Peter Cook

Peter Cook
Peter Cook

Peter Cook, as George Spiggott (The Devil), in the 1967 film Bedazzled.
Born Peter Edward Cook
17 November 1937(1937-11-17)
Torquay, Devon, England
Died 9 January 1995(1995-01-09) (aged 57)
Hampstead, London, England
Occupation Comedian, satirist, writer
Years active 1958–1994
Spouse Wendy Snowden (1963–1971)
Judy Huxtable (1973–1989)
Lin Chong (1989–1995)

Peter Edward Cook (17 November 1937 – 9 January 1995) was an English satirist, writer and comedian. An extremely influential figure in modern British comedy, he is regarded as the leading light of the British satire boom of the 1960s. He has been described by Stephen Fry as "the funniest man who ever drew breath," although Cook's work was also controversial.[1] Cook is closely associated with anti-establishment comedy that emerged in Britain and the USA in the late 1950s.


Early life

Cook was born at Shearbridge, Middle Warberry Road, Torquay, Devon, 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 read French and German. As a student, Cook meant to become a career diplomat like his father, but Britain "had run out of colonies", as he put it. Although politically largely apathetic, he did join Cambridge University Liberal Club.[2]

It was at Pembroke that he 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[3]

Whilst still at university, Cook wrote for Kenneth Williams, for whom he created a West End comedy revue called 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.

The show 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.[4]



In 1961 he opened The Establishment Club at 18 Greek Street in Soho, 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";[5] 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 reminded one of one's auntie. Dudley Moore's jazz trio played in the basement of the club for many years 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 for a year to perform in Beyond The Fringe on Broadway. When he returned, the pilot had been re-fashioned 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 Britain would "sink into the sea under the weight of its own giggling". He complained that Frost's success was based on copying Cook's own stage persona, and that his only regret in life had been once saving Frost from drowning.

Cook married Wendy Snowden in 1963, with whom he had two daughters, Lucy and Daisy. The marriage ended in 1970.

Cook expanded television comedy with Eleanor Bron, John Bird, and John Fortune. Cook's 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.

His 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, which lasted three seasons. Cook played characters such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and the pair's Pete and Dud. Other sketches included "Superthunderstingcar", a send-up 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.

In the early 1970s the BBC erased most videotapes of the series. This was common television practice at the time, when agreements with actors' and musicians' unions limited the number of repeats. The policy of wiping recordings ceased in 1978. When Cook learned the series was to be destroyed, he offered to buy the tapes but was refused because of copyright issues. He suggested he 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, eight of the twenty-two episodes survive complete. These comprise the first series with the exception of the fifth and seventh episodes, the first and last episodes of the second series, and the Christmas special. Of the 1970 third series, only the various film inserts (usually of outdoor scenes) survive. The BBC recovered some shows by approaching overseas television networks and buying back copies. A compilation of six half-hour programmes, The Best of What's Left of Not Only...But Also was shown on television and released on VHS and DVD.

In 1968, Cook and Moore briefly switched to ATV for four, one-hour programmes entitled Goodbye Again, based on the Pete and Dud characters. They ignored suggestions from the director and cast. Sketches were drawn out to fill the running time. With no interest in the show and a problem with alcohol, Cook relied on cue cards and ended up garbling the script, forcing Moore to ad-lib. 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.

Cook and Moore acted in films together, beginning with The Wrong Box in 1966. Bedazzled (1967), though now regarded as a classic, was not financially successful. Directed by Stanley Donen, the film's story is credited to Cook and Moore, and its screenplay to Cook. A comic parody of Faust, it starred Cook as George Spigott (The Devil) who tempts a frustrated, short-order chef called Stanley Moon (Moore) with the promise of gaining his heart's desire – the unattainable beauty Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron) – in exchange for his soul, but repeatedly tricks him. The film features appearances by Barry Humphries ('Envy') and Raquel Welch ('Lust'). Moore composed the soundtrack music and co-wrote (with Cook) the songs performed in the film, and his jazz trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivered in a monotonous, deadpan voice, and included his put-down, "You fill me with inertia."


In 1970, Cook took over a project initiated by David Frost for a satirical film about an opinion pollster who rises to become President of Great Britain. Under Cook's guidance, the character became modelled on Frost. The film, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, was not a success, although the cast contained notable names.

Cook became a favourite of chat shows but his own effort at hosting one in 1971, Where Do I Sit?, was said by the critics to have been a disappointment. He was replaced after two episodes by Michael Parkinson, the start of Parkinson's career as a chat show host. Parkinson later asked Cook what his ambitions were. Cook replied "[...] in fact, my ambition is to shut you up altogether."

