Peter Cook

Peter Cook

Date of birth: 17-11-1937

A genuine comedy genius whose prolific output, especially in the early years, made the comedy landscape what it is today.

He applied his considerable talent to theatre (Beyond The Fringe), press (Private Eye) and the genesis of stand-up (The Establishment Club) - all when he was still in his twenties.

In latter years he seemed to drift - an image he did little to dispel - yet still produced some comedy masterpieces, if underappreciated ones - in the later years of his incredible life.

Cook's early life was unusual: he was brought up by his grandmother for the first six years as his parents were in Nigeria, then went to Radley public school, where he found an outlet for his lively imagination, contributing to the school magazine and becoming involved in revues.

Exempted from national service because of his asthma he started a modern languages degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1957. There he successfully auditioned for the Footlights, performing in the 1959 show, written mostly by John Bird it was called The Last Laugh and set in a nuclear bunker.

On the strength of that show, he was commissioned to write a new West End revue for Kenneth Williams, called Pieces of Eight, which was so successful it spawned a sequel One Over The Eight.

Ironically, these old-fashioned revues wee to be killed off by Cook's next project - Beyond The Fringe, an Edinburgh showcase for the best Oxbridge performers: Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Cook, whose agent had advised him not to take the job, as he was a professional, above working with amateurs.

The show heralded the start of the so-called satire boom, a scene given a focus by Cook, who opened London's first satirical nightclub The Establishment Club in 1961, shortly after Beyond The Fringe transferred to the West End. The club would allow performances to go further than they could in the theatre, where scripts were at the mercy of censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. It was an instant success, with regulars such as John Bird and John Fortune, and guests like Barry Humphries and, controversially, Lenny Bruce.

Cook also had his heart set on a satirical newspaper, so was disappoined when Christopher Booker got there first with Private Eye. But when its key backer shied away in 1962, Cook stepped in as proprietor - and helped circulation rise from 18,000 to a more viable 50,000

When the satire boom fizzled out while he was in New York with the Broadway run of Beyond The Fringe, Cook found work on the current affairs show On The Braden Beat, appearing every week with a reprisal of an earlier deadpan character, who he renamed EL Wisty

In 1965, his former Beyond The Fringe colleague, Dudley Moore, was offered a solo show - and he invited his pal to help up the comedy stakes. The duo were such a hit that Not Only, But Also became one of the most influential TV comedies around, running for three series

The duo were lured to ITV with a big-money deal, but the four episodes of Goodbye Again failed to capture the magic of the original, so they returned to the BBC for their third series, broadcast in colour in 1970.

Their partnership was epitomised by the cloth-capped Pete & Dud and their surreal and obscene counterparts, Derek and Clive, originally created solely for the duo's own entertainment.

Their partnership started to fall apart during an Australian production Behind The Fridge, aided by Cook's heavy drinking. After their split, Moore became a Hollywood romantic comedy star, while Cook's career languished in mediocrity.

Things turned around in the last few years of his life - his tour de force performance as three character on Clive Anderson's chat show; and two series of interviews as oddball aristocrat Sir Arthur Strre-Greebling ­ one with Ludovic Kennedy for BBC2 and the other with a young satirist by the name of Chris Morris - helped re-establish his reputation.

Since his death in 1995, from a gastro-intestinal haemorrhage, that reputation has continued to grow, as a new generation of comedians take inspiration from the full body of his comedy legacy.

 

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For sale: Peter Cook's London house

Home of hedonistic parties... and where he wrote some classic comedy

comedyThe London home where Peter Cook lived for the last 20 years of his life has been put on the market for £5million.

In the heart of Hampstead Village, the four-bedroomed house was once the scene of wild parties where guests included the Pythons, Stephen Fry, Julian Clary and the Rolling Stones.

One story has it that Cook greeted guests at one soiree dripping wet – explaining that he had just jumped into the koi carp pond after setting his trousers on fire while lighting candles.

Cook brought the Queen Anne style house – designed by Edwin Lutyens’ protege, the delightfully named Norman Evill –  in 1974.

His second wife, Judy, likened it to a ‘small enchanted castle’ and Cook wrote at the time: ‘I’m pleased and excited by it.  I hope I never had to move again.’ And he didn’t, remaining there until his death in January 1995, at the age of 57. 

It was in this house that he wrote sketches with Dudley Moore, and where his diminutive friend told Cook he wanted to end their fractious partnership; where his second wife Judy crawled into a suitcase to catch her philandering husband in flagrante; and where he lived out many of his years in what his biography called ‘a shambolic bachelor life’ knocking back the booze.

After the collapse of his second marriage, he started a relationship with Lin Chong, who lived nearby. But she took one look at the shambolic state of his house, with graffiti on the walls and paperwork piled everywhere, and decided they should maintain two homes.

However shabby it was inside, its exterior remained enchanting. Lin, who would become Cook’s third wife, wrote in her memoirs: ‘Peter’s home was his castle. A spacious Grade II listed house on three-and-a-bit floors with a large beautiful garden hidden from public view. 

‘Looking at it from the front, the architecture appears Queen Anne. From the rear, it is undoubtedly Victorian with picturesque, leaded, inverted strawberry windows. Anyone who saw it from the garden, would be reminded of fairy tales. It looked that enchanting.’ 

When Cook died  from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage, Lin finally moved into Perrin's Walk — and couldn't bear to change a thing.

In 2016, Victor Lewis Smith was granted access to the property and made a BBC Four documentary about the untouched treasure trove of archive material he found. 

After Lin died that year, her brother Chiew Chong, who is executor of her estate, arranged for a complete revamp of the home’s interior, and now there is no sign of the chaos that once lay within. The Heath & Hampstead Society has even said they will unveil  a  commemorative plaque on the building, giving it the ultimate seal of respectability in this well-to-do enclave of North London.

James Morton of estate agent Dexters, who is handling the sale said: ‘We are anticipating a lot of interest in this fascinating house due to its enviable location… and the added cachet of the Peter Cook connection.’

You can take a virtual snoop around the property on Zoopla.

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Published: 11 Jun 2019

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