When you think of British comedy, you instinctively quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. When you think of the British satire boom, you may recall That Was The Week That Was or Private Eye. Meet the man who helped pave the way for them all.
Peter Cook (November 17, 1937 – January 9, 1995)
A few years ago, I bought my boyfriend a copy of The Best of What’s Left of Not Only…But Also, a long-forgotten BBC series from the 1960s starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The series employed young dreamboats Cook and Moore fresh off their successful West End and Broadway runs of Beyond the Fringe. Through three series, Cook and Moore delighted audiences with bits like the “Dagenham Dialogues” of Pete & Dud, “Superthunderstingcar,” the interviews of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, and musical interludes from the Dudley Moore Trio.
After viewing Not Only…But Also and Beyond the Fringe (also available on DVD), I was hooked on Cook. No sooner had we finished watching those programs was I searching YouTube for more. I spent hours watching other salvaged clips (not the best of what’s left, I suppose) from that series, bits from Behind the Fridge and The Secret Policeman’s Balls, interviews on chat shows. I searched for movie titles from Cook’s IMDB. Movies led to books, books led to plays, plays led back to the internet. This introduction—or reintroduction, rather, as I had a brief involvement with some Monty Python albums in the mid 1990s—has immersed me in the mid-century British satire boom.
The career trajectory of Peter Cook is remarkable and cautionary. This was a man intent on being a renaissance man, dominating the world of satire if not the world itself. Just barely out of university, he conquered the West End and Broadway as a writer and performer. By the age of 30, he’d been a nightclub owner, magazine publisher, a writer, an actor of film and television, and would-be rock star. He had not, however, been wholly successful at the lot. The Establishment closed within several years of opening, Private Eye was susceptible to libel suits, his movies were not blockbusters, and he was tone deaf. The trouble with rising to stardom so fast and reaching the level of hobnobbing with royalty, working regularly with childhood heroes, and earning loads of money in the first quarter of life is that it doesn’t leave much left for future goals.
Despite his ability to create brilliant original material, Cook seemed content to revisit old characters and recycle old material. And recycle he did, even early on. Bedazzled revisits and expounds on the “The Leaping Nuns of the Order of St Beryl” from the original Not Only…But Also series, E.L. Wisty was a creation from Cook’s school days and made appearances on all manners of series and specials with interesting facts and ideas about world domination and nude ladies, and “One Leg Too Few,” originally part of Beyond the Fringe, is clumsily inserted in the The Hound of the Baskervilles. A dedicated historian could probably find a recorded version of Cook and Moore’s “Frog and Peach” sketch or “One Leg Too Few” from every year past it’s original performance until Cook’s death. While once standard practice for comedians to get mileage out of old bits for years, Cook couldn’t get away with that today, what with smart phones and rabid comedy nerds and competition from prolific creators like Louis C.K.
Peter Cook died just before the Internet began sprouting up. I wonder, given his earlier ambitions, whether Cook would have seen the potential and considered using E.L. Wisty to create a World Wide Web Domination League. Would E.L. Wisty have his own podcast? Would Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling host a vlog? Or would he merely be content to pop up on the odd panel show, stumping Lee Mack on Would I Lie to You? or spouting interesting facts on QI?
If you’re interested in having a Peter Cook marathon for yourself, I recommend:
Beyond the Fringe
Not Only…But Also… Best of
(the pinnacle of the Cook-Moore partnership)
Rise & Rise of Michael Rimmer
(pre-Python John Cleese and political satire)
The Bedsitting Room (although Cook and Moore are not heavily featured)
The Wrong Box (young Michael Caine! Peter Sellers in a room full of cats! A room full of cats!)
Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland
(which is bizarre, hippy-trippy, and wonderful—if you’re in the mood for it, and reunites 3/4 of the Beyond the Fringe cast)