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. Towards the end of the 1960s, Cook's alcoholism placed a strain on personal and professional relationships. He and Moore fashioned sketches from Not Only....But Also and Goodbye Again with new material into the stage revue Behind the Fridge. This toured Australia in 1972 before transferring to New York in 1973 as Good Evening. Cook frequently appeared worse for drink. Good Evening won Tony and Grammy Awards. When it finished, Moore stayed in the U.S., ending his partnership with Cook. Cook returned to England and in 1973 he married the actress and model Judy Huxtable.

Later, the more risqué humour of Pete and Dud went further on long-playing records as "Derek and Clive". The first recording was initiated by Cook to alleviate boredom during the Broadway run of Good Evening, and it used material conceived years before for the two characters but considered too outrageous. One of these audio recordings was also filmed, and tensions between the duo are seen to rise. Chris Blackwell circulated bootleg copies to friends. The popularity of the recording convinced Cook to release it commercially, although Moore was reluctant, fearing that his fame as a Hollywood star would be undermined. Two further Derek and Clive albums were released, the last accompanied by a film.

In 1978, Cook appeared on British music series Revolver as the manager of a ballroom where emerging punk and new wave acts played. For some groups, these were their first appearances on television. Cook's acerbic commentary was an aspect of the programme.

In 1979, Cook recorded comedy-segments as B-sides to the Sparks 12-inch singles "Number One In Heaven" and "Tryouts For The Human Race". The main songwriter Ron Mael often started off a banal situation in his lyrics, and then went at surreal tangents in the style of Cook and S.J. Perelman.

Amnesty International performances

Cook appeared at the first three fund-raising galas staged by humourists John Cleese and Martin Lewis on behalf of Amnesty International. The benefits were dubbed The Secret Policeman's Balls though it wasn't until the third show in 1979 that the title was used. He performed on all three nights of the first show in April 1976, A Poke in the Eye (with a Sharp Stick), as an individual performer and as a member of the cast of Beyond The Fringe, which reunited for the first time since the 1960s. He also appeared in a Monty Python sketch, taking the place of Eric Idle. Cook was on the cast album of the show and in the film, Pleasure At Her Majesty's. He was in the second Amnesty gala in May 1977, An Evening Without Sir Bernard Miles. It was retitled The Mermaid Frolics for the cast album and TV special. Cook performed monologues and skits with Terry Jones.

In June 1979, Cook performed all four nights of The Secret Policeman's Ball – teaming with John Cleese. Cook performed a couple of solo pieces and a sketch with Eleanor Bron. He also led the ensemble in the finale – the "End Of The World" sketch from Beyond The Fringe.

In response to a barb in The Daily Telegraph that the show was recycled material, Cook wrote a satire of the summing-up by Mr Justice Cantley in the trial of former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe – a summary condemned for alleged bias in favour of Thorpe. Cook performed it that same night (Friday 29 June – the third of the four nights) and the following night. The nine-minute opus, "Entirely a Matter for You," is considered by many fans and critics to be one of the finest works of Cook's career. Cook and show producer Martin Lewis brought out an album on Virgin Records entitled Here Comes the Judge: Live of the live performance together with three studio tracks that further lampooned the Thorpe trial.[6][7]

Although unable to take part in the 1981 gala, Cook supplied the narration over the animated opening title sequence of the 1982 film of the show. With Lewis, he wrote and voiced radio commercials to advertise the film in the UK. He also hosted a spoof film awards ceremony that was part of the world première of the film in London in March 1982.

Following Cook's 1987 stage reunion with Moore for the annual U.S. benefit for the homeless, Comic Relief (not related to the UK Comic Relief benefits), Cook repeated the reunion for a British audience by performing with Moore at the 1989 Amnesty benefit The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball.

Consequences album

Cook played multiple roles on the 1977 concept album Consequences, written and produced by former 10cc members Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. A mixture of spoken comedy and progressive rock with an environmental subtext, Consequences started as a single that Godley and Creme planned to make to demonstrate their invention, an electric guitar effect called The Gizmo, which they developed in 10cc. The project grew into a triple LP boxed set. The comedy sections were originally intended to be performed by a cast including Spike Milligan and Peter Ustinov, but Godley and Creme eventually settled on Cook once they realised he could perform most parts himself.

