KEVIN DIXON: Peter Cook, 'the funniest man who ever drew breath'
Torquay’s Peter Cook: 17 November 1937- 9 January 1995
“I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly”
Torquay-born Peter Cook was an extremely influential figure in modern British comedy, and is seen as the leading light of the British ‘satire boom’ of the 1960s, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.
He has been described by Stephen Fry as "the funniest man who ever drew breath".
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Peter was born on 17 November 1937 at his parents' house ‘Shearbridge’, in Middle Warberry Road. He was the only son and eldest of the three children of Alexander Cook (1906–1984), a colonial civil servant, and his wife Ethel Catherine Margaret, née Mayo (1908–1994).
As a student, Peter initially wanted to become a career diplomat like his father, but he recognised that by the late 1950s Britain "had run out of colonies".
While he was at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Peter performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the Cambridge Footlights Club, of which he became president in 1960.
Performing surreal and anti-establishment sketches, he came to fame as one of the four writer/performers - along with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore - of Beyond the Fringe, advertised as a ‘satirical revue’.
In 1961 he set up The Establishment, billed as ‘London's First Satirical Nightclub. The Club presented fellow comedians, including Lenny Bruce. Dudley Moore's jazz trio played and Barry Humphries began his British solo career at the Club.
However, his own view of the real impact of the satire boom may have been suggested by his description of the Club as being modelled on "those wonderful Berlin cabarets... which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War".
Nevertheless, Peter’s impersonation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was one of the first examples of satirical political mimicry and it shocked audiences. In a famous sketch, he spoofed Macmillan defending Britain's nuclear policy and the ‘four-minute warning’. The joke lampooned and exposed Britain’s nostalgia for power and glory: "I would remind them there are some people in this great country of ours who can run a mile in four minutes."
Peter was a core player in the ending of the age of deference to one’s betters. During one theater performance, Macmillan was present and Peter departed from his script and verbally mocked him
His partnership with Dudley Moore, as Pete & Dud, was unique.
It can be seen in films: such as Bedazzled (1968), The Bed Sitting Room (1969), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1977); on television in Not Only But Also (1965-73); and on stage in Behind the Fridge (1971-72). Later came the more extreme and risqué humour of ‘Derek and Clive’.
As an example of the comedy of Peter & his co-star Dudley Moore, here’s One Leg Too Few from 1964:
However, as with many performers of genius, Peter had a weakness. By the late 1960s his alcoholism was taking its toll. He was often reliant on cue cards and Dudley had to ad-lib.
Peter was socially active and provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, supporting it through its libel trials. He also appeared at the first three fund-raising galas on behalf of Amnesty International, called The Secret Policeman’s Balls.
In 1989 Peter married for the third time, to Malaysian-born property developer Chiew Lin Chong in the Bay. He reduced his drinking, to the extent that for a time he was teetotal.
We said goodbye to Peter on 9 January 1995 when he died from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage, caused by severe liver damage. He was 57.
Dudley died in 2002, aged 66.
Peter once joked “As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realise how insignificant they are.”
In a gesture that he may have appreciated, in 1999 the planet ‘20468 Petercook’ was named after him.
To conclude, here’s Pete and Dud, appropriately singing their signature tune: ‘Goodbye’: