Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Night Comedy: Three By Peter Cook

"Being British in this part of the century meant living in the country that had Peter Cook in it. There are wits and there are clowns in comedy, I suppose. Peter was a wit, it goes without saying, but he was funny in an almost supernatural way that has never been matched by anyone I've met or even heard about. It wasn't to do with facial expression or epigrammatic wit, or cattiness or rant or anger or technique: he had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty or dancers have line and grace. He had an ability to make people gasp and gasp and gasp for breath like landed fish."Here are a couple comedic scenes  featuring one of the great comedians of the pre-Monty Python era.  Peter Cook (1937--1995)  starred with Dudley Moore in the 1967 film "Bedazzled". Here he plays Lucifer who comes to earth to try and take the soul of a hapless and love sick short-order cook played by Dudley Moore.  To me this is one of the best comedies of that era.  


Cook was a member of the celebrated "Beyond the Fringe" group that included Dudley Moore, his more famous but not more talented comedic counterpart. This  theatrical program was a major hit in the early 60's on stage in London and New York. He also was a founding member of the satirical magazine "Private Eye".   Here is a skit from his "Fringe" period called "The Miner" recreated for a 1970's performance film.

An interview with Peter Cook by Clive James made shortly before his death. It contains some background on his nightclub in Soho, "The Establishment".  


  1. I didn't find that top clip particularly funny but it certainly qualifies as an icebreaker into a discussion about religion.
    Sadly, I inherited the British proclivity towards thoroughly desiccated humor (er... "humour") so much of the droll stuff just doesn't work for me... although the "look, I've found a chunk of coal" bit did make me laugh.

  2. I enjoyed the clips especially "the miner", thanks.

  3. That really does cap that bit quite well I think, Chuck.

  4. You're welcome Iri Ani. Cook obviously had a huge influence on humor in Britain and America. I don't think sketch comedy in the states had a strong satirical edge under it came over from Britain.

    American satirists in the visual media included Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl who were stand-up performers and often not on television and certainly not given regular shows or films to star in.

  5. Peter Cook made me laugh a lot when I was a teenager although as he and I got older our senses of humour drifted apart somewhat. I suppose I am roughly of the same generation as Stephen Fry whose ringing endorsements of Cook border on the worshipful.

    What I think we have in Peter Cook, as in Dudley Moore, The Pythons, David Frost and many, many more comedy heroes of the 1960s and especially around 'Swinging London' of that era, what these represent was a strata of middle-class Oxbridge types mostly from the south of England whose wit has tinges of privilege and guilt about it ..... as the sun set on the empire forever.

    Peter Cook was a particularly glowing representative of what to me were Oxbridge party pieces liberated and democratised by television (and moneterised too - naturally) where comedy becomes synonymous with 'self defence' in an epoch hostile to the continuance of the lifestyle that spawned them.

    I think Peter Cook had to be funny because the cultural scene he emerged in was dominated by the existential kitchen sink drama from up north and a musical rebellion in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

    In Downing Street there was a Scouser who had beer and sandwiches in smoke filled rooms with his mates from the trade unions (social corporatism).
    The middle class were incensed, the brightest of their offspring felt all of a sudden, out of fashion which may have made them a little bitter at their socio-cultural lot.

    So they consoled themselves with cathartic humour as they nursed their spoiled cultural identities the spawn of the imperial bourgeoisie - or at least the very comfortably off - that made them victims of that terrible curse of getting everything you want without too much of a struggle. Cathy Come Home it was not ..... and of course it could never be.

    It was hard for sons (and to a much lesser extent the daughters) of the disappearing imperial class to be serious about anything, or to be taken seriously by the new viewing public, because they were not in the slightest bit interested in varsity life or the aspirations of middle class performers.

    It was against this backdrop that Peter Cook emerged, intelligent, insightful, guilt ridden indeed the exact opposite of characters like the Miner a powerful symbol of working class militancy and power at the time rendered harmless by humour. All humour is political in one way or another if only because when performed it elicits a collective response.

    Thanks Doug for posting this tribute to Peter who I don't think ever fully understood that we all (ttt-talkin' 'bout my generartion) loved him (at least a little bit) really.

  6. Excellent analysis AA as far as I can judge the state of post-Imperial British society.

    Reading about "Beyond the Fringe", "The Frost Report", "Python's Flying Circus" back in the 70s and 80's I wondered where all the comedians were who didn't happen to go to Oxford and Cambridge? Surely they existed, but were they too local in appeal to come across the Atlantic? And if so, how was it that British music from the bright but not Oxbridge lads of various bands make such an impact?