The storyline centres on the impending divorce of ineffectual Englishman Walter Stapleton (Cook) and his French wife Lulu (Judy Huxtable). While meeting their lawyers – the bibulous Mr Haig and overbearing Mr Pepperman (both played by Cook) – the encroaching global catastrophe interrupts proceedings with bizarre and mysterious happenings, which seem to centre on Mr Blint (Cook), a musician and composer living in the apartment below Haig's office, to which it is connected by a large hole in the floor.

Although it has since developed a cult following, Consequences was released as punk was sweeping the UK, and it was a resounding commercial failure, which was savaged by critics. The script and story have evident connections to Cook's own life – his then (second) wife Judy Huxtable, plays Walter's wife. Cook's struggles with alcohol are mirrored in Haig's drinking, and there is a parallel between the fictional divorce of Walter and Lulu and Cook's own divorce from his first wife. The voice and accent Cook used for the character of Stapleton are similar to Cook's Beyond the Fringe colleague, Alan Bennett, and a book on Cook's comedy, How Very Interesting, speculates that the characters Cook plays in Consequences are caricatures of the four Beyond The Fringe cast members – the alcoholic Haig represents Cook, the tremulous Stapleton is Bennett, the parodically Jewish Pepperman is Miller, and the pianist Blint represents Moore.[8]


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 U.S. 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 spoof "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. The show has never been repeated.

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 went on to win the "Special Prize of the City of Montreux" at the Montreux Comedy Festival in 1985.[9] In 1986 he was sidekick to 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. Cook appeared in The Princess Bride that year as the "Impressive Clergyman". 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 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.


In late 1989 Cook married the Malaysian-born property developer Chiew Lin Chong in Torbay, Devon. He reduced his drinking and for a time was teetotal. He lived alone in an 18th-century house in Perrins Lane, Hampstead once owned by H.G. Wells. His third wife lived in another house 100 yards away.

Cook returned as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling for an appearance with Ludovic Kennedy in A Life in Pieces. The 12 interviews saw Sir Arthur recount his life based on the Twelve Days of Christmas. Unscripted interviews with Cook as Streeb-Greebling and satirist Chris Morris were recorded in late 1993 and broadcast as Why Bother on BBC Radio 3, a year before Cook's death. Morris described them:[10]

It was a very different style of improvisation from what I'd been used to, working with people like Steve Coogan, Doon Mackichan and Rebecca Front, because those On the Hour and The Day Today things were about trying to establish a character within a situation, and Peter Cook was really doing 'knight's move' and 'double knight's move' thinking to construct jokes or ridiculous scenes flipping back on themselves, and it was amazing. I mean, I held out no great hopes that he wouldn't be a boozy old sack of lard with his hair falling out and scarcely able to get a sentence out, because he hadn't given much evidence that that wouldn't be the case. But, in fact, he 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.

On 17 December 1993, Cook appeared on Clive Anderson Talks Back as four characters – biscuit tester and alien abductee Norman House, football manager and motivational speaker Alan Latchley, judge Sir James Beauchamp and rock legend Eric Daley. The following day he appeared on BBC2 performing links for Arena's "Radio Night". He also appeared, on 26 December, in the 1993 Christmas special of One Foot in the Grave (One Foot in the Algarve), playing a muckraking tabloid journalist. Before the end of the next year his mother died, and Cook returned to heavy drinking. His own death, three months later at 57, was from internal haemorrhaging.


Cook died on 9 January 1995, 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. He was 57. Days earlier he had been taken in and announced, "I feel a bit poorly." Moore attended Cook's memorial service in London in May 1995 and he and Lewis presented a two-night memorial for Cook in Los Angeles the following November, to mark Cook's birthday.


Cook is acknowledged as the main influence on comedians who followed him from amateur dramatic clubs of British universities to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and then to the radio and television. Fans include the members of Monty Python and The Goodies. Some critics saw Cook's life as tragic, the brilliance of youth not sustained in later years. Cook said he had no ambitions for sustained success. He assessed happiness by the friendships and enjoyment of life. Eric Idle and Stephen Fry[11] said Cook had not wasted his talent but rather that the newspapers had tried to waste him.

Several friends honoured him with a dedication in the closing credits of Fierce Creatures, a 1997 comedy film written by John Cleese about a zoo in peril of being closed. It starred Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin. The dedication displays photos and the lifespan dates of Peter Cook and of British naturalist/humorist Gerald Durrell.[12]

In 1999 the minor planet 20468 Petercook, in the main asteroid belt, was named after him.[13]

Ten years after his death, Cook was ranked number one in The Comedian's Comedian, a poll of 300 comics, comedy writers, producers and directors throughout the English speaking world.[14] Channel 4 broadcast Not Only But Always, a television movie dramatising the relationship between Cook and Moore, with Rhys Ifans portraying Cook. At the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe a play, written by Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde, examined the relationship from Moore's view, Pete and Dud: Come Again. Tom Goodman-Hill played Cook.

