Comedian Peter Cook… remembered as a drunken lunatic or an Oscar Wilde?

Last night, I was due to have a drink in Soho with Sally Western, only-begetter of the Malcolm Hardee Appreciation Society group on Facebook.

We were going to talk about the bizarre and traumatic saga surrounding the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the Establishment Club, which comedian Peter Cook opened at 18 Greek Street in Soho, on 5th October 1961. It closed in 1964.

By complete coincidence, yesterday was the anniversary of Peter Cook’s death in 1995 and we were joined by actor Jonathan Hansler who played Peter Cook in the stage plays Pete and Me and Goodbye: The Afterlife of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. And we were also joined by Robert Ross, the biographer of Marty Feldman and writer of books on the Carry On films, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, The Goodies et al.

As a kid, I used to watch and tape record Peter Cook’s staight-faced comic monologues as E.L.Wisty on ITV’s On The Braden Beat shows. The words fascinated me when I listened back to them. I do not have the recordings now.

Yup. That’s a pity.

I saw him once – Peter Cook .

He was running along Church Row in Hampstead, where he lived in a white-fronted Georgian house with his wife Wendy. It was raining. He nearly collided with me. But didn’t. He had the loose, loping run of a long-legged man. A few years later, as a student, I went inside the house when I did some weeding in the back garden for his by-then ex-wife Wendy.

I am not one of life’s gardeners; I was very thorough but slow. She quite rightly did not invite me back. But she was very, very likeable.

Robert Ross got involved in Sally Western’s Peter Cook plaque saga via the Heritage Foundation and the Dead Comics Society.

“They normally put plaques on dead comedians’ houses,” Robert told me last night, “but it was so cool to do the Establishment Club in Greek Street that they jumped in”.

Sally was the driving force for the plaque and did all the hard behind-the-scenes work on freeholder and leaseholder agreements, sending off letters, setting up a website and arranging anything and everything needed to get the plaque put on the wall at 18 Greek Street – she even contributed to the words used on the plaque. She says actually getting the plaque agreed and put on the building was “a rollercoaster of Hell”.

“At one point, it was going to be an interactive plaque,” she told me last night, “with flashing lights and whirly things on it… It’s so sad that the building’s not being recognised now, because British satire basically started there.”

Jonathan explained: “At that time, the early 1960s, the Lord Chancellor had a ban on rude words and expletive shit in the theatre, but there was no law which prevented you doing it in a late-night club. So Peter thought, Right, I’ll get away with this in a late night club with membership.”

“He sold the memberships before it even opened,” Sally said.

After it opened, London gangsters the Kray Twins arrived at the Establishment Club one day and tried to get protection money out of Peter Cook.

“He went out to meet them,” Jonathan told me last night, “and said in his drawling voice, I think you’re here to intimidate me, aren’t you? Are you going to intimidate me? – and apparently he talked them out of it and sent them away confused. These two gangsters were wandering around saying: Why were we there?…I dunno… Weren’t we supposed to get some money off him?

“Maybe Ronnie took a shine to him,” Sally suggested.

“It’s not given the recognition it deserves,” said Robert. “This is the fucking Establishment Club, for God’s sake! As a nation, we are so obsessed with the Sixties and this is the place that so epitomises that era. Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Terence Stamp – they all went there. Why aren’t people going there now on tours? At least we’ve got a nice little plaque for Peter; that’s a start.”

“It’s a start,” said Jonathan. “It’s not the end. It really is somewhere special that place. As is Peter Cook. In the 100 Best Comedians, voted for by comedians in 2005, he was voted the No 1… I love Morecambe & Wise as much as the next person. I think they’re brilliant. But they are over-played; they’re everywhere. When are they ever going to show any Pete ‘n’ Dud shows? There are still quite a few tapes in existence. Their stuff is timeless because it was always slightly more rebellious. There was always something slightly edgy about those two: much more edgy than any other comics of that period.”

“Peter Cook is the godfather of comedy,” said Robert. “I went to the memorial service for Peter in Hampstead in 1995, at the church in Church Row, and Dudley Moore sang Goodbye for the last time. Mike Palin was there and Terry Jones, Stephen Fry, Eric Idle. Anybody writing comedy in the last sixty years – the Pythons, The Goodies, Vic & Bob, The Young Ones – owe a debt to him.”

