Almost 30 years after his death, it’s become common to summarise the last chapter of Peter Cook’s life as a happy ending but with the bitter sweet final line of his sudden demise, far too young, at the age of only 57.
There were years of self-imposed exile in the late 80s before that, watching everything on TV, alone in his Hampstead home. Crank-calling LBC at 2am in a Norwegian accent to talk about fish. Cropping up occasionally on British TV (he does an ok Larry Olivier impression as Richard III in the first episode of ‘The Blackadder’).
Prolonged bouts of solitary drinking were financed by his proprietorship of ‘Private Eye’ (he owned 69 per cent of its parent company, which last year had net assets of £4.3 million).
There were also fees from Hollywood films such as his turn as Nigel the necromancer in 1984’s ‘Supergirl’ (“It takes a lifetime to discover the secrets of black magic and the ancient grimoires” he tells Faye Dunaway’s evil witch, Selena, while not quite nailing the lines) and American TV shows, like his sarcastic butler working for Mimi Kennedy, in ‘The Two Of Us’. The show ran for two seasons, Cook playing a blatant knock-off of John Gielgud’s waspishly profane manservant to Dudley Moore, in the much more successful ‘Arthur’ and its sequel on the big screen… Just to rub in the fact that Dud – the mugging stooge to Cook’s satirical genius, twenty years earlier – had, by the mid-80s, a far more prosperous and rewarding career in the United States than his former comic sparring-partner, Pete, was enjoying at the same time.
But then, as is sensitively retold in the 2004 Cook biopic ‘Not Only But Always’, with Rhys Ifans playing Cook as Cook would no doubt have played himself (saying, but not entirely delivering, his lines), Peter Cook met Lin Chong. After bothering her while she was playing backgammon at the home of Playboy boss Victor Lownes, in 1982, they began a turbulent relationship which eventually led to Cook divorcing his second wife, of sixteen years, Wendy Huxtable. Cook then married Lin in the same year.
(Wendy Huxtable, who you last saw in such films as Robert Freeman’s surprisingly good ‘The Touchables‘ from 1968 and ‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize‘ from the same year. Only known today as a profoundly disappointing extra on the ‘The London Nobody Knows‘ DVD, on theatrical release it was the supporting feature to the much more interesting ‘Twisted Nerve‘, with Polydor releasing the music from both films as an album. Director Douglas Hickox was also responsible for ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ and ‘Theatre of Blood’, so he wasn’t a duff film-maker by any means.
Since I’m writing this as part of David’s ‘Late Films’ blogathon – last year I was on about Franju’s ‘Shadowman‘ – I should mention that Huxtable’s in 1970’s ‘Scream and Scream Again‘, and Pete Walker’s 1971 ‘Die Screaming, Marianne‘. In this month’s Late Show edition of the ‘Shadowcast‘, David Cairns and Fiona Watson discuss, among other films, Walker’s ‘Cover Up‘ aka ‘Frightmare’ aka ‘Once Upon a Frightmare’ from 1974.
Huxtable was also in Robert Hartford-Davis’s ‘Nobody Ordered Love’, in 1972, now considered “lost”. Hartford-Davis had directed a couple of intriguing popsloitation films which are receiving energetic reappraisal. ‘The Yellow Teddy Bears‘ is one, which was due to be The Beatles first feature film appearance, before ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, until Brian Epstein got wind of the fact that they had to sign away the rights to any songs they performed, or play someone else’s stuff in their first feature, so needless to say that didn’t happen. Hartford-Davis also made ‘Gonks Go Beat‘, in which Kenneth Connor and Arthur Mullard share a bill with Lulu, the Nashville Teens and Ginger Baker.
