The Complete Peter Cook

For one of the most influential and inspirational figures in British comedy, it comes as some surprise to find that so little of Peter Cook's material has been published - until now.

Tragically I Was An Only Twin collects a wide range of writing from the much-missed comic, from schoolboy poetry to newspaper columns, to produce a rounded overview of his amazing career.

Comedy coursed through Cook's veins. He was so naturally funny that he could create works of sheer genius with no apparent effort.

But that ease of manner, and Cook's lacksadaisical attitude to the world in general, could easily give the impression that he was a lazy writer, especially in later life when he had nothing more to prove. He could turn up, be funny, and be back home in time for his next cigarette.

Yet he remained prolific, even if his work could more likely involve calling up a late-night radio phone-in that writing a well-crafted sketch.

He created such a body of work that this book's claim to be 'The Complete Peter Cook' can never be fulfilled one volume. However, editor William Cook, the Guardian's comedy correspondent, doesn't leave any aspect of his career uncovered.

It has to be conceded that, as a broad generalisation, Cook's earlier work was more consistently brilliant than his later, though that could be an illusion of what is included and what is omitted.

He truly was a prodigy, creating some precociously fantastic work in the 1959 revue Last Laugh, including a precursor to his iconic bore EL Wisty and a clever twist on the conventions of police movies, when he was just 22.

He then wrote for the Kenneth Williams revue Pieces of Eight, before being picked up for the Beyond The Fringe show that was to make his name, and introduce him to Dudley Moore.

Potted biographical notes that preface each chapter put each extract firmly in context, but Cook (the editor) rightly allows the comic genius of Cook (the comic genius) to come across in his own words.

Everything you would expect to be included, is, with much of the volume covering his unforgettable collaborations with Moore, not only in Not Only But Also, but also as their foul-mouthed counterparts Derek and Clive.

Nutty aristocrat Sir Arthur Steeb-Greebling makes appearances, too, with complete transcripts of the 1990 Christmas radio series he recorded with Sir Ludovic Kennedy, and the 1994 Radio Three show Why Bother, recorded with the soon-to-be-notorious satirist Chris Morris. And Cook's appearances on Clive Anderson's chat show in various guises are worthy of a chapter, too.

What works in performance doesn't always work in print. But bizarrely, the best work here was that written for stage, screen or radio, perhaps because you can hear Cook's voice infusing ever line.

Yet the material written for the page comes across worse - a couple of extended stories from his beloved Private Eye seem very thin on gags, and samples of the column he wrote for the Daily Mail rarely covey his brilliance, proving this is not the best outlet for comedy.

(These, incidentally, are very oddly annotated, with the likes of Jimmy Carter, James Callaghan and Raquel Welsh seemingly requiring explanatory footnotes, yet it's assumed everyone knows who Russell Harty is)

But what isn't funny is fascinating, and never more so that in his conversations with late-night phone-in host Clive Bull, when Cook posed as tragic Norwegian fisherman Sven for a series of surreal, downbeat ramblings.

Despite such slow points, this book does nothing but enhance Cook's formidable and well-deserved reputation.

Fans will no doubt need no convincing to buy it, anyone else who reads it will surely be converted.


Tragically I Was An Only Twin is published by Century, £17.99. It is available from Amazon at £12.59, click here to buy it.

Steve Bennett
October 30, 2002

Published: 22 Sep 2006

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