- Paperback: 528 pages
- Publisher: Sceptre; New edition edition (June 4, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0340649690
- ISBN-13: 978-0340649695
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 7.8 x 1.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,782,689 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Biography of Peter Cook Paperback – June 4, 1998
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About the Author
Harry Thompson has worked in radio and TV including as producer of Radio 4's News Quiz and as the first producer of Have I Got News For You. Now works for the independent production company, Talkback.
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Top Customer Reviews
The biography itself is the best that can be hoped for - despite a lack of support from Cook's last wife, Harry Thompson interviews almost everybody who knew him, and the book covers everything he did up to and including 'Why Bother?', with Chris Morris. At the end of the book you'll want to go out and buy the complete 'Beyond the Fringe' recordings, and a higher compliment cannot be paid.
What a long way it is from Peter Cook's grandfather, a railway official in Kuala Lumpur who shot himself under the stress of a big promotion, and his father - a "sea-green incorruptible" colonial administrator - to the party he threw at the Cobden Working Men's Club in 1993, where the Rolling Stones rubbed shoulders with the Monty Python crew, two England cricket captains, Julian Clary and a mass of other celebrities. So tight was the scrum that Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller never managed to greet their host at all.
Like a stock market boom/bust cycle, the ups and downs of Cook's career were hugely amplified by the dictates of fashion. He was lucky enough to catch the early 1960s satire wave, and quickly became so sought-after that President Kennedy and his wife actually had to go and meet him, after he declined an invitation to the White House. Other than becoming global dictator, there was hardly anywhere to go after that but down - and Cook's perfectionism and lack of ambition conspired to make the descent almost as fast as the rise.
Cook's attitude to alcohol may have been at the root of his downfall. He simply wasn't prepared to give it up, and - like many people to whom money is no object - found himself drinking more and more. He even turned up for shows hardly able to stand, although he redeemed himself by recovering miraculously when the curtain went up. Like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who had a similar problem with heroin, Cook showed a curious fatalism about the habit that he knew very well was killing him and driving away the people who meant most to him. Also like Garcia, he managed to kick it in his final years, when his health had already been ruined.
Like all great biographies, this book involves us in the tragedy of success that contains the seeds of its own destruction. It is also the story of a tremendously talented and likeable man.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were a team. As such they needed to fit together like two puzzle pieces, complementing and filling in where the other was lacking, or different. This has been the model forever. You can see it Laurel and Hardy, the Smothers Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Rowan and Martin - but for Cook and Moore, that's not enough. We are treated to endless pages of criticism of Peter Cook for being the dominant character, while Dudley Moore was the submissive. But that's the essence of comic teams. If it weren't so, it would never have worked so well. The problem, if there was one, was that the characters they played onstage were who they really were in life, unlike most other teams, who were just playing roles. But Thompson doesn't see that. In fact, when Dudley began to assert himself, the quality of their work plummeted. He stepped out of his caricature, and the public yawned, which Thompson finally acknowledges on page 273, after dragging us around for a good hundred pages for nothing. (But he's in good company. The post mortems were all over the place.)
What I see in this biography that does not get stated as such is that Peter Cook was a shark. He had to keep moving. He had to keep conquering new media all the time - or wither and die. So he went from class clown to student actor, to sketch writer to playwright to Fringe professional to West End star, to Broadway star, to television star, to film star and even nightclub owner. Not to mention recording artist and Top 40 hit maker. And magazine publisher. And talkshow guest. And he succeeded immediately and easily each time, which made him into an entertainment monster. Peter Cook WAS Carnaby Street/Swinging London in the 60s. His invitation was the most sought after. He surrounded himself with the who's who of western culture, from sports celebrities to the Beatles. His (twice weekly!) parties were legendary. (Frequent guest John Lennon said he wrote Lucy in the Sky for the Cooks' daughter Lucy.) He was the Oscar Wilde of the 20th century, a celebrity wit if ever there was one. He was always ON, and people hung by his words - and his delivery of them.
Simple hubris took over, and Cook failed as host in a tv talk show format he refused to do any prep for. He was after all, a natural. He could do anything, anywhere, any time, and be successful for a while. But it all came crashing down around him, and by his early thirties, he was no longer the center of the attention that made him. The rest - 200 more pages - is a pitiful descent into obscurity. The simple truth is alcohol and drugs and chemicals occupied critical parts of his brain which in earlier years were used for lightning quick tangents and flights of fancy. That he used these compounds to kickstart the mechanism is not so much ironic as typical. They dulled his responses just as they do with everyone else, and the energy quickly faded. His creative output became shorter, more superficial, and less significant. He simply could not compete with his former self, having handicapped himself with drugs.
Instead, he turned down offers left and right, year after year, and complained continuously of being terminally bored. Nothing interested him, starting with life. The shark needed to move up, but was unwilling to actually work for it.
Another problem I had is not so much a fault of the author so much as the age. I decided to watch some of the sketches he described on Youtube. They weren't quite as stated. Thompson loves to dwell on how the comedy team used to crack up at each other's lines, giving the impression of anarchy and chaos onstage. Nothing could be further from the truth. They did think each other immensely funny; you could see it. But it was more like being in on an inside joke than witnessing a calamity. If you want to see a sketch collapse in fits of uncontrollable laughter, watch Carol Burnett's shows that were taped before a live audience. Cook and Moore are models of self control by comparison. Not a huge crime by biographical standards, but it made me wonder how accurate the rest of it was.
Peter Cook could have had it all. What was missing was guidance. He never actually trained for anything. He never actually learned to do anything. Everything he succeeded at came without sweating a drop. And no one was in his corner to point him in the right direction or hold him back when he was making a mistake. That's the tragedy of Peter Cook, and the feeling comes through loud and clear in Thompson's biography. Peter Cook was a loner, and it cost him everything.