‘Nobody Ordered Love‘, also starring Ingrid Pitt along with Huxtable, was a tragic drama set during the making of a film about WWI. It was such a bomb in the UK that Hartford-Davis withdrew it from American release, and all prints are presumed destroyed on Hartford-Davis’s instruction following his death in 1977. It’s now on the BFI’s list of 75 “Most Wanted” missing films. In a career that spanned eye-catching oddities and unalloyed mediocrity, ‘Nobody Ordered Love’ exudes a strange kind of allure, a lurid cousin to ‘Up The Front’. (Huxtable is also in ‘Up The Chastity Belt’ just to give Ned Sherrin a mention while we’re at it.)
All of which is to suggest that Wendy Huxtable is far more than an ex-model turned actor, and Peter Cook’s ex-wife. There’s a case that she’s the Harry Flashman of overlooked Seventies’ British B-pictures, a personality woven inextricably into the torrid orange squash and Vimto-coloured fabric of the pre-Punk years).
Lin Cook died in 2016 after collaborating with Victor Lewis-Smith on the documentary ‘The Undiscovered Peter Cook‘ for BBC Four, a tender and thoroughly watchable meditation on Cook’s ‘lost tapes’ which were piled up in his home after he died.
(This amounted to a promotion for the often droll Lewis-Smith, from his lamentable collaboration with Mohamed Fayed and Keith Allen on the baffling and daft ‘Unlawful Killing. A “best of” Diana assassination conspiracy theories, it did at least give an afternoon’s work and co-starring credit with Howard Stern to Geoffrey McGiven – Ford Prefect from the original ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ cast – Nicola Bryant – Peri from ‘Doctor Who’ – and Phil Cornwall from every impersonation-based British comedy format of the last twenty years. They all appear as unscrupulous hacks at the public inquiry, mocking the evidence of a vast Establishment conspiracy to kill the People’s Princess, inter-cut through the weird Diana and Dodi hagiography. Let’s hope they all took Fayed’s money rather than Harrod’s store credit. Lin Cook vehemently denied rumours that swirled after Peter Cook’s death, that she at any time planned to sell her 43 per cent stake in ‘Private Eye’ to Fayed.)
In various posthumous documentaries about Cook’s life, Dudley Moore (who died 7 years after Cook, in 2002) commented of several of their film roles together – he was probably thinking of ‘The Wrong Box’ and ‘Monte Carlo or Bust!’ – that Cook loved delivering his own lines but he wasn’t really an actor.
There was a sense in which, just as Peter Cook lost his looks, he lost his ability to broaden his repertoire as he got older. While Dudley More wasn’t a great actor he was a compelling and always-agreeable screen presence, even when he got a bit preachy and over-serious after the success of ’10’, with ‘Six Weeks’. Plus, Moore was a great musician and really great composer. Cook owned the Eye and could make up funny things on the spot which were side-splittingly funny and often jaw-dropping in their studied cruelty as well. (In the sweartastic ‘Derek and Clive Get the Horn’, taunting Dudley about his mother spouting water like a whale. Moore’s mother had died not long before they recorded the album in New York.) He was a personality and a comic, but was Cook really an actor, let alone a movie star, as Dudley was?
Moore said on one occasion:
‘I remember being moved to tears when Peter said: “I know I was funny but I know I won’t improve, I won’t get any better”. I was lucky to be around when he was at his peak. Verbally he was the most witty man that I have ever come across and strangely inventive’.
It’s a tidy way of book-ending a career that was a bit like Peter Sellars’ (“comedic Mozart, nightmare of a man”) without a ‘Being There’ to act as a monument to his troubled genius. (Though Peter Cook is in several films which, like ‘Being There’, no one bothers to watch anymore. These include ‘Yellow Beard’ and ‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’).
While it’s a neat argument, there’s one problem with it. Look at Peter Cook’s cameos in films after… hmm, about 1987. They get better and better, and Peter Cook was not only funny in them but (whisper it) he was becoming a better actor too. He could say other people’s lines and make them sing. Even when he was getting old and a bit shit, no longer so handsome, pickled from booze, he was still brilliant and getting even better at a few things, even if life wasn’t necessarily one of them.
