Peter Cook the actor

Peter Edward Cook was born in Torquay in the county of Devon, England, on the 17th of November 1937. He was to grow up to become a well known and influential actor, writer, comedian and satirist.

Cook's father was a colonial civil servant called Alexander Edward Cook, known to his friends as Alec. Cook's mother was Ethel Catherine Margaret. Her maiden name was Mayo. Cook was born at home. His parents' house was called Shearbridge and was in Middle Warberry Road in Torquay

Cook was educated at Radley College, which was a private school. He then went on to Pembroke College at Cambridge University. There he studied German and French. At that time Cook thought he would become a diplomat in the British civil service like his father, but he soon realized that Britain's empire was rapidly contracting, so it would not have been as good a choice as it was in his father's day.

Cook joined the Cambridge University Liberal Club, but he had no great passion for politics.

More significantly, and more in line with his true passion, Cook joined the Cambridge Footlights Club, which was, and is, a theatrical club for the students of Cambridge University to perform in for other students and for the public too. The Footlights would perform in London and elsewhere.

Cook became president of the Footlights Club in 1960. The person he most admired was the comedy writer David Nobbs.

There was a well known comedy actor called Kenneth Williams. Cook wrote a comedy revue for Williams to perform in London's West End. The revue was called One Over The Eight. Cook, a lover of satire, then got together with Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, and the four of them did their own review called Beyond The Fringe. First they performed at Scotland's Edinburgh Festival. Cook impersonated Britain's then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. To satirize an important (and high class) political figure on stage was a completely new thing, and it gripped the audience and the show gained great publicity and success.

The show moved to London where it was a great hit. On one occasion Harold Macmillan himself was in the audience, and Cook took the opportunity to deviate from the script and mimic and ridicule the Prime Minister directly.

In 1961 Cook opened a club in London called The Establishment. It was in Soho at 18 Greek Street. It operated like a night club, but with comedians performing on stage. The American comedian Lenny Bruce performed there. The type of comedy it specialized in was satire. Because it was a private club for members only, its performances could not be censored by the government.

The co-founder of The Establishment was Nicolas Luard, who had met Cook through The Cambridge Footlights.

An actor and comedian from Australia called Barry Humpries got his first break at The Establishment and would go on to find fame as Dame Edna Everage and also by representing his great nation as its cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson. Humphries would also play an Australian bloke called Barry McKenzie.

Humphries would later write an autobiography entitled My Life As Me in which he commented critically upon Cook's lack of interest in the arty side of life. He described the posh and good looking Cook as being languid in his manner.

Dudley Moore throughout his life was really always more interested in music than acting, and he played at the club with his trio.

The BBC wanted to produce a television series made up of satirical sketches, so in 1962 they commissioned a pilot to be made. Cook was in it. Nothing then happened, so Cook went off to New York for a year to perform in Beyond The Fringe. This was on Broadway. When he returned to London he found that the television series was being shown, but in an altered format, under the name of That Was The Week That Was and was now headed by David Frost, who had become a star on the back of it. Cook rather resented this, and said that Frost was basically copying the sort of performance he himself gave on stage.

At Cook's memorial service, Alan Bennett said that Cook had had only one regret in life, and that was that he had saved David Frost from drowning. This had actually happened in 1963, in the summer. Because it was widely known that Cook and Frost were rivals to each other, when Cook saw Frost drowning, he thought that he had better save him otherwise people might say that it was he who had made Frost drown.

Around 1962 Peter Cook, along with Nicolas Luard, provided funds for the satirical (and investigative) magazine Private Eye. Cook continued to support the magazine even when it had legal and consequent financial problems. He encouraged people he knew also to help support the magazine. The magazine, anti-establishment as it was, was briefly produced from The Establishment.

Cook got married in 1963 to Wendy Snowden. During their marriage they would have two daughters - Lucy and Daisy. Cook and Wendy divorced in 1970.

Cook worked on television. He appeared regularly on Bernard Braden's show Braden Beat, for which he performed as the character E. L. Wisty, who spoke in a monotone. E. L. Wisty was a character that Cook had created when at Radley College.

Having worked with Dudley Moore in Beyond The Fringe, Cook continued to work with him on other things. They did a television show together called Not Only .. But Also. Originally this show was intended by its producers, the BBC, to be essentially Moore playing his music, but Moore suggested that Cook should write some sketches that they could do together. The humor was of the absurdist style that was gaining in popularity then.

Not Only … But Also was produced for three series from 1965 to 1970. It was for this show that Cook and Moore created the conversational characters Pete and Dud.

