Peter Cook is someone that I love. I find him witty, clever and greatly enjoyable to watch. Being such an influence on comedy, and a large figure in Britain in the 1960s, I find him a very interesting character with a very interesting career.
Peter Cook, along with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett were, arguably, the main satirists in the satire boom of the 1960s with their comedy revue show, Beyond the Fringe. Cook and Miller had both been part of the Footlights whilst studying at Cambridge, and Moore and Bennett had both been part of the Revue whilst studying at Oxford. Ronald Bergan, a film & TV reviewer describes how ‘the show did not come from Oxbridge. The four performers were not undergraduates…Miller and Bennett were 26 years old, Moore was 25 and Cook 23.’ However, it is clear that the four performers were all heavily influenced by their lives at Oxbridge, and also their upbringings.
Cook and Miller had privileged upbringings, with Cook expecting to become a diplomat as his father was, but couldn’t sit the exam as he didn’t gain a first whilst at Cambridge. Moore and Bennett were from more working-class backgrounds, with Yorkshire-born Bennett studying at both Cambridge and then Oxford, and Moore gaining a music scholarship to Oxford. Such was the success of Beyond the Fringe that it transferred to Broadway in 1962 for a year. On their return, Cook and Moore became comedy partners. They worked together from 1964 until 1975, completing three series of their hit show Not Only…But Also. Class was clearly a large part of their show, but Beyond the Fringe made their audience laugh as the performers ridiculing their own class. The influence of Beyond the Fringe on modern satire is now greatly realised, and the writing and performing talents of Peter Cook are a great centre of the satire boom.
Alongside the satire boom of the 1960s, there was an increase in satirical films being produced in both England in America at this time. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore made the film Bedazzled in 1967, with the screenplay being written by Peter Cook alone. Although containing more dry humour than satirical material that the performers had previously worked with, the content does contain some class references. The plot revolves around Stanley Moon (Moore), a chef who is in love with a waitress he works with. After a failed suicide attempt, the Devil (Cook) offers him seven wishes in exchange for his soul. In the case of two of the wishes, Moore is a pretentious intellectual and a multi-millionaire. The idea of his life being improved by an increase of wealth and intelligence does not work out as planned, and the result of the film is that Moore is better off as himself. Bedazzled is a great British comedy, which I highly recommend.
By 1975, Dudley Moore wished to split from Peter Cook, who was drinking heavily by this time, to forge a career in America. Subsequently, Moore became a huge Hollywood star in the 1970s and 80s. His breakthrough role in Arthur (1981) earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Anyone who has seen the 2011 remake with Russell Brand will see how his performance, and especially his voice, is a direct copy of Moore in the original (and much better – sorry Russell) film. Cook stayed in London, became a major shareholder in the satirical magazine Private Eye, but his TV appearances were now declining over the years.
It is undeniable that Peter Cook has influenced comedy a great deal, especially in regards to satire, for many comedians and comedy writers, both in the UK and the US. There would only be a handful of people working in comedy who, when asked of their influences, wouldn’t mention Peter Cook in some capacity, along with the Pythons. It is interesting to wonder what Peter Cook would make of comedy nowadays; what would he make of Michael McIntyre skipping around on stage talking about how bouncy his hair is? One can only assume (although I assume it wouldn’t be good).
There was a great amount of the phrase ‘unfulfilled potential’ being used when Peter Cook died in 1995, aged only 57. This statement is of course untrue and unfairly harsh. Stephen Fry gave a wonderful speech in response to the negative publicity surrounding Cook’s untimely death, about the brilliant influence Cook had and still has today.