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.

INTERVIEWER: So you feel that thieves are responsible?

SIR ARTHUR: Good heavens, no. I feel that thieves are totally irresponsible – ghastly people who go around snatching your money.

INTERVIEWER: I appreciate that, Sir Arthur.

SIR ARTHUR: You may appreciate that but most people don’t. If you like your money being snatched, you must be rather an odd fish I think.

Harry Thompson takes up a lot of space discussing Peter’s politics. He was claimed (ludicrously) by the Liberal Party, and at different times in his life hinted that he voted both Labour and Tory. This misses the point. Alan Bennett says he had little faith that Peter’s drink problem would be solved at Alcoholics Anonymous – Peter’s sense of the ridiculous would be bound to overcome him at the meetings. Similarly, he could never have joined, or with any consistency supported, a political party without quickly being disgusted by its humbug or convulsed by its absurdity. Jonathan Miller was surely wrong when he said to Thompson: ‘The idea that Peter had an anarchic, subversive view of society is complete nonsense. He was the most upstanding, traditional upholder of everything English and everything Establishment.’ My own experience suggests otherwise. Long before I met him, Peter was intrigued and outraged at the hanging of James Hanratty for the 1961 A6 murder. When I took the case up in the late Sixties he bombarded me with questions and offers of support. Sometime in 1978 I asked him if he would give away the prizes and draw the raffle at an Anti-Nazi League fête in North London. He was keen to do so, spent the whole afternoon at the fête, joined in the six-a-side football (he was terrifyingly furious with me for missing a penalty) and when I thanked him, he said he should be thanking me. ‘It’s not often I do something worthwhile,’ he muttered before making a joke and leaping out of the car. He was enraged when the cast of That Was the Week That Was broadcast a sickeningly sycophantic tribute to the assassinated President Kennedy. There was no part of public life, he insisted, which was free of humbug and therefore immune to mockery. Peter’s own statements to journalists must always be treated with caution. He could rarely resist satirising himself or his interviewer, and convinced at least one fawning reporter that he had been a professional wrestler for the county of Devon. A snatch from a 1962 interview in the Sunday Pictorial has what he would have called the ring of truth: ‘People at the top make out that they know everything. What pompous rubbish … the government and the Establishment dismiss the population with a combination of arrogance and disdain. My main aim is to try to get the public treated like rational human beings.’

On page 287, just over halfway through his book, Thompson announces that in 1971, Peter, then aged 33, had ‘completed the last truly substantial work he would ever write’. Far too much space is then devoted to his disintegration in drink and drugs, to his awful films and sad attempts to revive past successes. His first wife Wendy is quoted as saying he was ‘terrified of being drunk, because he was scared to lose control’. For much of the last 25 years of his life he was drunk or doped or obsessed with gambling. He duly lost control, and as a result became what he had always dreaded becoming – a bore. For those of us who were on his list for midnight phone calls or, worse, visits (once when he came to see me at around midnight, he brought with him not only his own bottle of vodka but also a couple of glasses to drink it out of), these pages have nothing but sad memories. For others they distort the picture. Peter was not, as he feared, a one-theme comedian, inevitably stuck to the Pete and Dud format. Even in those later years, when he shrugged off the effects of the booze, he showed flashes of genius which carried him far over the peaks of Not Only But Also. His satire on the judge’s summing up in the Thorpe trial, for instance, is a glorious demolition of judicial claims to impartiality:

We have heard for example from Mr Rex Bissell, a man who by his own admission is a liar, a humbug, a hypocrite, a vagabond, a loathsome spotted reptile and a self-confessed chicken strangler. You may choose if you wish to believe the transparent tissue of odious lies which streamed on from his disgusting, reedy, slavering lips. That is entirely a matter for you. We have been forced to listen to the whinings of Mr Norman St John Scott, a scrounger, a parasite, a pervert, a worm, a self-confessed player of the pink oboe, a man who by his own confession chews pillows … You may now retire, as indeed should I, carefully to consider your verdict of Not Guilty.

When, eight years later, Mr Justice Caulfield summed up with legendary imbecility in the libel case brought by Jeffrey Archer against the Daily Star, Peter told me, earnestly but with his eyes twinkling, that his Thorpe satire had now become a standard judicial text which judges could only ignore ‘on pain of instant execution’.