Most of his later work on screen is in cameos. Perhaps his late acting work is overlooked because of this, combined with the earlier part of his film portfolio being of such variable quality. Cook’s smooth and creepy as the Devil in ‘Bedazzled’, arguably one of the greatest films of all time, and certainly the film with one of the best scores, including Cook’s turn as “Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations’ singing the spooky theme song. He’s rubbish in ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer‘, though, even though it was his first starring role “opening” a film without Dudley. Let’s face it, Peter Cook was crap in a lot of things. But not towards the end.
It all started to go right for Cook the actor in ‘The Princess Bride’. So many words are devoted, rightly, to this beloved film, including because it contains so many quotable and imitable bits. None are more imitable, though, than Cook’s “Impressive Clergyman”. “Mawwage. Mawwage is what bwings us togethew today. Mawwage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam within a dweam.” And “Have you the wing?”
Cook’s only on screen for a couple of minutes but he steals the whole movie with a funny accent. We copy the lines in our heads but also how Peter Cook delivers them, to relive the happiness of a beautiful, sweet, clever film; a Cook role which kids can watch and copy too, a rare thing for Peter Cook. While it’s true that a “cock” or an “arsehole” in Cook’s mouth were – much as they were in Harold Pinter’s – pure gold, this has tended to limit his most enthusiastic fanbase to smutty men with university degrees, who imagine themselves to be uncouth soccer hooligans. (Want to bet Rod Liddle can do all of the ‘Derek and Clive’ routines?)
Which brings us to Cook’s final film role, reuniting him with Eleanor Bron, and one which shows what a good actor he was becoming in late middle-age: his performance as Lord Wexmire in 1994’s ‘Black Beauty’.
Based on Anna Sewell’s 1877 book, the great grand daddy of pony novels – filmed eight times since ‘Your Obedient Servant’, in 1917 – Caroline Thompson’s 1994 version somehow misses a narrative trick. Speilberg, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis picked up on it in their 2011 film adaptation of Michael Murpurgo’s children’s book, and the hugely successful stage show based on it, ‘War Horse’. The narrative trick being that a horse can act as eternal witness to human history.
In the 1994 ‘Black Beauty’, restoring the horse’s narration from Sewell’s novel – voiced charmingly by Alan Cumming – gives it an odd, sort of New Age, quality. This robs the film of its inevitable association, at least in the UK, with the gritty, gothic Seventies kid’s TV show , which was probably what British parents thought it would be like when they heard that Sean Bean is in it. (The film starts with kids witnessing a horse giving birth, but even that traumatic episode veers towards the saccharine).
Nonetheless, in his scenes Cook doesn’t muck about. He channels the dotty, short-tempered voice of the British ruling classes of which he was a part. Clipped and cuff-linked, studiously repressing their capacity for acts of immense thoughtfulness. The accreted gravel in the throat of a lifetime spent in dusty schoolrooms of minor public schools, learning dead languages. The hollow formality of wood-paneled common rooms in Oxbridge colleges, with carefully offshored-wealth. (Cook’s registered company for tax purposes was in Lichtenstein).
Peter Cook ripped the piss out of the world of his parents and forebears , but – like his E L Whisty character, based on one of the porters at his Oxfordshire boarding school, Radley – it was because he was rather fond of that world. That’s how somewhat privileged Englishmen, who nonetheless have to work in order to thrive, show affection. By being weirdly obtuse and unkind.
Cook’s father, Alexander Edward Cook, died in 1984, a few years before Cook sobered up and managed to express his fondness to Lin, and 11 years before his son’s last role in ‘Black Beauty’. “Alex” Cook was a distinguished colonial civil servant, his last important posting was as Permanent Secretary of the Eastern Region of British-run Nigeria, based at Enugu. Not long after Cook Snr withdrew, along with the rest of the British administration, Enugu would be the capital of the breakaway republic of Biafra, and a civil war in newly-independent Nigeria would leave a million Nigerians dead. One of the candidates in next year’s election – Atiku Abubakar – has been talking up the idea of regions of Nigeria leaving the federation, following referenda (“Biafrexit, anyone?”) There are fears in Nigeria that the forces that led to civil war in the Sixties could soon resurface. Peter Cook’s father Alex spent several years sitting over that political powder keg. It was a tough posting. No wonder his son learned how to curl his stiff upper lip into a sneer so sharp, it helped to bring down Macmillan’s government.