At the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Goodbye – the (after)life of Cook & Moore by Jonathan Hansler and Clive Greenwood was presented at the Gilded Balloon. The play imagined the newly dead Moore meeting the Cook in Limbo, also inhabited by other comic actors with whom they had worked, including Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, and Kenneth Williams. In May 2009 the play was seen again in London's West End at The Leicester Square Theatre (formerly "The Venue" and home to Pete and Dud: Come Again) with Jonathan Hansler as Cook, Adam Bampton Smith as Moore, and Clive Greenwood as everyone else.

A green plaque was unveiled by Westminster City Council and The Heritage Foundation at the site of The Establishment Club on 15 February 2009.[15]

Further reading

  • Harry Thompson (1998). Biography of Peter Cook. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-64969-0. 
  • Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (2003). Dud and Pete: The Dagenham Dialogues. Methuen. ISBN 978-0-413-77347-0. 
  • Robert Hewison (1983). Footlights!: A Hundred Years of Cambridge Comedy. Methuen London Ltd. ISBN 0-413-51150-2. 
  • Roger Wilmut (1980). From Fringe to Flying Circus: Celebrating a Unique Generation of Comedy 1960–1980. Eyre Methuen Ltd. ISBN 0-413-46950-6. 
  • Peter Cook Appreciation Society (2006). How Very Interesting!: Peter Cook's Universe And All That Surrounds It. Snowbooks. ISBN 1-905005-23-7. 
  • Alexander Games (1999). Pete & Dud: An Illustrated Biography. Andre Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-99642-7. 
  • Wendy Cook (2006). So Farewell Then: The Biography of Peter Cook. HarperCollins Entertainment. ISBN 0-00-722893-7. 
  • Lin Cook (2003). Something Like Fire: Peter Cook Remembered. Arrow Books. ISBN 0-09-946035-1. 
  • Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde (2006). Pete and Dud: Come Again. Methuen Drama. ISBN 0-413-77602-6. 
  • William Cook (2003). Tragically I was an only twin: the complete Peter Cook. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-31891-X ISBN 0-09-944325-2. 
  • Judy Cook with Angela Levin (2008). Loving Peter: My Life with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Piatkus. ISBN 9780749909666. 



  • Pleasure at Her Majesty's (1976)
  • The Mermaid Frolics (1977)
  • The Secret Policeman's Ball
  • The Secret Policeman's Private Parts (1981)
  • The Best of Amnesty: Featuring the Stars of Monty Python (1999)

UK chart singles:-

  • "The Ballad Of Spotty Muldoon" (1965)
  • "Goodbye-ee" (1965) with Dudley Moore

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Adrian Slade
Footlights President
Succeeded by
Peter Bellwood


  1. ^ Tragically I Was an Only Twin – The Complete Peter Cook – Front Cover
  2. ^ "About us « Keynes Society". Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  3. ^ I Didn't Get Where I am Today by David Nobbs 9780099421641
  4. ^ Cook as Macmillan: "...there's nothing I like better than to wander over to a theatre and sit there listening to a group of sappy, urgent, vibrant young satirists with a stupid great grin spread all over my silly face" – Tragically I Was an Only Twin p.51
  5. ^ Tom Lehrer interview
  6. ^ "Peter Cook". Retrieved 25 July 2009. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Peter Gordon, Dan Kieran Paul Hamilton (eds) – How Very Interesting: Peter Cook's Universe And All That Surrounds It (Matrix Media Services, 2006)
  9. ^ "Diplomatix at IMDB". Retrieved 29 May 2010. 
  10. ^ "The Establishment – The Spiggott – Chris Morris Interview". Retrieved 25 July 2009. 
  11. ^ "Stephen Fry attacks media coverage of Peter Cook's death". YouTube. 23 August 2008. Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  12. ^ 'Fierce Creatures' (1997).
  13. ^ Alan Chamberlin. "Minor planet "20468 Petercook" at NASA website". Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  14. ^ a poll "Peter Cook the funniest". The Age (Australia). 3 January 2005. a poll. 
  15. ^ "Peter Cook Blue Plaque Unveiling". The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 27 March 2009. 

External links

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