Entirely a Matter for You: Peter Cook

Published on November 29th, 2008 in: Comedy, Issues, Retrovirus, TV, Video |

By Emily C.

Forget the distressing manner of his death, and his sometimes shambolic, disheveled appearances on 1980s and early 1990s British television: for me, Peter Cook is the pinnacle of elegance and style in the English comedy canon. I was reminded of this upon finding 1970s interviews of Peter from the TV chat show, Parkinson, on YouTube.

peter cook

Being American, I did not grow up with the comedic presence of Peter; I was exposed, through PBS, to Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1980s. I had no business watching that particular show at age six, but nevertheless it made a giant impression on me. To this day, I am obsessed with all things Python. Until the last few years I honestly had no idea who Peter Cook was until I read his biography, written by Harry Thompson. I then began to understand and evaluate his massive influence upon the members of the Monty Python troupe, and I saw how other (big) comedians mined his delivery style and absurd wit for their own use.

But I mainly enjoy watching Peter’s seemingly endless appearances on chat shows. Peter Cook was perhaps the best guest to have on talk shows, as he never appeared to run out of things to talk about. Peter makes no attempt to hide his inebriated state; while this aspect of his personality has been depicted as being pathetic, to me it seemed like another facet of his spectacular “I don’t give a shit” aura. Here’s an early 1970s appearance on Parkinson, in which Peter Cook and the other members of Beyond the Fringe discuss their comedy triumphs.

Peter is clearly a bit drunk, and looks rather laid-back, lazily smoking a cigarette while wearing a slightly tattered pinstriped suit. His hair is also askew, but despite that he somehow seems like the only cool member of the comedy troupe. He seems like he is running at 33⅓ RPM while the rest of the guys are at 45 RPM. Around the 1:20 mark, TV presenter Michael Parkinson (who seems anxious and more than aware of the tension surrounding the troupe, who at this point were all frustrated with Peter’s, ahem, habits) quizzes Peter about his desire to be a pop star.

derek and clive

Peter busts into a heroically bad impression of Elvis Presley, and soon admits to being “very aggressive” in his dealings with the other members of the comedy troupe. At this point, Dudley Moore points out how “aggressive” Peter is, and Peter gets the most intense expression of simultaneous agreement and anger on his face. While the conversation returns to more mundane issues, one has the feeling that the most spectacular fistfight probably erupted between Peter and Dudley after the show. This tension between the two would later be harnessed for filthy effect in the infamous “Derek and Clive” performances of the late 1970s.

Here’s Peter on the late 1970s Granada Television show And So It Goes, (which, incidentally, was fronted by Factory Records’ owner Tony Wilson). This appearance was meant to promote an upcoming Derek and Clive album, which conveniently dovetailed into the punk rock explosion of 1976—1977. Peter variously depicts his comedy partner (Moore) as being a “midget poof” who prefers to get facelifts in Switzerland, and predicts the Derek and Clive album will be “a monster hit.” As “Clive,” Peter appears completely sober here, and looks like a cool older brother-type who happens to smoke pretty heavily and wears Converse. This appearance comes at a time when bands like the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers were also being featured regularly on the same TV show. I find it amazing that these cultural influences merged at one particular moment in time, and find it quite exciting.

peter cook nun

This appearance comes near the end of Cook’s life; while Peter is noticeably different physically he is sharper than ever in mind, deflecting a nasty aside about his laziness from one Jonathan Ross with the barb “I’m not from a working class family,” and describing his livelihood as being derived from “independent wealth and blackmail.” Shockingly, Peter takes over a full minute to light up a cigarette, which seems odd for someone associated with having a cigarette permanently attached to his lips. Peter also describes his adventures in America doing—of all things—a Diet Coke ad. Ross points out that Peter has gained weight, and Peter quips that he’s “gaining steam for the before photograph.” While one has the feeling that Ross is giving Peter a hard time, Peter emerges as being ultimately successful in deflecting Ross’s barbs., Although Peter was in a phase of his life frequently depicted as being “on the downslide,” this interview displays him as unfettered by his anxieties and personal problems; his surreal hilariousness still shines through the occasional gibberish.

