20 years on: The satirist's satirist Peter Cook remembered
What's the worst job you've ever had?
Feature It is 20 years since his death – and 50 years since his first comeback – but the reputation of the UK’s most influential comic and satirist, Peter Cook, is beginning to fade. Phil Strongman attempts to put the record straight ...
Last year saw John Cleese receive the accolade of being voted the greatest British comedian of all time – but, for all Cleese’s brilliance, the award should really have gone to the UK’s most influential joker, a man who unquestionably influenced Cleese himself, the late, great Peter Cook.
It was in January 1965 that Not Only But Also ... was first broadcast on BBC TV. It was originally to be a vehicle for jazz pianist Dudley Moore, Cook’s partner in Beyond The Fringe – the 1960 student satire that dared to parody the Prime Minister (a first back then) and which a young Cook had taken from the Cambridge Footlights onto the West End stage, Broadway and world tours. Beyond The Fringe also launched Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller and gave TV audiences their first encounter with Cook's tedious yet hilarious know-it-all E. L. Wisty.
But Moore felt the new Not Only ... needed more comedy and so invited old friend Peter Cook along – yet even then the pilot wouldn’t have been made unless one John Lennon hadn’t generously agreed to appear (Lennon too being a Cook and Moore fan). After the success of Beyond – and the Establishment comedy club which Cook started in ’61 and TV’s That Was The Week That Was, the pioneering satire series that he helped write – you wouldn’t have thought that Cook needed a Beatle to help get him back on British TV.
But things had gone drastically wrong for Cook in late ’64. He’d lost money on a Broadway show to return to a London where That Was The Week That Was aka TW3 had just been pulled from the screens. The Tory government of the time felt its satire would hit them hard at election time – its move failed anyway, with Labour winning power in October that year. Even so, the TW3 ban left Cook with no outlet and very little money.
Not Only ... But Also gave him both, it also provided the rest of the nation with one of the funniest shows of the 1960s, a format that included Cook brilliantly acting the supercilious snob plus Cook and Moore doing a face-to-face as "Pete and Dud", two shabby idiots from Dagenham (as "borrowed" by Alas Smith and Jones) and an "instant poetry" contest that ended with a guest being dunked in foam (as copied in Tiswas and a hundred other kids’ shows).
Among those guests were many of the finest comedians and musicians of the era (everyone from Barry Humphries, Ronnie Barker, Eric Sykes and Peter Sellers to Dusty Springfield, T-Bone Walker, Dionne Warwick, Alan Price, John Williams and Joe Cocker). Not Only also had cruelly accurate parodies of everything from Psycho to the kids’ puppet series Thunderbirds.
One of the highlights of any episode was Cook using non-stop comic ad-libs in an attempt to make Moore "corpse" live on camera, it usually worked and occasionally even Cook himself was reduced to giggles. Cook’s humour wasn’t always PC – a one-legged man applies for the role of Tarzan, the theatrical agent ends the conversation with: "I’ve got nothing against your left leg but, unfortunately, nor have you ..."
Still, it was amusing and his wit was both intellectual and genuinely fast (when a wealthy punter failed to breeze into The Establishment Club and said, angrily, to the guest-list girl, "Do you know who I am?" Cook immediately said to the people in the queue, "I’m very sorry but we have someone here who seems to have forgotten his own name ... does anyone know who he is?") .