Mystical Ennui: Peter Cook at a Distance

Peter Cook Essay

This Peter Cook essay contains spoilers for movies starring the English actor and comedian. Check out VV film reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


When Peter Cook died in 1995, he was hailed as the man who set the conventions for the British political satire boom of the 1960s with his involvement in the celebrated stage revue Beyond the Fringe, his founding of the satirical nightclub The Establishment and his purchase of Private Eye magazine. But there was equally a sense that Cook had never lived up to his early promise, that his brilliant comedic mind had never found its métier beyond the sketch format whose boundaries he had redrawn with seemingly effortless elan. This belief was compounded by the fact that Dudley Moore — Cook’s partner in the double act which formed for the groundbreaking TV show Not Only… But Also — went on to enjoy success and celebrity in Hollywood with his performance in Blake Edwards’ 10 (1979). In his later years, Cook seemed to gleefully cultivate the image of the faded wunderkind, but there was a moment in the late 60s when he believed he had the makings of a leading man. In hindsight, it was always a strange proposition, as Cook exuded a quality which Stephen Fry describes as being “aloof without being cold.” The comedian’s penetrating stare seemed to both probe and hold something at bay; his face betrayed a quality that was equally alluring and forbidding; his mien suggested a knowledge that is sedulously protected in layers of lugubrious charm and meticulous mockery.

The Cook and Moore duo made inroads into cinema by appearing in large-scale ensemble pieces like The Wrong Box (1966) — sprawling, wayward endeavors which typified the parlous state of the industry as the 60s progressed. These productions relied on an abundance of marquee talent to mask a lack of coherence; Cook and Moore lined up alongside the likes of John Mills, Ralph Richardson and Tony Hancock in this rickety old farce which strains to emulate some of Richard Lester’s counterculture swagger. Playing two grasping aristocrats intent on claiming the contents of a tontine afforded Cook and Moore the opportunity to replicate the dynamic of their television pairing, with the former actor as the seductive bully, and the latter as the lovable punching bag. In The Wrong Box, Cook isn’t required to do more than a variation on his famed character Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, a scattered aristocrat who recounts his many disastrous ventures. Cook’s patrician veneer belies the fundamental silliness of the character, but the act loses momentum over the course of a feature. The discrepancy is striking in the scenes between Cook and Michael Caine, where the precision of the former’ comic movements and locutions become increasingly sparse when placed next to Caine’s ease and naturalism — it is the difference between a gifted comic performer and a great screen actor. Cook is more at home working with Peter Sellers, who makes a florid, prosthetics-laden cameo.

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Peter Cook Essay - The Wrong Box Movie Film

Cook and Moore repeated this act in Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), another bloated international yarn in which they play English “gentlemen” participating in the Monte Carlo Rally during the 1920s. In what is essentially a parade of national stereotypes, Cook’s crackpot major/inventor is the embodiment of British imperial hubris in the face of waning influence, with Moore as his faithful lieutenant. Still, it is little more than an extended skit. It was Bedazzled (1967) where Cook and Moore were able to present something truly cinematic which captured the irreverent spirit of their TV work. Cruelty was always a crucial component to Cook’s comedy; part of him seemed to take pleasure in directing his prodigious comedic arsenal at his performing partners (it was a perennial feature of the Not Only… But Also sketches for Cook to try and make Moore “corpse” — break character and burst out laughing). Bedazzled is in many ways a meditation on the nature of the Cook and Moore double act, as both performers seemed to be using the film to process their feelings about themselves in relation to the other. Cook’s screenplay of Moore’s story presents the fullest filmic expression of their comedic personae: Peter the manipulative charmer and Dudley the amiable loser.

