SITTING ON THE BENCHPeter Cook was born on 17 November 1937. He read French and German at Cambridge University. He came to prominence in 1960 as a member of the comedic quartet Beyond the Fringe, which comprised Oxbridge undergraduates. His partners and collaborators therein were Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. They eventually went on to distinguish themselves in varied ways, as a stumpy yet songful Hollywood sex symbol, a hifailutin homosexual author, and a modish physician and theatrical impresario. In contrast, Peter Cook came to be seen as the underachiever of the litter. His first wife, Wendy Snowden, whom he met while at Cambridge, once ingratiated him post-coitally: “Is there anything you’re not good at?” The spent spouse replied: “Failure. And I don’t intend to let my life be ruined by success, however excessive.” In keeping with his resolve, the comedian once admitted: “I think I ran out of ambition at 24.”
(Fortune Theatre, London, 1961)
Yes, I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin, never had the Latin for the judging. I just never had sufficient of it to get through the rigorous judging exams. They’re noted for their rigour. People came staggering out saying ‘My God, what a rigorous exam’—and so I became a miner instead. A coal miner. I managed to get through the mining exams—they’re not very rigorous. They only ask one question. They say ‘Who are you?’, and I got 75% for that.
Of course, it’s quite interesting work, getting hold of lumps of coal all day. It’s quite interesting, because the coal was made in a very unusual way. You see God blew all the trees down. He didn’t say ‘Let’s have some coal,’ as he could have done—he had all the right contacts. No, he got this great wind going you see, and blew down all the trees, then over a period of three million years he changed it into coal gradually, over a period of three million years so it wasn’t noticeable to the average passer by. It was all part of the scheme, but people at the time did not see it that way. People under the trees did not say ‘Hurrah, coal in three million years.’ No, they said ‘Oh dear, oh dear, trees falling on us—that’s the last thing we want.’ And of course their wish was granted.
I am very interested in the universe—I am specialising in the universe and all that surrounds it. I am studying Nesbitt’s book—The Universe & All That Surrounds It, an Introduction. He tackles the subject boldly, goes through from the beginning of time right through to the present day, which according to Nesbitt is October 31, 1940. And he says the earth is spinning into the sun and we will all be burnt to death. But he ends the book on a note of hope. He says ‘I hope this will not happen.’ But there’s not a lot of interest in this down the mine.
The trouble with it is the people. I am not saying you get a load of riff-raff down the mine. I am not saying that. I am just saying we had a load of riff-raff down my mine—very boring conversationalists, extremely boring. All they talk about is what goes on in the mine—extremely boring. If you were searching for a word to describe the conversation, boring would spring to your lips. If ever you want to hear things like ‘Hello, I’ve found a bit of coal.’ ‘Have you really?’ ‘Yes, no doubt about it, this black substance is coal all right.’ ‘Jolly good, the very thing we’re looking for.’ It’s not enough to keep the mind alive, is it?
Whoops. Did you notice I suddenly went ‘Whoops’? It’s an impediment I got from being down the mine. Because one day I was walking along in the dark when I came across the body of a dead pit pony. ‘Whoops.’ And that’s another reason why I couldn’t be a judge, because I might have been up there all regal, sentencing away. ‘I sentence you to whoops.’ And you see, the trouble is under English law that would have to stand. So all in all I’d rather have been a judge than a miner.
And what is more, being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with the judges. So all in all I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. Because I’ve always been after the trappings of great luxury, you see. I really, really have. But all I’ve got hold of are the trappings of great poverty. I’ve got hold of the wrong load of trappings, and a rotten load of trappings they are too, ones I could have very well done without.—Peter Cook, Tragically I Was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook, St. Martin’s Press, 2002, pp. 43-45
Between 1973 and 1978, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook recorded three improvised comedy albums under the names of Derek & Clive. Their act plumbed the depths of vulgarity punctuated by flashes of supercilious erudition. It belabored the terrible job of retrieving lobsters from Jayne Mansfield’s bum and expatiated upon the anthropological implications of the famous coloured English ars-oul singer, Bo Duddley. And yet the partnership was not free of tensions. In response to Moore asking to explain why his partner had to constantly belittle him, Peter Cook would ad-lib: “Dudley, I don’t think it’s possible to belittle a club-footed dwarf whose only talent is to play Chopsticks in the style of Debussy.”
In his final years Peter Cook lived alone in an 18th-century house in Hampstead, once owned by H.G. Wells. His third wife, the Malaysian-born property developer Lin Chong, lived in another house 100 yards away. Cook speculated that their domestic arrangement would be much more popular if more people could afford it. The comedian recounted his favorite pleasures in life—casual chit-chat, reading, sport, radio, television and the newspapers, food, drink and cigarettes, and pedantry. Writing and performing went unmentioned.
Peter Cook died from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage on 9 January 1995. The papers lamented the passing of a comic genius who had failed to live up to his promise. A lone voice countered that he gave every impression of a man who had enjoyed life entirely on his own terms. Ten years after his death, a poll of more than 300 comics, comedy writers, producers, and directors throughout the Anglosphere designated Peter Cook as its most talented comedian.
The funnyman surpasses fine wine by aging past the point of his decomposition. Yet it is unlikely that intelligence of his kind represents the acme of reason in The Universe & All That Surrounds It. As comedians, we are far better suited for mining than judging. Humor that draws upon handicapping God by his non-existence confirms this provisional surmise in hindsight. Hamlet’s thinking forestalls the glib protagonist’s acquittal through dissipation as surely as it casts fatal doubt upon the tragic hero’s chances of making his gloomy quietus with a bare bodkin. He is doomed to live out his jests in vaporous uncertainty of post-mortem existence of his character. His manifest reward is merely notional immortality.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” So insisted Woody Allen, the first American runner-up in the comedians’ comedians poll. Fueled by smoke and booze, Peter Cook gladly forewent semitic soteriological anxieties and fears of sure extinction alike:
DIVINELY DRUNKHere’s hoping for girthy loopholes.
One explanation of the Universe that has been little probed by theologians is that God is a benign drunk and that the world is His Hangover. If we were to regard the Creation as the result of a cosmic binge everything would fall neatly into place. I believe He meant very well and still does. When He wakes up and surveys the mess He resolves to straighten it out at once.
The trouble is that He always has ‘a little nip’ to steady Himself and so the chaos continues. I know this is blasphemy and please don’t send me pamphlets. The God I’m in touch with has a sense of humour and even tolerates bad jokes. When I die I hope to go like WC Fields, reading the Bible and ‘looking for loopholes’.