    Were clever working lads banned from the BBC or ITV without some special cabaret certificate from the Lord Chancellor?

    Whatever it was, it was certain that American television culture bought into a certain "type" of British comedian of the Oxbridge variety. Mainly, I believe, because British humor shows were considered the entertainment options of cultural parvenus in the middle class over here and not as commercial as the domestic one-liner driven sit-coms made to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    Your take on "The Miner" sketch is quite interesting. To me, when I first saw this as a college student and part-time worker, it seemed a satire on the pure tedium of the type of drudge work people get stuck in from time to time, myself included.

    On reflection from what you said, the miner can be seen as a symbol of northern and Welsh working-class people who are literally born into a situation hard to escape from and Cook's take on the fellow looking to find someone to talk French Lit with down a hole in the earth is not only absurd (that's the funny part) but consciously or not plays to a bias from the audience that can afford tickets to a Royal Charity Performance. Of course this skit goes back to 1960's and not the attempted destruction of the miners union by the Thatcher government.

    Interesting thoughts on the guilt of the privileged and the desire of the clever theatrical types to remain relevant by making fun of the useless social cliches of an older and more confident generation of "Empire Day" kids. The culture had democratized and moved on, as you say, which was both a threat for many and an opportunity to the clever scions from the Old Order.

    Perhaps it was this guilt you refer to that inspired him to write the "Biased Judge" sketch. I had no idea how topical and bold this really was until I saw the clips provided in front of the sketch that I had originally seen on regular television without any preamble

  7. Thanks for that link to the Biased Judge sketch, as it happens I was working in Minehead in Somerset when Jeremy Thorpe during the earliest court proceedings appeared there to answer charges connected to the incident Peter Cook refers to. I saw Thorpe arrive at the court and all the paparazzi and police outside the little provincial magistrates court where this trial began. That was in August 1978 when between working in Saudi Arabia and a Norwegian oil rig in the North Sea I briefly took a Summer job at this seaside resort servicing arcade amusement machines and hanging out for a couple of months on the coast in southwest England. I remember the case well, but did not take a lot of interest in it at the time. It just seemed sleazy and tacky to me back then and still does today as a matter of fact.

    I really didn't want to see Thorpe pilloried especially after he appeared in a photo with Jimi Hendrix in 1969 (when coincidentally I was also working a Summer job, although then on the southeast coast of England) and was thereafter marketed as a cool dude by the hapless Liberals, but I really wasn't interested in the salacious gossip about his sex life, or any other details of the case by the time it came to court. By that time Thorpe was just another set of broken promises.. another disappointment and yet another political dead-end.

  8. It is indeed an excellent sketch I agree Doug. In a sense Peter Cook is ridiculing the class that he came from, although we all thought we knew better than our parents about everything, the footlights crew had seen the deference descend into ridicule which they joined in with and amplified across the media. I don't know what Freud would have made of this patricidal wit?

  9. You seem to have a keen gift of happenstance to witness key moments in recent British history, AA. Wish I had that gift. I think the highlight of 1978 for me was giving notice at a Hertz Car Rental job--I washed cars, mainly, put petrol in them and removed any gamy stuff left behind by former patrons between the front and back seats. While my parents moved back to California from our place in Florida , I took a side trip via bus to visit a cousin in east Tennessee. I toured the World's Fair site in the grand metropolis of Knoxville and later a near-by American Civil War battlefield at Chickamauga. A lot of depressing stone monuments.

    Being 115 years late to a battle makes one feel a bit of a slacker.

    Yes, any politico of the liberal persuasion who appears in a photo with Jimi Hendrix is not a man to be pilloried in my book. We have our own political career train- wreck right now going on with a former Democratic Presidential candidate named John Edwards. Edwards is the Patron Saint of Broken Promises in my book.

    He apparently accepted some money from a rich old dowager to cover up the fact that he had a child by his mistress. It's likely more serious crimes are committed every day on Capitol Hill but the media here still loves any bit of tomfoolery that has any sexual liasion links to it.

  10. I think most people my age thought the same thing, AA. It was the 1960's of course where the older genration really got a good scare from San Francisco to Paris and all points between.

    Freud probably would have put it down to the sex instinct. Wasn't that his go-to choice?