In those days it was common practice to wipe (erase) tapes on which recordings had been made so that the tapes could be used again. The BBC were going to do this with the Not Only … But Also tapes. Cook heard of this and asked the BBC if he could buy the tapes off them. They said no, pleading copyright issues. He offered to buy them new tapes if they would give him the recorded tapes. Again they said no. Ultimately they wiped fourteen of the twenty-two episodes that had been recorded, leaving only eight still in existence. Six of these eight were put together and made available to the public.

Next came films for the two men. In 1966 they appeared in The Wrong Box. More memorably, in 1967 they appeared in Bedazzled. They conceived the story together. Cook wrote the screenplay. The film is based on the Faust legend. Cook plays the devil character. Moore plays an inadequate fast-food chef who desires a waitress but cannot win her. Cook offers Moore the Faustian deal of getting what he desires in return for Moore giving his soul to Cook. Moore agrees. Cook then keeps tricking him.

Moore did the music for the film. Cook wrote the lyrics for the songs. Both men sang the songs.

In 1968 Cook and Moore swopped over to ATV to make four one-hour long episodes of Goodbye Again. The characters in this were like Pete and Dud. John Cleese was also in the show. It was not a success.

Cook had always liked a drink. Indeed it is fair to say he was an alcoholic. By the time that Goodbye Again was made it was affecting his work. It affected his speech. It affected his ability to remember his lines such that cue cards had to be provided for him. Worst of all, he would just get it all wrong and go off at a tangent, which meant that Moore had to ad-lib to try to bring the sketch back in line again.

David Frost had started a film project - The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer - which was to be a satire in which an opinion pollster manipulates and 'spins' his way up to being President of Great Britain. Cook took the project over and played the lead role. He said that he based his character on David Frost (who actually financed the film). The film was not very successful.

In 1971 Cook hosted a chat show called Where Do I Sit? for the BBC. They invited him to do it largely because he was such a regular feature on other people's chat shows. But his performance was not well received by the critics and he lasted only two episodes and was then replaced by Michael Parkinson. This was how Michael Parkinson started his career as a chat show host.

Cook and Moore put together a new stage show called Behind The Fridge and they toured Australia with it in 1972. In 1973 they took it to New York. There it was called Good Evening. Cook would often be drunk. Even so, the show won awards. When the run finished, Cook went back to England, while Moore stayed in the States to try to make it in Hollywood.

In 1973 Cook married Judy Huxtable.

During the run of Good Evening, Cook suggested to Moore that they resurrect the characters Pete and Dud, but make them even 'bluer' (foul-mouthed). They did some audio recording sessions. Chris Blackwell let some friends have copies of one of these. The feedback was good, so Cook decided to make the audio recording available commercially. Moore was hesitant because he didn't want his clean image in Hollywood tarnished by the vulgarity of his role as Clive, but he eventually agreed. After that there would be another two recordings made available to the public, and also a film of Cook and Moore doing a recording.

In January 1976 Cook and Moore hosted the show Saturday Night Live.

In 1977 Cook worked with Godley and Creme of 10cc doing voice-work for their triple concept album box set called Consequences. Cook had to perform many roles for this, and his success at it was a sign of his talent and flexibility. His wife Judy Huxtable also did voice-work on the album. Appropriately she had the role of wife to one of Cook's characters.

Consequences was a commercial flop, but it has since acquired a certain cult status. It has been suggested that the characters Cook played were parodies of his colleagues from Beyond The Fringe.

Cook got involved with raising money for Amnesty International , doing so by performing on stage. The first show, running for three nights in April 1976, was called A Poke in the Eye (with a Sharp Stick). He performed solo and with the other members of Beyond The Fringe. This was the first time they had all been together since the 1960's.

The second Amnesty International show took place in May 1977 and was called An Evening Without Sir Bernard Miles.

His third Amnesty International show, called The Secret Policeman's Ball, was in June 1979. This got a critical review from The Daily Telegraph, which said that what was being performed was just recycled material from the past. Cook responded by writing a sketch mocking the apparently far from impartial summing up of the judge, Mr. Justice Cantley, in the Jeremy Thorpe trial. The sketch was performed that very night and was so well received and so well regarded critically that it, along with three other similarly parodying sketches recorded in the studio, was later released by Virgin Records. The release was called Here Comes The Judge: Live.

Cook wasn't in the 1981 Amnesty International show, but he did some narration for the film of the show that came out the following year, and he did the radio commercials to advertize the film in the UK. The world premiere of the film took place in London in March 1982. At it, Cook played the host of a made-up film awards ceremony.

Along with Moore, Cook performed at the 1989 Amnesty benefit, which was called The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball.

Cook moved to Hollywood in 1980 to appear in a sitcom called The Two Of Us. His role was that of an English butler to a rich American woman. The sitcom did not last long.

That year, back in England, Cook appeared in a television special called Peter Cook & Co. The show had comedy sketches in it, and Cook worked with Beryl Reid, Paula Wilcox, John Cleese, Terry Jones and Rowan Atkinson. With regard to the latter and his famous television series Blackadder, in 1983 Cook appeared in the first ever episode as King Richard the Third. He parodied Laurence Olivier's over-acted performance.

