According to Stephen Fry, Peter Cook was ‘the funniest man who ever drew breath’, whilst in 2005, ten years after his death, Cook was ranked first in a list entitled ‘The Comedian’s Comedian’. However, Cook had an unfair advantage over his peers, which may have led a poll of more than 300 comics, comedy writers, producers and directors throughout the English speaking world, voting him their favourite comedian of the 20th Century. Cook was a die-hard fan of Tottenham Hotspur, and so, a good sense of humour was not just a career for Cook, but a pre-requisite of life.
Despite Cook’s love of Spurs, he grew-up a long way from North London. He was born in Torquay, Devon, on 17 November 1937, and was the only son and eldest of the three children. However, Cook states that ‘tragically I was an only twin’.
Cook read French and German at Radley College and later Pembroke College, Cambridge, and meant to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the civil service by becoming a career diplomat. Unfortunately, Cook asserted, by the time he’d graduated, ‘Britain had run out of colonies’.
It was whilst Cook was at Cambridge that he cut his comedy teeth, writing and performing sketches for the enjoyment of his peers in the prestigious Footlights Club, of which he became President in 1960.
Cook quickly became an extremely influential figure within British comedy, and is widely regarded as a leading figure in the British satire boom of the 1960s. His anti-establishment humour became immensely fashionable, and through his stage show ‘Beyond the Fringe’, which he wrote with Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, Cook was soon a house hold name in Britain.
Thereafter, Cook’s influence on popular culture is perhaps best summed up again by Stephen Fry:
‘Being British in [the second half of] the twentieth century, meant living in the country that had Peter Cook in it’
To list all of his achievements in one short article such as this is a challenge beyond a mere mortal such as I. However, he is perhaps best known for starting the ‘Establishment Club’ (a forerunner to today’s modern comedy clubs), the aforementioned stage show ‘Beyond the Fringe’, a television series with Dudley Moore ‘Not Only, But Also’, and of course the infamous Derek and Clive audio recordings. Cook also provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, whilst he made several Hollywood movies, with the 1967 film ‘Bedazzled’ now considered a comedy classic.
Peter Cook was married three times, to Wendy Snowden (1963-1971), Judy Huxtable (1973-1989), and finally to Lin Chong (1989-1995), whom Cook left behind after his death in 1995.
Perhaps a nice way to end this article would be to lean on the oft retold story of a conversation David Frost had with Cook one evening:
Frost: ‘Peter, I’m having a little dinner party on behalf of Prince Andrew and his new bride-to-be Sarah Ferguson. I know they’d love to meet you, big fans! It’d be super if you could make it, Wednesday 12th …
Cook: ‘Oh, hang on I’ll just check my diary’
[pause, and rummaging and leafing through diary noises].
Cook: Oh dear, I find I’m watching television that night.
One of the funniest men of the last century, and further, a huge fan of Tottenham Hotspur
You can find me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mark0turner
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