Saturday, 29 October 2011

Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson

You don't hear much of Peter Cook these days, and it's not just because he's dead.  His biggest TV hit Not Only...But Also was mostly wiped by the BBC.  His movies were usually awful.  His radio work mainly consisted of 3am calls to LBC in character as a lonely Norwegian fisherman.  But back in the early 60s he was the single most important comedian in the world.  This is a brilliant account of his amazing rise and tragic fall.

Like many comedians, his material was formed in childhood.  Cook had a very priviledged upbringing, though it probably didn't feel like that at the time.  He got through boarding school by making people laugh.  His impression of the boring and bizarre school butler (?) Mr Boylett became a craze among his classmates. A few years later it became a sensation among the undergraduates in Cambridge, then in London when Beyond the Fringe hit the West End.  The same thing happened when the show went to New York, and it happened again when Not Only...But Also was shown on the BBC.  But Cook didn't like to say how the character came about, in case it hurt Mr Boylett's feelings.

He was widely hailed as best and brightest of the satire boom of the early '60s, though he was never very satirical.  He just wanted to make people laugh.  All the time.  Throughout his life Cook would turn up somewhere and have everyone in stiches for hours.  You get the feeling that no medium ever captured him at his best - you just had to be there.

His compulsion to be funny was also his tragedy.  Very few people really got behind the wall of silly voices and absurd conceits.  People started to find him draining.  He became an alcoholic, apparently overnight, in the early '70s and the remaining two decades of his life make for desperately sad reading. 

He completely alienated his long suffering comedy partner Dudley Moore.  He grew estranged from his family, whom he loved dearly.  He became bloated, wore ridiculously mismatched clothes and spent much of his time with drug addled fantasist called Rainbow George.  Peter took stacks of drugs himself, but he drank more and he cried a lot as well.  Despite it all he made everyone laugh wherever he went and people loved him.  But the Peter Cook comeback never happened.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, lots of tragic funny men out there... Sounds quite good this. I might want to read Dudley's too though. Compare and contrast...