Peter Edward Cook (17 November 1937 – 9 January 1995) was an English actor, satirist, writer and comedian. An extremely influential figure in modern British comedy, Cook is regarded as the leading light of the British satire boom of the 1960s. He was closely associated with the anti-establishment comedy that emerged in Britain and the United States in the late 1950s.
In 2005, Cook was ranked at number one in the Comedians’ Comedian, a poll of over 300 comics, comedy writers, producers and directors throughout the English-speaking world.
Cook was born at his parents’ house, “Shearbridge”, in Middle Warberry Road, Torquay, Devon. He was the only son and eldest of the three children of Alexander Edward “Alec” Cook (1906–1984), a colonial civil servant, and his wife Ethel Catherine Margaret, née Mayo (1908–1994). He was educated at Radley College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German.
As a student, Cook initially intended to become a career diplomat like his father, but Britain “had run out of colonies”, as he put it. Although politically largely apathetic, particularly in later life when he displayed a deep distrust of politicians of all hues, he did join the Cambridge University Liberal Club.
It was at Pembroke that Cook performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the Cambridge Footlights Club, of which he became president in 1960. His hero was fellow Footlights writer and Cambridge magazine writer David Nobbs.
Whilst still at university, Cook wrote for Kenneth Williams, providing several sketches for Williams’ West End comedy revue Pieces of Eight and much of the follow-up, One Over the Eight, before finding prominence in his own right in a four-man group satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.
Beyond the Fringe became a great success in London after being first performed at the Edinburgh Festival and included Cook impersonating the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. This was one of the first occasions satirical political mimicry had been attempted in live theatre and it shocked audiences. During one performance, Macmillan was in the theatre and Cook departed from his script and attacked him verbally.
In 1961, Cook opened The Establishment, a club at 18 Greek Street in Soho in central London, presenting fellow comedians in a nightclub setting, including American Lenny Bruce. Cook said it was a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”; as a members-only venue it was outside the censorship restrictions.
Cook befriended and supported Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British solo career at the club. Humphries said in his autobiography, My Life As Me, that he found Cook’s lack of interest in art and literature off-putting.
Cook’s chiselled looks and languid manner led Humphries to observe that whereas most people take after their father or mother, Cook seemed more like an aunt. Dudley Moore’s jazz trio played in the basement of the club during the early 1960s.
In 1962, the BBC commissioned a pilot for a television series of satirical sketches based on the Establishment Club, but it was not picked up straight away and Cook went to New York City for a year to perform in Beyond The Fringe on Broadway. When he returned, the pilot had been refashioned as That Was the Week That Was and had made a star of David Frost, something Cook resented. The 1960s satire boom was closing and Cook said “England was about to sink giggling into the sea”.
He complained that Frost’s success was based on copying Cook’s own stage persona and Cook dubbed him “the bubonic plagiarist”, and said that his only regret in life, recalled Alan Bennett at Cook’s memorial service, had been saving Frost from drowning. This incident occurred in the summer of 1963, when the rivalry between the two men was at its height. Cook had realised that Frost’s potential drowning would have looked deliberate if he had not been rescued.
Around this time, Cook provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, supporting it through difficult periods, particularly in libel trials. Cook invested his own money and solicited investment from his friends. For a time, the magazine was produced from the premises of the Establishment Club. In 1963, Cook married Wendy Snowden; the couple had two daughters, Lucy and Daisy, but the marriage ended in 1970.
Cook expanded television comedy with Eleanor Bron, John Bird and John Fortune. His first regular television spot was on Granada Television’s Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured his most enduring character: the static, dour and monotonal E. L. Wisty, whom Cook had conceived for Radley College’s Marionette Society.
Cook’s comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to Not Only… But Also. This was intended by the BBC for Moore’s music, but Moore invited Cook to write sketches and appear with him. Using few props, they created dry and absurd television that lasted for three series between 1965 and 1970.
Cook played characters such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and the two men created their Pete and Dud alter egos. Other sketches included “Superthunderstingcar”, a parody of the Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows, and Cook’s pastiche of 1960s trendy arts documentaries – satirised in a parodic TV segment on Greta Garbo.
