly audience bussed in from the local environs.
There was, however, one wild card. Space had been found between the topics for an appearance by Peter Cook in the role of E. L. Whisty, the unsmiling, unblinking lost character who had made his debut on television back in the late 1960s in On the Braden Beat . (There was a certain pleasing symmetry here. According to the editor of this new celebration of Cook's life and work, Bernard Braden had gone out of his way to employ Cook at a time when Cook's other television options were limited, and I now suspect that Frost was prompted by similarly generous motives to include such a disruptive element in his own otherwise smoothly segued show.) The audience, which had managed to muster a degree of mild interest in the topic of the week - take your pick from teenage drinking, extramarital sex and public displays of homosexual affection - was largely bemused by Cook's interlude. How did this soliloquy fit in with the rest of the programme? Was the character they were now listening to another of the "victims" they'd heard so much about in the discussion part?
"I would like to say a special hello to all of you out there with spindly legs. My message to you this evening is: don't worry about your spindly legs. Lots of people have had spindly legs in the past and got to the top.
Look at Mahatma Gandhi. He was a very spindly person, Mahatma Gandhi - very spindly indeed. He was known as El Spindleroso. The spindly one, people called him. People used to shout out at him as he wandered by in his white nightie: 'Hello, spindly one' and 'Goodness me, what spindly legs you've got!'. But Gandhi just smiled and went and sat on the railway lines and became leader of all India, and took his country away from us, the rotten creature. Cheer up, spindly people. There's no reason why your legs should hold you back. If Gandhi can do it, so can you."
On the first occasion I ran into Cook in the dressing-room corridor, I was too frightened to do more than nod. It hardly required any great knowledge of his previous work to know that my own role on the programme was perfect fodder for his satire. "When something controversial occurs," he wrote in his Daily Mail column a few years later, "it is often suggested that things be looked into by one, two, three or five 'wise men' or experts. Experts are the last people to come up with the solution to anything. It would be far better to set up a team of five old idiots to probe matters."
But after the first programme, in which I was required to take a number of bottles off a drinks trolley in order to demonstrate the consumption of alcohol by a typical teenager on a Saturday night, I returned to my dressing room to find a note from him taped to my mirror: "VERY MUCH ENJOYED YOUR TROLLEY WORK TONIGHT". From then on it was open house.
Whenever we met backstage he gave me a pedantic, poker-faced critique of the absurd demonstration that I had been required to go through in the previous programme: "Very much enjoyed your controlled work with the pointer last week. Will there be more pointer work today?"
It soon reached the stage where I was barely able to rise from my seat in the front row and assume my expert pose with anything even approximating a straight face. What would Cook say after the show about my manipulation of the mock "reefer" that props had knocked up for the programme on teenage drug users?
I have spent so long on Cook's capacity to involve others in his flights of fantasy because I think it helps explain the disjunction that sometimes seems to exist between the manner in which he was regarded by those who knew him personally and the view taken of him over the years by his various audiences. No doubt everyone has some favourite memory of his work: his parody of Harold Macmillan in Beyond the Fringe ("Good evening, I have recently been travelling round the world on your behalf, and at your expense"); the Dud and Pete conversations in Not Only But Also and their X-rated development in Derek and Clive ("The worst job I ever had was with Jayne Mansfield"), or perhaps the character of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, the aristocrat who had wasted most of his life attempting to teach ravens to fly under water. ("I've learnt from my mistakes and I'm sure I can repeat them.")
Somehow, though, public enthusiasm for any or all of these appearances never quite matched the level of adulation that Cook seemed to inspire in his fellow professionals, in people such as Stephen Fry, who described him as "the funniest man who ever drew breath", or John Cleese, who called him Peter Amadeus Cook after Mozart and declared "I always thought he was the best of us, and the only one who came near to being a 'genius', or David Dimbleby who named him "the funniest Englishman since Chaplin". I suspect that what lay behind this professional idolatry was the recognition that Cook, unlike so many others in the same business, regarded the whole exercise of entertaining other people for money as merely another aspect of the general absurdity of everyday life. Whereas other comedians are notoriously glum or sullen off-stage, Cook never let up. In the words of William Cook (no relation), the editor of this collection of the "treasures of Cook's comic career": "He didn't ration his comedy, hoarding it for commercial gain, to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Rare for any performer, he really was just as funny off-stage. Most of the folk who knew him well can recall informal, improvised riffs and rants which were even funnier than the scripted pieces he performed in public."
Jonathan Miller found it impossible to compete with him in this respect: "You couldn't actually participate. There was no room to get in. One simply had to be an audience." And John Bird described it as "almost an affliction. I can and do turn it off when I go home and you felt that somehow Peter never did and never could."
Of course, Cook was not always so cavalier about his career: his jealousy of Dudley Moore's success in Hollywood was thoroughly apparent in some of the more vindictive attacks on his former friend and partner in the later Derek and Clive tapes. But his take-it-or-leave-it attitude to showbiz was very apparent in the long stretches of time when he appeared to be perfectly happy doing nothing much more than indulging his twin hobbies of drinking and watching television.
It wasn't as though he felt that there was a wicked world out there in desperate need of his satirical shafts. Richard Ingrams described Cook as a "conservative anarchist" and Miller rushed to challenge those who wished to bestow any kind of radical status on him: "The idea that he had an anarchic, subversive view of society is complete nonsense. He was the most upstanding, traditional upholder of everything English and everything establishment." As William Cook reminds us, "he even felt sad for Margaret Thatcher when she left Downing Street".
This book fully justifies its claim to be "the definitive collection of the wit, humour and genius of Peter Cook". Its editor is astute and knowledgeable about his subject's life and work and has done an amazing job in persuading television companies and private individuals to part with material featuring Cook in nearly every one of his public manifestations (perhaps some were influenced by the news that part of the proceeds will go to charities related to Cook's interests).
I doubt, though, if anyone who was not already thoroughly familiar with Cook's work will be turned into a fan by this encyclopaedic collection of his writing and improvisation. A few passages are funny enough to leap off the page, but for much of the time I found myself trying to remember Cook's precise intonations and body posture in order to make the dead print begin to walk and talk.
I was fortunate to have one other aid to instant enjoyment. Whenever I came across a passage in which I found it difficult to imagine Cook's voice or demeanour, I found I could slip into the mood by simply saying to myself, VERY MUCH ENJOYED YOUR TROLLEY WORK TONIGHT. That was all that was needed to prompt tears of laughter - and of sadness.
Laurie Taylor is a fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London.
Tragically I was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook
Editor - William Cook
ISBN - 0 7126 2398 1
Publisher - Century
Price - £17.99
Pages - 429