Cook was the narrator for a short film called Diplomatix which in 1985 won a prize at the Montreaux Comedy Festival.

The following year he worked with Joan Rivers on her UK chat show.

The year after that he had the role of Mr. Jolly in The Comic Strip Presents - Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door.

Also in 1987, Cook won praise for his performance as an officiating clergyman in The Princess Bride.

That year, with Martin Lewis, he worked on a satire about the 1988 US Presidential elections, but the film was never produced. However, Lewis advised Cook to pair up with Moore again for an American Comic Relief telethon to raise money for homeless people. Cook and Moore did their One Leg Too Few sketch.

Cook: Mr Spiggott - you are, I believe, auditioning for the part of Tarzan.

Moore: Right.

Cook: Now Mr Spiggott, I couldn't help noticing - almost at once - that you are a one-legged person.

Moore: You noticed that?

Cook: I noticed that, Mr Spiggott. When you have been in the business as long as I have, you come to notice these little things almost instinctively.

The agent then points out that Tarzan is “a role which traditionally involves the use of a two-legged actor” and that it would be unusual for the part to be taken by a “unidexter”, but Spiggott is still enthusiastic and hopeful. Cook realizes he must tell Spiggott clearly why he is unsuitable for the role of Tarzan. With a straight face he says:

Cook: Need I say with over much emphasis that it is in the leg division that you are deficient.

Moore: The leg division?

Cook: Yes, the leg division, Mr Spiggott. You are deficient in it to the tune of one. 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.

The following year Cook made an appearance as a contestant on the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The contestants have to improvise. Cook was declared the winner.

Sometimes Cook would phone in to Clive Bull's night-time phone-in radio show at LBC in London. He would say he was Sven from Swiss Cottage.

In 1989 Cook got married to a Malaysian woman called Chiew Lin Chong. It was his third marriage. They held the ceremony in the part of Devon where Cook had been born. He seemed to settle down with this marriage and he cut back on his drinking. The marriage was somewhat unusual in that Cook and his wife lived in separate houses a short distance apart in Hampstead, London. Cook's small house at 17 Church Row had once been lived in by the writer H. G. Wells.

For the BBC, Cook did twelve interviews in the character of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. He was interviewed by Ludovic Kennedy. The series was called A Life In Pieces.

In 1993 he would again be interviewed in the role of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. This time he was interviewed by Chris Morris. The interviews were unscripted. Cook was well known to be a heavy drinker, and Morris did not have high expectations of Cook's ability to perform, but he said later, “He (Cook) stumbled in with a Safeways bag full of Kestrel lager and loads of fags and then proceeded to skip about mentally with the agility of a grasshopper. Really quite extraordinary.”

The same year that he did the Chris Morris interviews, Cook appeared on Clive Anderson Talks Back. He acted as four different characters. They were a biscuit tester called Norman House who had been abducted by aliens, judge Sir James Beauchamp, the football manager Alan Latchley, who was also a motivational speaker, and the famous rock legend Eric Daley.

The day after that he was on the Arena program.

On Boxing Day 1993 there was a Christmas special of One Foot In The Grave called One Foot In The Algarve. Cook appeared in it as a snooping tabloid journalist.

In 1994 Cook's mother died. Cook returned to drinking in a big way.

The last time Cook appeared on television was in November 1994 on Birmingham's Pebble Mill At One show.

On the 9th of January 1995, aged just 57, Cook died. The cause of death was gastrointestinal hemorrhage.

Cook was cremated. His ashes are buried in an unmarked plot behind Saint John's Church in Hampstead, which is not far from Cook's house in Church Row.

Films in which Peter Cook appeared

Film (Date): Character Played

The Wrong Box (1966): Morris Finsbury

Alice in Wonderland (1966): Mad Hatter

Bedazzled (1967): George Spiggott/The Devil

A Dandy in Aspic (1968): Prentiss

Monte Carlo or Bust! (released in the US as Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies) (1969): Major Digby Dawlish

The Bed-Sitting Room (1969): Inspector

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970): Michael Rimmer

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972): Dominic

Find the Lady (1976): Lewenhak

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978): Sherlock Holmes

Derek and Clive Get the Horn (1979): Clive

Yellowbeard (1983): Lord Percy Lambourn

Supergirl (1984): Nigel

Whoops Apocalypse (1986): Sir Mortimer Chris

The Princess Bride (1987): The Impressive Clergyman

Without A Clue (1988): Norman Greenhough

Getting It Right (1989): Mr. Adrian

Great Balls of Fire! (1989): First English Reporter

Black Beauty (1994): Lord Wexmire


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