Peter Cook – A Biography; Book Review

My New Year target of writing 2,500 words per week on things other than work-related items has been put under pressure by my equally important desire to read as much as I can. I haven’t set a target for this year, if only because I beat last year’s one-a-week by 14 books, which, for the math challenged, meant I read 66 books in the year. There is no way to maintain that AND write some 500 words per day (with the weekend off) so I’m just going to accept “a lot” and leave it at that. Over at the Slowdog blog, fellow reader and beer drinker Adam Slota has set his target at 30 books, which sounds to me like a really good, achievable target – especially if you let yourself read whatever you like.

But with only 24 hours in a day and a requirement to sleep at least 5 of those, if I’m reading I’m not writing, and if I’m writing I’m not reading. And over the past few weeks I’ve been not writing while ambling through Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson.

Peter Cook biography cover

Peter Cook: A Biography

Cook, who died in 1995 just a few months before I left the UK to move to the US, was an iconic and inspirational comedian, best known for his collaborative work with his life-long friend, Dudley Moore. Moore is much more well-known to Americans as a comedic actor in films such as 10 and Arthur, but Cook is much more of a British flavor. [1]

It’s always hard to write about biographies because they are inevitably very personal in the sense that no-one reads a biography about someone in which they are not interested. This inevitably means that recommending a biography is a tough sell unless you can convince someone that there is something to be learned in general about the human condition rather than just about the person. In other words, a biography that is just a chronicle of a person’s life is pointless. What we want is to understand more about what makes human beings tick in general, not just how, in this instance, Peter Cook ticks. Or tock.

Thompson’s biography certainly gives us a view of Cook that’s sympathetic and comprehensive but a close reading provides us with the opportunity to explore how personalities can be layered, and how these layers can, over time, become harder to distinguish.

From his university days and involvement in writing and performing comedy and satire, Cook developed a set of characters that became, in later years, simply facets of himself. It’s hard to decide whether his characters were a reflection of his inner self or whether they shaped his later self to become more like them.

Like many comedians, Peter Cook would swing from being confident and on top of the world to insecurity and being filled with self loathing. The ease with which he appeared to be able to reduce people to tears of laughter was at odds with his own conception of his abilities and impact. His early triumphs with the Edinburgh fringe helped move him on to be part of the seminal Beyond The Fringe shows, and then to his partnership with Dudley Moore and the creation of the No Only… But Also series. Throughout the 60’s, Cook was a celebrated part of the comedic establishment both as a performer and writer.

Bedazzled poster

Bedazzled (1967)

In 1967, he played the role of Satan, incarnate as George Spiggot, to Dudley Moore’s Faust, Stanley Moon, in the now celebrated Bedazzled. [2] At the time, it was not a great commercial success but scored as a satirical anti-religious movie that, for me, marked a high point of the Cook-Moore partnership.[3]

The bio tracks the gradual break-up of the Cook-Moore partnership, with Cook becoming much more aggressive and Moore wanting to explore other avenues, which ultimately lead to his moving to LA to become part of the Hollywood scene. A turning point came with the creation of the scatological Derek and Clive characters in the mid-70’s, which were basically off-the-cuff, profanity laden duologs recorded by Cook and Moore in a studio in New York. The later recordings are more of monologues by Cook, which at times seem unnecessarily cruel towards Moore. It’s fair to say that things were never the same between them after the Derek and Clive period.

Thompson tracks the ups and downs of Cook’s career through the 80’s and 90’s, which were peppered with a series of failures and set-backs. Against this we read about Cook’s two failed marriages and his increasing use of drugs and alcohol. Not surprisingly, his relatively early death at the age of 57 was due to a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, which in turn was caused by a liver damaged by alcohol abuse.

The discussion still goes on as to whether Peter Cook peaked in the 70’s, a point of view that the biography suggests wouldn’t be unreasonable to make. However, even if that were the case, the influence that Cook had on the UK comedy establishment was tremendous. Many UK comedians regularly cite him as being a major influence, and his legacy to political satire remains in the form of the UK’s Private Eye magazine, of which he was part owner and a contributor.

Lovers of comedy will find much on offer in this biography of a man who was as flawed as anyone else yet who managed to help shape a generation of comedians and satirists, and who played a central role in changing the face of comedy and satire in the UK.

In a similar, though less tragic, vein, Hugh Laurie, the actor who is very popular and well-known in the US as the supremely comic House, worked for many years with Stephen Fry, who continues to be a huge comedic and cultural influence in the UK but remains less known in the US. Fry was a very close friend of Peter Cook and provided a wonderful eulogy for him just after his death. House is, of course, not a drama but a comedy, which is exactly why Hugh Laurie is ideal for the role.

[2] The 2000 remake of the movie with Brendan Frazer playing the Faust role and Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil is really only notable for Hurley. She is, without doubt, one of the sexiest Satan’s a dude could meet, and it would be a very saintly man who would find it possible NOT to sell his soul to her. The scene in which Hurley plays a schoolteacher remains forever embedded in this dude’s brain. It also makes us wonder what on EARTH Hugh Grant was doing when he split up with her. Any comments about our being sexist should be tempered by remembering that we are Dudes and hopelessly lost when it comes to beautiful women.

[3] In truth, watching the film now no longer has me laughing as much, most likely because I’ve seen it too many times and it is, after all, over 30-years old and thus dated. What was, at the time, a sharp satire seems now to be a mild poke, and it’s hard to imagine it as being in any sense “shocking” or “sacriligious.” Still, for die-hards who appreciate the history of humor, it’s certainly one to include in the Canon of Comedy.


2 responses to “Peter Cook – A Biography; Book Review

  1. Heyo, thanks for the shout out Dudes!

    And by the way, I don’t think I’ve taken the opportunity to tell you how much I like reading your book reviews. They’re always have the right amount of details with out giving away too much of the book, and enough to draw my attention. And of course my favorite part, the Notes (I know, they’re in all of your posts). Thanks for giving me good stuff to read 🙂

  2. Pingback: Reading List 2012: Only Just Made it! | The Speech Dudes

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