When Cook learned a few years later that the videotapes of the series were to be wiped, a common practice at the time, he offered to buy the recordings from the BBC but was refused because of copyright issues. He suggested he could purchase new tapes so that the BBC would have no need to erase the originals, but this was also turned down. Of the original programmes, only eight of the twenty-two episodes still survive complete.
A compilation of six half-hour programmes, The Best of What’s Left of Not Only…But Also was shown on television and has been released on both VHS and DVD.
With The Wrong Box (1966) and Bedazzled (1967) Cook and Moore began to act in films together. Directed by Stanley Donen, the underlying story of Bedazzled is credited to Cook and Moore and its screenplay to Cook.
A comic parody of Faust, it stars Cook as George Spigott (The Devil) who tempts Stanley Moon (Moore), a frustrated, short-order chef, with the promise of gaining his heart’s desire – the unattainable beauty and waitress at his cafe, Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron) – in exchange for his soul, but repeatedly tricks him. The film features cameo appearances by Barry Humphries as Envy and Raquel Welch as Lust. Moore composed the soundtrack music and co-wrote (with Cook) the songs performed in the film.
His jazz trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivered in a monotonous deadpan voice and included his familiar put-down, “You fill me with inertia.”
In 1968, Cook and Moore briefly switched to ATV for four one-hour programmes entitled Goodbye Again, based on the Pete and Dud characters. Cook’s increasing alcoholism led him to become reliant on cue cards and the show was not a popular success, owing in part to the publication of the ITV listings magazine, TV Times, being suspended because of a strike. John Cleese was a cast member.
In 1980, partly spurred by Moore’s growing film star status, Cook moved to Hollywood and appeared as an uptight English butler to a wealthy American woman in a short-lived United States television sitcom, The Two of Us, also making cameo appearances in a couple of undistinguished films.
In 1980, Cook starred in the LWT special Peter Cook & Co. The show included comedy sketches, including a Tales of the Unexpected parody “Tales of the Much As We Expected”. This involved Cook as Roald Dahl, explaining his name had been Ronald before he dropped the “n”. The cast included John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Beryl Reid, Paula Wilcox and Terry Jones.
In 1983 Cook played the role of Richard III in the first episode of Blackadder, The Foretelling, which parodies Laurence Olivier’s portrayal. He narrated the short film “Diplomatix” by Norwegian comedy trio Kirkvaag, Lystad and Mjøen, which won the “Special Prize of the City of Montreux” at the Montreux Comedy Festival in 1985.
In 1986 he partnered Joan Rivers on her UK talk show. He appeared as Mr Jolly in 1987 in The Comic Strip Presents’ Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door, playing an assassin who covers the sound of his murders by playing Tom Jones records.
That same year, Cook made a big splash on American shores when he appeared in The Princess Bride as the “Impressive Clergyman” who officiates the wedding ceremony between Buttercup and Prince Humperdinck.
Also that year he spent time working with Martin Lewis on a political satire about the 1988 U.S. presidential elections for HBO, but the script went unproduced. Lewis suggested Cook team with Moore for the U.S. Comic Relief telethon for the homeless. The duo reunited and performed their One Leg Too Few sketch.
In 1988, Cook appeared as a contestant on the improvisation comedy show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? Cook was declared the winner, his prize being to read the credits in the style of a New York cab driver – a character he’d portrayed in Peter Cook & Co.
Cook occasionally called in to Clive Bull’s night-time phone-in radio show on LBC in London. Using the name “Sven from Swiss Cottage”, he mused on love, loneliness and herrings in a mock Norwegian accent. Jokes included Sven’s attempts to find his estranged wife, in which he often claimed to be telephoning the show from all over the world, and his hatred of the Norwegian obsession with fish.
While Bull was clearly aware that Sven was fictional he did not learn Sven’s real identity until later.
Cook died on 9 January 1995, aged 57, having suffered a gastrointestinal haemorrhage (a direct result of severe liver damage) in the intensive-care unit of the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, North London. Days earlier he had been taken in, announcing, “I feel a bit poorly.”
He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were buried in an unmarked plot behind St John’s Church in Hampstead, not far from his house in Perrins Walk.
Dudley Moore attended Cook’s memorial service in London in May 1995. He and Martin Lewis presented a two-night memorial for Cook in Los Angeles the following November to mark what would have been Cook’s 58th birthday.