The man from The Establishment: a tribute to Peter Cook

Born on 17 November 1937, Peter Edward Cook was one of the brightest lights in British satirical comedy in the 1960s. Born in Torquay and educated at Radley College and Cambridge University, the young Cook was set for diplomatic service but during his undergraduate studies he discovered a flair for both writing and performing skits, and so eventually followed the lights of showbusiness.

His club The Establishment, which opened in 1961, showcased many comedians from other countries, such as the USA’s Lenny Bruce and Australia’s Barry Humphries (perhaps best known now as Dame Edna Everage). He also provided financial backing for the magazine Private Eye, which remains Britain’s best-selling news and current affairs magazine, again with a satirical slant.

By the middle of the 1960s, Cook had started a partnership with Dudley Moore which led to a number of television, film and other projects including ‘Not Only … But Also’, ‘Goodbye Again’, ‘Bedazzled’, and ‘Derek and Clive’. These projects allowed both Cook and Moore to venture into music – Moore with his jazz band, and Cook with his single ‘Spotty Muldoon’. However this partnership came to an end once Moore found some success on screen in Hollywood in projects such as the film ’10’. In many ways it was curious that the diminutive Moore found success in leading roles – he was by far the most talented of the two when it came to music but Cook was very much the pin-up of the moment and looked far more of a Hollywood lead during his twenties.

It seems clear that Cook’s alcoholism and rocky personal life (divorce from Wendy Snowden and subsequent marriage to actress Judy Huxtable) affected his career which went in odd directions during the 1970s, with appearances on punk programme ‘Revolver’ and a couple of brilliant, but uneven, performances for the ‘Secret Policeman’s Ball’ stage franchise in support of Amnesty International. A 1970 film in which he starred, ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’, showed flashes of brilliance but was a failure at the box office.

By the 1980s, following an abortive and unsuccessful TV series in the USA, ‘The Two of Us’, Cook’s star had begun to rise again as he was acknowledged as a comedy leader by his younger followers – an appearance in ‘The Black Adder’ as King Richard III was inspired, as was the eponymous role in the Comic Strip’ ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door’, a black comedy about a serial killer.

Settled in a happy third marriage to Lin Chong at the end of the 1980s, the 1990s saw a further resurgence in the career of Peter Cook – performing as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling for radio, and portraying a range of characters in a special edition of ‘Clive Anderson Talks Back’. Sadly, it was the final hurrah, as death came to the funnyman on the 9 January 1995, at the age of just 57.

Peter Cook was the golden boy of 1960s British comedy, and eventually came to be regarded as a high point of satirical wit to aim at. His television programmes and films are timeless, and there is still a lot of fun in watching the Devil, George Spiggott, proclaiming the magic words “Julie Andrews” while sending Stanley Moon on a never-ending quest to win his ideal girl.