Half Bird, Half Fish, Half Unicorn

Paul Foot

  • Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson
    Hodder, 516 pp, £18.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 340 64968 2

I was a friend and devoted admirer of Peter Cook for thirty years but I never realised until I read this book how much our early lives had overlapped. We were born in the same week into the same sort of family. His father, like mine, was a colonial servant rushing round the world hauling down the Imperial flag. At one stage both fathers were ensnared in the argument about the most appropriate capital for the West Indies Federation: an argument as vexed as it was futile since the Federation lasted only a few months. Both fathers shipped their eldest sons back to public school education in England. He was bullied and then promoted to high office at Radley, I at Shrewsbury. We both had sisters called Sarah who were sent to school in Dorset. We both spent our school holidays with popular aunts and uncles in the West Country, where we were both fired with a passion for hopeless football teams: he for Torquay United, I for Plymouth Argyle. We both, even, had abdominal operations in 1948. In 1956, or thereabouts, the similarities dissolved. He brilliantly avoided National Service and went early to university, where he quickly established himself as a comic genius.

Harry Thompson has written a serious and carefully researched biography, and his early pages can be read in perfect silence. Suddenly, however, as it reaches the early Sixties, the narrative is interspersed with indented passages of Peter Cook’s jokes. They creep up on you quite unheralded and jerk the laughter out of you before you can take precautions. And anyway what precautions can you take? If you try to suppress outright laughter, the result is even more embarrassing: a sustained, stifled and wheezy snorting. Nor is it any use putting the book down and trying to compose yourself. The jokes come back at you, fresh in the memory, irrepressible. If you manage to pull yourself together and start reading again, here come those indented passages once more and the sniffling and giggling start all over again.

Peter Cook’s obsession with the absurd was not, as some pretend, unrelated to the real world. On the contrary, he was fascinated by the real world, especially by the media. Wherever he went, he carried and absorbed huge bundles of newspapers. He saw how the newspapers construct a language which disguises rather than describes what goes on. His way of mocking this obfuscatory language took many forms. The simplest was to get words deliberately wrong, and allow the commentary to continue none the less. Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling was usually the fall-guy:

INTERVIEWER: Sir Arthur, where did you strat your work?

SIR ARTHUR: I think it can be said of me that I have never ever stratted my work. This is one thing I have never done. I can lay my hand on my heart, or indeed anyone else’s heart, and say: ‘I have never stratted my work, never stratted at all.’ I think what you probably wanted to know is where I started my work. You’ve completely misread the question.

Another method was killing clichés. Peter could smother a cliché so ruthlessly that if there were any justice it should have been banned for ever from public use.

PETE: Do you know, at this very moment, Her Majesty is probably exercising the royal prerogative.

DUD: What’s that then, Pete?

PETE: Don’t you know the royal prerogative? It’s a wonderful animal, Dud. It’s a legendary beast, half bird, half fish, half unicorn, and it’s being exercised at this very moment.

Will anyone be able to read out loud the New Testament story of the shepherds watching their flocks by night without running the risk of recalling, in mid-reading, Dudley Moore’s interview with Peter as Arthur Shepherd in Behind the Fridge:

SHEPHERD: Er, basically, what happened was that me and the lads were abiding in the fields.

REPORTER (writing): Abiding in the fields, yes.

SHEPHERD: Yes. Mind you, I can’t abide these fields.

My favourite is the Beyond the Fringe interview with Sir Arthur on the subject of the Great Train Robbery.

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