“The Goodies weren’t satire,” I suggested.

“But Peter Cook wasn’t always satire,” Robert said. “He was basically just being funny, which is timeless. Yes, he would poke fun at the Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, but if you watch those sketches from Beyond The Fringe or listen to the later shows, they were just being funny. Pete ‘n’ Dud were just being brilliant. And, when you think that Peter Cook, who’s been dead for 17 years today, is still being talked about, still being held up as the litmus paper for the best in British comedy… He always will be.”

“You played Peter Cook on stage,” I said to Jonathan Hansler. “Was there one key thing that made you understand him?”

“I think I kind of understood him anyway,” Jonathan replied. “He was sent to boarding school when he was about nine and his parents lived abroad. I was sent to boarding school when I was nine and my parents lived abroad. And there’s a sense of loneliness you get from that. Dealing with your own mind, spinning stories out and all that kind of stuff. Your imagination becomes your friend because, in those places, there aren’t many actual friends. Everybody in those places is conforming and, if you’re a non-conformist, it’s kind of a different game.

‘The first time I saw him was when he did the Secret Policeman’s Ball sketch with John Cleese – Peter says: Did you know your intestines are four miles long? It’s amazing how they cram it all in. It means none of the food you eat is ever really fresh. And Cleese says: Fancy that! And Peter says: I don’t fancy that at all… And I thought Who’s this lunatic? He’s just brilliant! And, from then on, I was absolutely hooked on the guy.”

“He wrote the one leg routine at the age of 17,” enthused Robert.

“And,” Jonathan added, “a lot of the sketches that Peter performed later were originally written for Kenneth WilliamsOne Over The Eight revue at the Apollo in 1961.”

“The asp routine,” said Robert.

“The shirt shop routine,” said Jonathan.

“Peter was writing that stuff at university,” explained Robert, “and sending it up to the West End… I always say to Sally, The main thing is that we can now walk down Greek Street and see Peter’s plaque. As long as that building’s standing, it’ll be there. And that’s important.”

The plaque was unveiled on 15th February 2009.

“The actual day of the unveiling,” says Robert, “was fantastic. There were too many people to cater for at the club, so we went off to some hotel called the Dorchester. That Sunday lunchtime, me and Sally and Johnny got very drunk in the name of Peter Cook which is what he would have wanted, I think.

“But I get a little bit upset with the fact that he is now seen as a drunken lunatic. He was a fucking genius! I just think he should not be lambasted as this drunk comedian… I met Peter twice in my life and I think the fact he’s now perceived as this person who failed because he was so brilliant at the age of 24… that’s unfair… He wrote as a genius at the age of 24 and he just improved on that for the next 25 years… He was a genius who had achieved everything he could possibly achieve by the age of 25 and he just coasted after that. But why not? He could. And we should celebrate him as the finest comedy brain of the 20th century. He’s up there with Oscar Wilde. He’s up there with the great English wits of any time. Peter Cook deserves to be remembered as that person. I get so upset when they say Oh, he drank his talent away, he wasted it. No he didn’t.”

“If only,” said Jonathan, “If only we could get celebrities – people who’ve got money – to invest in the Establishment Club and put it back where it once was, it’d be the talk of London, it would be THE place.”

3 Comments

Filed under 1960s, Comedy

3 responses to “Comedian Peter Cook… remembered as a drunken lunatic or an Oscar Wilde?

  1. He was a genius: I was never fortunate enough to meet him, so I desperately cling to the garments of those who did. The short-sightedness of current pooh-poohing will be outlasted by the truth: superb genius. The Clive Anderson bits showed he was sharp right to the end.

  2. Tony morewood

    He was a Drunk according to Steven Fry. Not a boring drunk or an aggressive drunk or a loud drunk but a drunk all the same. I find it extraordinary how we droll over American self destructive Artists but we like to punish our own with disdain. Which is a shame cos I’ll take one Peter Cook over six John Bulushis any day of the week.

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