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This Faustian comedy finds Moore’s lovesick short order cook, Stanley Moon, selling his soul to Cook’s Lucifer (aka George Spiggott) for seven wishes which will deliver him the object of his unrequited affection, waitress Margaret (Eleanor Bron). Of course, each wish is loaded with all manner of unforeseen loopholes which stymie Moon’s desires, and it is not difficult to read Bedazzled as Cook’s response to his newfound standing as the king of British satire. Fame allows one to assume a series of false identities in the pursuit of personal satisfaction, but these guises ultimately leave the performer feeling unfulfilled. There is equally an element of self-critique at work in Bedazzled — Lucifer/Spiggott is a club owner who fears that the “dismal tricks” he performs will be exposed for their paltry breadth, perhaps reflecting Cook’s insecurities about the prospect of his becoming more than a gifted satirist. His performance has a stilted quality; the actor’s “horned one” is an unnerving, remote figure who takes pleasure in accumulating the wages of human frailty; he is not a sensualist, but an amused observer.  While Moore is able to ground himself in a scene’s reality, Cook is never able to take that leap; there is always the sense of a commentary taking place in his choices, a calculation at every step. The distinction is most glaring during the scene in which Moon wishes to be a pop star: a shiny-suited Moore bellows a song in which he implores the crowd of screaming girls to “love me,” while an impassive Cook glumly intones, “You fill me with inertia,” and mesmerizes the adoring throng. Yet it was Moore’s winsome vulnerability which propelled him to new heights. As much as people admired Cook’s practiced callousness, its pursuit of the optimum joke at all cost left him with very little room for maneuver as he sought a filmic vehicle for his talents. 

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Peter Cook Essay - Bedazzled Movie Film

In later life, Cook conceded “I had the idea of becoming a romantic lead, so I did a film which had me running around with a gun in my hand. But I looked such a berk, I couldn’t carry on.” That film was A Dandy in Aspic (1968), a convoluted spy thriller which is perhaps best remembered for the fact that its director, Anthony Mann, died of a heart attack before it was finished (its star, Laurence Harvey, took the helm without credit). Cook’s ambivalence about his future is all too evident in his small role as a lascivious British intelligence functionary; he struggles to hold his own alongside Harvey’s clenched intensity, sliding into a superficial charm which fails to endow his peripheral character with an inner life. If this was Cook’s attempt to be taken more seriously, it was a misbegotten one; his “sentimental lecher” feels like he has been dropped in from another film, oblivious to the surrounding narrative; his flippant delivery strikes a dissonant note when placed alongside the internal struggle of the world-weary spies played by Harvey and Tom Courtney. Cook could slip effortlessly into a diction, and he was able to achieve a faultless pitch which elevated his satirical creations, but his comic devices are particularly glaring in a work about characters grappling with their identity.

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Cook and Moore reunited for The Bed Sitting Room (1969), Richard Lester’s subversive take on the all-star ensemble piece, featuring a whole host of luminaries from the British comic and dramatic firmament of the late 60s. Yet the effect is similarly one of accumulation; name is piled on top of name in this post-apocalyptic satire without the necessary dramatic foundations, creating a rather wobbly edifice. This adaptation of Spike Milligan’s stage play feels like a return to the revue format where Cook made his name; it struggles for a coherent framework, and its freewheeling absurdism has a lot in common with Milligan’s Q… series, streaking off on strange tangents. Its tone is one that Lindsey Anderson would adopt to greater success, taking aim at a diminished Britain parading its tattered finery in the wake of a “nuclear misunderstanding,” locked in the muscle memory of tradition, class distinction, family life and social etiquette. As the policemen who hover over the ruins of London in a rusted car attached to a hot air balloon, Cook and Moore are the avatars for discredited authority, ordering the survivors to “keep moving,” to uphold the fantasy parade in the face of desolation, trapped in their own symbolism. Cook is in familiar territory as a curiously British kind of tyrant, luxuriating in the benefits of petty officialdom. It is character work in keeping with the comedian’s abilities, delivered with the cold-eyed accuracy of the comedic sniper. Cook’s closing monologue is a masterclass in the message colliding with the delivery; his police inspector emerges as the budding autocrat promising a glorious renewal, while urging all to “watch it.”

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Peter Cook Essay - The Bed Sitting Room Movie Film