Like many comic geniuses, Peter succumbed to the high life provided by his early success. This book would have been better if it had ended at page 287 and not toiled on, with hardly a giggle, through ‘deep and terrifying emptiness’ for another 200 pages. There is, thankfully, a better monument to Peter Cook than any biography: the fortnightly magazine, Private Eye. Peter was drawn to the Eye after the first few issues, in 1962, when Beyond the Fringe was taking London by storm. He had set up the Establishment Club in Soho, which he hoped would become a centre for the artists and jokesmiths of ‘swinging London’. He had always wanted his own magazine and sought out the Eye’s founders – Christopher Booker, Richard Ingrams and Andrew Osmond – and bought the magazine from Osmond for £1500. This was a substantial, though not an enormous investment. Within a year or so, he moved the Eye offices into the Establishment Club and then next door. At that time, the Eye consisted entirely of jokes (some satirical, some not), and Peter joined enthusiastically in the collective in which the Eye’s jokes have always been – and still are – written. The writing team sit round in a group, work out an idea for a piece and write it there and then with everyone throwing in suggestions. Usually, the idea that gets the loudest laugh gets written down and embellished until the article emerges. (‘Here Comes the Judge’, the lampoon about the judge in the Thorpe case, was written in this way, and not by Peter alone.) Peter’s jokes enriched the Eye, but were not essential to it. Indeed, at the time of the Profumo crisis in 1963, when the Eye sales quadrupled, Peter was in the United States. He returned in time to take part in a priceless Eye Christmas record just after the 1964 election campaign. (‘When Jesus was alive, a million years ago, he voted Conservative, and Jesus ought to know.’) With the resolution of the Profumo affair and the election of a Labour government, sales plummeted. Although circulation never fell below 20,000, for a time it looked as though the magazine would sink. Peter scurried round friends and admirers in the literary and theatrical worlds (Dirk Bogarde, Jane Asher, Lord Faringdon and others) and drummed up another crucial few hundred pounds for the Eye. These people then became ‘shareholders’, though most of them never claimed a dividend.

An important influence on Peter was the investigative journalist Claud Cockburn. Cockburn saw that in the Eye he might be able to repeat what he had done so brilliantly in his Thirties periodical, the Week – that is, publish the unpalatable information other papers wouldn’t touch. Even though the Eye was mainly jokes, it attracted people with unusual stories to tell and Peter was enormously impressed by Claud’s patience in listening to them. When Claud eventually published the story of a man who had died in mysterious circumstances in police custody, Peter at once assumed that such stories grew on trees and insisted that the back page of the magazine should be devoted to them. When Richard Ingrams was on holiday, he edited an issue in which he named the ‘two associates’ of the Tory peer Lord Boothby to whom the gutless press had referred again and again, while keeping them safely anonymous. They were Reginald and Ronald Kray. The mixture of jokes, gossip and information on which the Eye has thrived for so long owed a lot to Peter’s admiration for Claud and his contempt for official secrecy.

As the hopes invested in the Labour Government began to fade, so the Eye started to put on circulation. By the end of 1965, it was paying for itself again, and has done ever since. For the next thirty years, Peter’s real contribution was the part he played as non-interfering proprietor. He realised that the Eye owed its success chiefly to Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, and that that success depended on the editor’s independence. So although Peter helped with the jokes and left a series of phrases and ideas which still light up the Eye, he never at any stage asked to control anything. Indeed, until he desperately needed money for a divorce in the late Eighties, he never sought a penny from the Eye. I worked full-time for the magazine from 1967 until 1972, rejoined it briefly in 1978-79 and again, so far permanently, in 1993. My job was, Cockburn-like, to seek out and publish awkward material which might not reach the rest of the media. Peter supported this project with passionate enthusiasm. More important, he never promoted or discouraged a line of inquiry. I used to joke with him that he was what I had always assumed was impossible, the perfect proprietor, rushing to the assistance of the Eye whenever it was in trouble, but leaving it entirely in the control of the people who produced it. It was no doubt this passion for editorial freedom which persuaded him, when he made his will, to divide his majority shareholding three ways so that no single person would have a majority.

The glorious notoriety of the Eye flows directly from that independence. Its freedom from political or commercial controllers allows it a freedom of speech that is not apparent anywhere else in the national press. I am always asking my informants why they have brought their information to Private Eye. The answer is always the same – ‘who else would publish it?’ After the recent death of the Princess of Wales, the entire press, especially the liberal press, seemed to take leave of its senses. All proportion was lost in an outpouring of devotion to a young woman who was famous only because she had married a prince, and who had been a victim of the most relentless media prurience. While liberal columnists and broadcasters pontificated about the Princess in some way representing ‘liberal values’, nothing but the most abject obeisance and adoration was tolerated. The Eye went to press on the day after the Princess’s death. It highlighted the public’s voracious appetite for gossip and its readiness to blame the media for carrying it. At the same time it exposed the media for its capacity to overlook its own hounding of the Princess. Liberal values were immediately brought to bear. Two big retail chains banned the Eye outright. Elsewhere, the decision was left to individual store managers, hundreds of whom took the magazine off the shelves. The Eye lost thousands of copies thanks to this censorship. But the commercial loss was as nothing compared to the joy in the Eye offices caused by the flood of letters, faxes and e-mails from Eye readers. By 14 to 1 the messages supported the magazine’s stand. ‘What a relief to discover that there was at least someone else who thought as we did!’ was what most of them said. The grief fascism was such that even the Guardian and the Observer didn’t represent the large minority who were appalled at the hysteria. The Eye’s independence, and its instinct to scoff at panjandrums of every description, is Peter Cook’s finest legacy.