Additional Resources:

For more information on Peter Cook, check out these sites:
Derek and Clive transcripts
PeterCook.net, a fansite
Good Evening, another fansite

8 Responses to “Entirely a Matter for You: Peter Cook”

  1. Byronik:
    December 2nd, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    “This appearance comes at a time when bands like the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers were also being featured regularly on the same TV show.”

    I think that episode of So It Goes was the Sex Pistols’ TV debut (playing as a band rather than swearing for Bill Grundy).

    For me, Cooky belongs to the Beatle era (Lennon was a guest on NOBA and other Beatles were drinking buddies during the time of the Ad Lib Club and the Establishment).

  2. emilyc:
    December 2nd, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    I think it was cool that he hosted Revolver though! His non-PC use of cigarette smoking on TV was always entertaining…

  3. Ally:
    December 3rd, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Cookie was such an influence and talent that he straddled several eras, being the driving force behind the ‘satire boom’ of the early sixties which broke down many of the old post-war cultural barriers and kick-started the ‘sixties’ before the Beatles had made a record; then obviously he was an icon of the sixties proper (as Byronic states) hanging out with Lennon and being a mainstay on the BBC; then also heavily linked into what was going on with punk, like being on So It Goes and fronting Revolver, and the challenging nature of Derek & Clive. Also apparently Johnny Rotten was a massive fan of ‘Bedazzled’ (even basing a song on the Drimble Wedge & the Vegetations piece http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Au9_vfx6t6c ) and wanted Cook to write the screenplay for the Sex Pistols film, but when he and Maclaren went round to his house he said Cook was too crazy even for them, offering them a bowl of sweets which had syringes in and then saying in a Wisty voice ‘oh yea, we all take drugs in this household’. Brilliant! He even, surely, has the last word on Sid Vicious commenting that when he was attacked by a member of the audience it was ‘a rare instance of the fan hitting the shit’.

    However for me Cook’s funniest moment was in the early nineties shortly before his death with a comedy icon of that decade, Chris Morris. Their ‘Why Bother’ with Cook as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and Morris the interviewer is brilliant.

    For a great book on Cook other than the Thompson bio, try ‘How Very Interesting: Peter Cook’s universe and all that surrounds it’, which is a collection of loads of people’s recollections and memories of Cook

  4. John:
    December 4th, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    GREAT essay on a fascinating subject! thank you!

  5. Kate:
    December 5th, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    I’m with Ally on Chris Morris. When you listen to the back in forth between them it is almost as though Cook has met an heir. Also I think isn’t accurate to say Ross is being nasty. That interview is totally in keeping with his usual style.

  6. Kate:
    December 5th, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    back and forth – typo.
    great write-up

  7. Popshifter » This Charming Man: Peter Cook in The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer:
    November 29th, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    […] Entirely A Matter For You: Peter Cook, Popshifter November/December 2008 issue […]

  8. georgia:
    December 16th, 2009 at 8:34 am

    I absolutely agree with enjoying his talk show appearances at least as much as anything he did otherwise. I’m from Western Australia and it’s safe to say not a soul around here (that I have met) has heard of him! Unfortunate, not least because when I fall over laughing having remembered something of Cook’s I can’t really explain what the matter is. Apparently there’s a Bernard Braden (I think that’s it) interview with Cook somewhere out there, that they played on the BBC but as I’m not a pom I can’t see it! Shame, I hope someone puts it on youtube.
    Fantastic blog/essay, I love that parky interview as well! And his svelte suit and louche manner. The clive james interviews are great, even if that clive bloke’s a drag. I also like the one where Peter’s being writing in his column that Parky owes him a fiver for everytime he mentions his hometown, and another for whenever he mentions ‘roots’. Cook had a very brief talk show of which I would love to see footage if the BBC hasn’t wiped it, and when he got the flick he was superseded by Parky. ‘My eventual aim is to shut you up completely’
    Although he looks quiet out of sorts he still manages to be hilarious on that 101 show as well – discussing his hate of the countryside and sheep – ‘Now see how it’s… attacking you’
    I dreeeeeamt I weeeeeent to Aaaaaaaafrica……………………………. …………………………………………………………well, stay there!!
    Thanks for the article 🙂

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