The themes of power and influence were ones which Cook pursued further in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), a political parody penned with John Cleese and Graham Chapman which was used to attack one of his professional rivals, David Frost (who, ironically, was the one who had initially devised and commissioned the project). Cook was an inspired piece of casting as the social climber who manipulates public opinion and insinuates himself into the upper reaches of the British establishment. The comedian’s oddly detached performance is such a perfect summation of the distance between the public utterance and the private intent. Cook’s Rimmer is a rapacious predator who scans his prey with a merciless eye, detecting useful vulnerabilities and luring his targets towards his ends. Rimmer offers nothing of himself, waiting until the moment of personal opportunity has been reached, and it is time to strike. He is the perfect political cypher, a dazzling blank who will assume the most advantageous form. Like his portrayal of Lucifer in Bedazzled, Cook’s evasive charm works because he is portraying a performer, his perpetual smirk and upright body language suggest calculation rather than discomfort. It is a performance that hinges on meter and movement, it abounds with coded messages and subtle inferences that are generated by Cook’s almost ethereal presence. Rimmer is the vacuum at the center of events, dragging every willing dupe into his realm of perception; he is able to amass total control because he makes no distinction between politics and public relations; he permits those around him to wallow in the darkness he has generated, acting as the conduit between public life and private desire. The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is an unapologetically cynical work, reflecting Cook’s own attitude towards those who occupy the highest positions in society. When quizzed in 1965 about his “sarcastic, cynical, ironical” outlook, Cook described cynics as “people who seemed fairly realistic about things.”

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Cook’s cynicism only intensified as the 70 progressed, as did his drinking. Yet there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon, as his partnership with Moore was rekindled with the release of the Derek and Clive (Live) album in 1976, offering to the world the foul-mouthed, belligerent doppelgängers of the Pete and Dud characters who became a beloved fixture of Not Only… But Also (the album had been recorded in 1973 as a private joke, but bootleg copies soon found their way into the hands of bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Rolling Stones, and quickly turned into a must-have cult object). Hoping to capitalize on the renewed interest, Cook and Moore penned a script. The result is a misfiring take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and one of the strangest comedic curios of this period. Directed by Andy Warhol’s longtime collaborator Paul Morrissey, the 1978 adaptation is a meager offering whose literary underpinnings are padded with labored slapstick, cheap innuendo, limp pastiche and rehashed sketches. Cook in particular seems lost in the leading role, struggling to keep pace with Moore’s desperate exuberance. He alternates between a pained grimace and a scornful glower. Cook’s Holmes is an irascible prima donna whose disposition seethes with the feelings of resentment that had gripped the comedian as the power balance in the double act shifted.

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Peter Cook Essay - The Hound of the Baskervilles Movie Film

Just as Holmes and Watson became the means through which Cook and Moore’s antagonisms could be explored, so their final endeavor together laid bare the tensions that had festered in the years between their last parting. Conceived as a celebration of their 20th anniversary as collaborators, Derek and Clive Get the Horn (1979) descends into a febrile psychodrama between the duo; it feels like watching two people trapped in a loveless marriage whose only outlet has become cruelty and recrimination. Capturing a recording session for the 1978 Derek and Clive Ad Nauseum album, the tension is palpable as Cook takes full advantage of the opportunity to unsettle Moore, launching into a variety of provocative premises which make his partner visibly uneasy (it could not be released theatrically due to the excessive language). For his part, Moore endures a strange kind of penance, deigning to absorb Cook’s blows with good humor, allowing himself to be subordinated once again by his partner’s domineering presence. Cook’s sense of abandonment at Moore’s growing profile in Hollywood rears its head in a torrent of mean-spirited, alcohol-sodden invective which served to sever the relationship (they didn’t reunite until 1990, when they recorded an introduction together for the VHS release of those remnants of Not Only… But Also  that had not been wiped by the BBC as a cost-saving measure).

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Peter Cook Essay - Derek and Clive Get the Horn Movie Film

For all his incisive political commentary, Cook never lost his appetite for silliness. As former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams describes it: “Although he had acquired the reputation of a savage political satirist during the satire boom, Cook’s talent has always been for outrageous nonsense fantasies.” In one such fantasy he contributed to Private Eye, “The Seductive Brethren,” he describes a character who has fallen into a state of “mystical ennui.” There seems no better summation of Cook’s disposition as his fame waned and he accepted the mantle of elder statesman among the new crop of alternative comics to emerge in 80s. It was a boredom which assumed almost cosmic grandeur by virtue of Cook’s endless quest to sate it with all manner of low-stakes mischief and inspired flights of fancy. While he was paying the bills with supporting roles in fare like Supergirl (1984), The Princess Bride (1987) and Black Beauty (1994), Cook was enlivening the talk show circuit with ingenious character work, collaborating with Chris Morris on the excellent BBC Radio 3 series Why Bother?, and calling in regularly to a late-night radio show posing as a lovelorn Norwegian Fisherman called Sven. Peter Cook was never able to bridge the distance between his personal world and his many creations, and one gets the impression that he derived a certain satisfaction from keeping people guessing.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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