Peter Cook could be cruel and selfish. He would fly into rages. He mocked the death of his mate’s mum from cancer while they were making a live comedy album that was also being filmed for theatrical release. Peter Cook could, not to put too fine a point on it, be a fucking cunt sometimes. He learned that from some of the biggest cunts of the era, the English ruling classes. Cook puts all of that Debrett’s–minted cuntage into a small role in a not-very well regarded children’s film of a nonetheless important book, and it comes out as little nugget of gold.
The 1994 ‘Black Beauty’ movie may not stand the test of time, but Sewell’s novel – about the way that horses often bear the physical and emotional burden of people’s lives – definitely will. Biographers have picked up on the fact that it was only as a parent, to his daughters Lucy and Daisy whom he had with his first wife, Wendy Snowden, that Peter Cook seemed capable of expressing uncomplicated love. Even then, he didn’t leave them a cut of his Private Eye stake and it was left to their step-mother Lin to pass an undisclosed percentage on to them in her will. Their mother, Wendy, wasn’t invited to Peter Cook’s funeral.
There’s a case that, in any effort to understand what a complex and interesting, attractive but also quite scary man Peter Cook was, his role as Lord Wexmire deserves inclusion as a footnote. In ‘Black Beauty’ he’s turning, if not into his father, then into the sort of bluff Establishment cove from a waning world of Empire and country estates, the tweedy men that his father was working for and alongside while Cook was growing up.
The film itself is basically for little girls who are becoming young women. The appeal of books about ponies and horses is that their subjects are beautiful but they don’t talk. Readers – especially female readers – can reflect on their own feelings without having to subordinate their emotions to the object of their stirring sexuality. Cook was – apart from anything else – one of the most sexually radiant Englishmen of his generation. In a pre-sexual film, he isn’t playing a romantic lead or potential sexual interest or threat. In ‘Black Beauty’, his last film, Peter Cook is old and playing the part of a man who lacks Cook’s mischief and energy. In his last acting role on screen Peter Cook is acting, not just saying someone else’s lines but being the part.
Like his close friend Keith Richards, a far more well-read and better informed man than his occasionally loutish and pissed-up demeanour implied, Peter Cook famously walked around everywhere with a bag full of the day’s newspapers tied up in string. Cook was the first to suggest that Britain’s fixation with sending itself up meant it would eventually sink, giggling, into the sea.
It’s a shame in some ways that he didn’t live long enough to witness our descent into the self-mockery and self-harm of Brexit and Mogg-mania. Ian Hislop in late middle-age is a kind of defanged version of his former boss at ‘Private Eye’, Peter Cook.
Were Cook around to take the likes of Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson down a few pegs on the BBC’s ‘Have I Got News For You?’ – which has acted as a vehicle for their resistible rise – one can well imagine the exchange would side-step Hislop’s officious politeness and chumminess, and become genuinely unpleasant.
In the end there is the violence of death. The Comic Strip’s ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door‘ was made 6 years before ‘Black Beauty’, Cook playing a hit man who rents an office next door to Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmundson’s escort agency. It didn’t have a theatrical release like some of the other Comic Strip outings around this time, but it would warrant one now that both Cook and Mayall are no longer with us.
Aggressive, garish, stupid, loud, nasty in places; viewing it in 2018, twenty years after it was on Channel 4, ‘Mr Jolly’ has a crude kind of poignancy which is a fitting epitaph to the possibility that actual harm – at least emotionally – accompanied Cook’s nihilistic sense of humour. Never ever bloody anything ever.