19. The sometimes painful magic
By 1997, I had performed several comedy shows, mainly performance poetry, using different voices, and in recent years including a musical double-act with Jeremy Limb (known as “Bax” since he was the grandson of musician Arnold Bax). Our friends seemed to generally enjoy our whimsicality, but with the exception of a few showcase events and radio appearances, it wasn’t exactly the big time.
That year in Brussels I read a LRB review of a biography of recently deceased satirist Peter Cook, by comedy producer Harry Thompson. I quickly bought the book, which was a sympathetic portrait of a Cambridge linguist who had looked destined to become a diplomat, tracing the way he used language (and his rather dissolute rise to status of comedy legend), as well as the ups and downs of his relationship in a double-act with Oxford pianist (and later Hollywood superstar) Dudley Moore.
Cook was moving in and out of different modes of speech, absorbing the little surprises of sometimes wilful misunderstandings and self-deceptions. He was a kind of playful diplomat alienated from his own language.
In 1957, aged 19, he went to the Porcupine Club in Berlin during his year abroad: “The show was terribly bad…. the humour was very juvenile, and I thought ‘Why isn’t there the equivalent of this in London?” He saw Ionesco in Paris.
As a young man he listened. A school butler would nasally intone “There’s plenty more where that came from, if you get my meaning” as he served up another helping of potatoes, or lean in conspiratorially to say: “You know that stone which is lying just outside the left-hand side of the gravel driveway as you go out? I sold that yesterday, because I thought I saw it move.”
In student digs, his landlady’s reaction to the state of his room the morning after a party was “Oh, Mr. Cook- if I’d known you’d got friends, I’d never have had you.”
Then came the mixed blessing of early achievement, being commissioned to write an entire West End show for Kenneth Williams while still an undergrad. He somehow evoked the world-weariness of the disappearing music-hall artiste: “They had no amplification in them days… And do you know, when they sang, the people in the back row couldn’t hear a word. That was part of their attraction- the element of mystery.”
Jonathan Miller recalls his first sighting of Cook in a student revue. Dressed in tweed beyond his years, like the self-important prematurely middle-aged future politicians who were their fellow students, there was a rustle of newspaper and a face appeared: “Hello, hello. I see the Titanic’s sunk again.”
Within a few years, PM Harold Wilson and President Kennedy were coming to see him impersonate them. “We shall receive four minutes’ warning of any impending nuclear attack. Some people have said “Oh my goodness me- four minutes? That is not a very long time!” Well, I would remind those doubters that some people in this great country of ours can run a mile in four minutes.”
Dudley Moore was more than a straight man, he was an earnest, often enthusiastic man, with perfect pitch for comedy too. He could genuinely act and sing, which was also a nice counterpoint to Cook. In their best-known sketch, Moore plays a one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan. His enthusiasm is infectious, we empathise with both men in this impossible situation, as Cook builds slowly to a playful punchline that flatters the audience’s intelligence and ability to listen: “Your right leg, I like. I like your right leg. A lovely leg for the role. That’s what I said when I saw you come in: I said ‘A lovely leg for the role’. I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you.”
Part of their journey was sad, though. Parallels emerged between their onstage and offstage relationship. Cook had private problems and became a very heavy drinker on tour. By 1978, prime-time interviewer Michael Parkinson was trying to dissect their sometimes painful magic:
Cook: There are storms, there are tantrums.
Moore: It’s like a marriage.
Parkinson: How is it like a marriage?
Cook: We’re getting divorced.
By the 1990s, Cook seemed directionless, and yet, still clearly brilliant. After his death in 1995 there was some moralistic media commentary about him being a lazy drunk, who failed to fulfil his potential, as if he owed society something more. The biography did a neat job of celebrating him for who he had been, rather than comparing him to Moore with his Hollywood successes. Here is a last word from Cook for today, improvising on the radio with Chris Morris: “I feel nothing but pride. That’s all I do feel. An empty pride… a hopeless vanity… a dreadful arrogance… a stupefyingly futile conceit… but at least it’s something to hang on to.”
Bax and I decided to write and perform our own tribute to the duo. The Brussels authorities agreed to give me unpaid leave, though one bureaucrat protested in writing that “Entre Parsifal et l’interprète, il faut choisir”. With this auspicious Wagnerian backdrop, the Pleasance Theatre didn’t hesitate a second or even ask to see any previews before giving us the slot we requested: “In Edinburgh in August you have the greatest concentration of Peter Cook fans in any one place in the world.” It was starting to get scary. The biographer replied to our queries and warned us that Cook’s widow was “notoriously litigious”. She would probably not let us use any of the original material.
So we wrote totally new sketches to tell the story as we saw it, referencing their work, their personal lives and above all, their relationship. The sometimes painful magic. The previous year our Edinburgh act had been described as “A comedy duo who go on stage seconds after one of them has told the other he is sleeping with his wife” so we had some of our own chemistry to play around with.
We didn’t have a director or proper lighting, I didn’t have contact lenses so couldn’t even see the front row, and I couldn’t make my moustaches stick on for the different roles. The show was so early in the Fringe day that hardly anybody under 40 ever got up in time to see it- but it sold out for the entire run, got 4 and 5 star reviews in the national press, and was runner-up for a prestigious TV channel’s comedy writing award. The chairman of the panel, Humphrey Barclay, who saw the show twice, had made TV programmes with Cook. The Independent said it “sounded like material rescued from the archives”.
A lot of influential people were keen to hear about our next project. I was still a European civil servant, committed to at least 2 more years full time in Brussels.
3 days after the end of the show’s run, I was arriving in rural Portugal for 3 months’ study leave. Bax came for a holiday, and we drank wine in the sun, wondering what to do next.