It is 35 years, almost to the day, that I first set eyes on Peter, at lunch in a restaurant, I think on Goodge Street, with Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, the meeting arranged by John Bassett, whose idea it was that we should all work together writing the review that turned into Beyond the Fringe.
Having already written while still an undergraduate a large slice of the two West End shows Pieces of Eight and One Over the Eight, Peter was quite prosperous and it showed. He dressed out of Sportique, an establishment – gents’ outfitters wouldn’t really describe it – at the west end of Old Compton Street, the premises I think now occupied by the Café Espana.
There hadn’t really been any men’s fashions before 1960; most of the people I knew dressed in sports coat and flannels, as some of us still do; but when I first saw Peter he was wearing a shortie overcoat, a not quite bum-freezer jacket, narrow trousers, winkle-picker shoes and a silk tie with horizontal bars across it. But what was most characteristic of him, and which remained constant throughout his life, regardless of the sometimes quite dramatic changes in his physical appearance, was that he was carrying, as he always seemed to be carrying, a large armful of newspapers. He had besides a book on racing form and I remember being impressed not merely that this was someone who bet on horses but here was someone who knew how to bet on horses, and indeed had an account at a bookmakers.
But it was the newspapers that were the clue to him. He was nurtured by newspapers and there’s a sense that whatever he wrote or extemporised, which he could at that time with a fluency so effortless as to make us all feel in differing degrees costive, was a kind of mould or fungus that grew out of the literally yards of newsprint that he daily digested. Newspapers mulched his talents and he remained loyal to them all his life, and when he died they repaid some of that loyalty.
In those days I never saw him reading a book. I think he thought that most books were a con or at any rate a waste of time. He caught the drift of books though, sufficient for his own purposes, namely jokes, picking up enough about Proust, for instance, to know that he suffered from asthma and couldn’t breathe very well; he decided in the finish, according to Peter, that if he couldn’t do it well he wouldn’t do it at all, and so died – this one of the gems from the monologue in Beyond the Fringe about the miner who wanted to be a judge but didn’t have the Latin. How Proust had managed to work his way into the sketch I can’t now remember because it was less of a sketch than a continuing saga which each night developed new extravagances and surrealist turns, the mine at one point invaded by droves of Proust-lovers, headed by the scantily-clad Beryl Jarvis. Why the name Beryl Jarvis should be funny I can’t think. But it was and plainly is.
In those days Peter could tap a flow of mad verbal inventiveness that nothing could stem: not nerves, not drink, not embarrassment, not even the very occasional lack of response from the audience. He would sit there in his old raincoat and brown trilby, rocking slightly as he wove his ever more exuberant fantasies, on which, I have to admit, I looked less admiringly then than I do in retrospect. I had the spot in the show immediately following Peter’s monologue, which was scheduled to last five minutes or so but would often last for fifteen, when I would be handed an audience so weak from laughter I could do nothing with them.
Slim and elegant in those days he was also quite vain, sensing instinctively as soon as he came into a room where the mirror was and casting pensive sidelong glances at it while stroking his chin, as if checking up on his own beauty. He also knew which was his best side for photographers.
There were limits to his talents; one or two things he thought he could do well he actually couldn’t do for toffee; one was an imitation of Elvis and another was to ad lib Shakespeare. Both were deeply embarrassing though of course Peter was immune to embarrassment; that was one of his great strengths.
What makes speaking about him a delicate task is that he was intolerant of humbug: detecting it (and quite often mistakenly), he would fly into a huge self-fuelling rage which propelled him into yet more fantasy and even funnier jokes. So it’s hard to praise him to his face, even his dead face, that quizzical smile never very far away, making a mockery of the sincerest sentiments. So he would be surprised, I think, to be praised for his strength of character, but in his later years when some of his talent for exuberant invention deserted him I never heard him complain. It must have been some consolation that the younger generation of comic writers and performers drew inspiration from him but he never bragged about that either. Nor did he resent that Dudley had gone on to success in Hollywood and he hadn’t. The only regret he regularly voiced was that at the house we rented in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1963 he had saved David Frost from drowning.
In later years I saw him quite seldom, though if he’d seen something you’d done on television he’d generally telephone, ostensibly to congratulate you but actually to congratulate you on having got away with it yet again.
There’s a scene in Brideshead Revisited where Charles Ryder has an exhibition of his worthy but uninspired paintings which is a great success. Then Anthony Blanche turns up, who knows exactly what’s what: ‘My dear,’ he says, ‘let us not expose your little imposture before these good, plain people; let us not spoil their moment of pleasure. But we know, you and I, that this is all t-terrible t-tripe.’ And sometimes what Peter was telephoning about had been tripe and sometimes it hadn’t, but you didn’t mind because there’s always a bit of you thinks it is anyway and it was to that part of you that Peter spoke. And since he did it without rancour or envy it was a great relief. I suppose it was partly this that made him in his latter days such an unlikely father figure for younger performers.
In the press coverage of his death one could detect a certain satisfaction, the feeling being that he had paid some sort of price for his gifts, had died in the way the press prefer funny men to die, like Hancock and Peter Sellers, sad and disappointed. I don’t know that that was true and it certainly wouldn’t have found much favour with Peter. Trying to sum him up in his latter years, the television in the afternoon, the chat shows, the golf in Hong Kong, one thinks of one of the stock characters in an old-fashioned Western, Thomas Mitchell, say in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the doctor who’s always to be found in the saloon and whose allegiance is never quite plain. Seldom sober, he is cleverer than most of the people he associates with, spending his time playing cards with the baddies but taking no sides. Still when the chips are down, and slightly to his own surprise, he does the right thing. But there is never any suggestion that, having risen to the occasion, he is going to mend his ways in any permanent fashion. He goes on much as ever down the path to self-destruction, knowing that redemption is not for him – and it is this that redeems him.
As for us, his audience, we are comforted by the assurance that there is a truer morality than the demands of convention, that this is a figure from the parables, a publican, a sinner but never a Pharisee. In him morality is discovered far from its official haunts, the message of a character like Peter’s being that a life of complete self-indulgence, if led with the whole heart, may also bring wisdom.
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