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The Establishment

The Fringe Boys: clockwise from top: Peter Cook, Jonathon Miller, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett

Peter Cook Biography pt01
Mr Boylett
Beyond The Fringe
by Peter Gordon
 Peter Cook Presents The Misty Mr. Wisty LP
audio files taken from the wonderful 1965 album.
 Peter Cook Docu
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Peter Cook, where the fuck do you start? Well, lets get the facts down - born 17 November 1937 died 9 January 1995. Married three times, first to Wendy (1964), then Judy (1974) and finally to Lin (1989). Two daughters by his first marriage (Daisy and Lucy) and a step-daughter from his third (Nina).

What does that tell us? Well, bugger all really, but it's a start. Peter Edward Cook was born in Torquay, Devon to Alexander and Margaret Cook. Alexander came from a long line of civil servants in the diplomatic services, a tradition Peter was fully expected to follow. He was educated at Radley College and went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study languages in the full expectation that he would eventually be packed off to foreign climes to help administrate Britain's fading Empire. It was while at Cambridge that he auditioned to join the prestigious "Footlights Review". The Cambridge Footlights were the University's players and actors, who would put on shows replete with straw boaters, merry sing-a-longs and terrible puns. Cook and his generation were to change this forever, making it, for a while at least, the breeding ground for the foremost names in British comedy.

Cook's audition piece was a character he brought with him from Radley, Mr Boylett, later to be retitled Arthur Grole and more famously, E.L. Wisty. Mr. Boylett was a mesmerically dull figure, a strange, other-worldly character in raincoat and hat, obsessed with matters cosmic, mundane and absurd. The real Boylett was a college servant at Radley. Cook was enormously entertained with this massively dull, or incredibly dry man, who once claimed to have sold a stone in the school drive-way because "I thought I saw it move." Boylett became the Cambridge's favourite comic character and adopting the Boylett nasal drone and catchphrases became widespread.

By the time Peter left Pembroke he was the star of the Cambridge Footlights scene, and while he still paid lip service to the foreign service he now seemed destined for a future in comedy. After leaving the university Peter stayed in Cambridge for a while, still contributing to Footlights revues, and beginning to make something of a name for himself as a writer, including penning sketches for two highly successful West End revues starring Kenneth Williams, namely Pieces Of Eight (1959) and, later, One Over The Eight (1961) [See P&B #12]. Included in the second of these shows was a sketch from one of his Cambridge revues called One Leg Too Few, in which a one-legged man auditions for the part of Tarzan. It was a masterpiece, written by Cook when he was 18 years old and, he claimed to his dying day, he never wrote anything better.

Cook's big break as a writer and performer came in 1960 with a show called Beyond The Fringe. The idea of the show was to combine four raw young talents from the cream of the Cambridge and Oxford revue scene. To this end Cook was united with Jonathan Miller, a doctor, Alan Bennett, a medieval historian, and Dudley Moore, a fine jazz pianist and musicologist [See P&B #16]. Between them they created a show that was stark, sharply satirical and, for it's time, distinctly confrontational. There were no gaily painted sets, no dancing girls, no jolly boating songs, none of the then-traditional trappings of the revue. Four young men in jackets and pullovers delivering the sharpest new comedy around, including Cook's famous impersonation of Harold Macmillan, the first time in living memory a current Prime Minister had been directly mimicked and mocked on the stage. After an initial tepid response , the show rapidly became a huge hit, transferring from Edinburgh to London, via the English provinces, in 1961, and eventually to New York in 1962. It ran, with various cast changes, until 1964 and lead to Cook, along with Miller and Moore, recording an album with two of Peter's heroes, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, called Bridge On The River Wye (1962) on Parlaphone.

Cook also found time to start up The Establishment Club in Soho, London in 1961 with business partner Nick Luard. The forerunner of so many later comedy clubs, The Establishment was home to the latest performers to come up in the self-consciously titled 'Satire Boom' started by Beyond The Fringe. The sweaty, smoky club was packed to capacity every night and offered punters the chance to see the latest talents to rise from Oxford and Cambridge, along with acts from America such as the notorious Lenny Bruce, and old-style British comedian and stand-up genius Frankie Howerd. It was a roaring success, and a branch was opened up at The Strollers Nightclub in New York in 1963 [See P&B #11-12].

In addition to all this, Cook and Luard bought controlling shares in the struggling satire magazine Private Eye in 1962, the beginning of a lifelong association between Cook and the magazine [See P&B #15]. He operated a distinctly 'hands-off' editorial policy, giving The Eye's editors free-rein to cover what they wanted. Over the years his main contributions to The Eye, aside from streams of one-off jokes, were the introduction of the famous speech-bubble covers (an idea he got from an American magazine), a couple of running series, some of which have been re-printed in Publish & Bedazzled [#12 - 19 The Seductive Brethren, #20- Rhandi Phurr], and recording various Private Eye flexi-discs over the years, now available on the Golden Satiricals tapes. His main contribution, however, was to keep the Eye staff's morale going, injecting the magazine with an abundance of energy and raising cash for their increasingly-frequent legal battles, all of which helped to ensure that The Eye was about the only product of the early '60s satire movement to out-live it.

While in America, Cook received disturbing news about the state of affairs back home. Firstly the original Establishment Club had lost a great deal of money on a lifestyle magazine, Scene, and had also been over-run by the Soho gangster community and was going downhill fast. Secondly it appeared that someone else had taken one of his ideas and was using it to usurp Cook's position back home as the leader of the new satire movement. Before leaving for the States, Cook had decided to try his hand at pitching an idea for a television series to the BBC. It was to be a weekly, up-to-the-minute satire show based around his Establishment Club and using the latest young talent. The BBC turned the idea down, but accepted a very similar one from producer Ned Sherrin, minus The Establishment. The show was to be titled That Was The Week That Was, or TW3 for short, and it was hosted by one David Frost. Frost had been a few years behind Cook at Cambridge and quickly became friends with him and followed Cook into performing at the Footlights. While every potential comedian at Cambridge at the time was deeply influenced by Cook, many considered Frost's act to have passed over the boundary into plagiarism. By the time Sherrin approached Frost about TW3, the latter was performing on the London circuit doing a suspiciously familiar impression of Harold Macmillan. TW3 first broadcast in 1963 and quickly became a huge hit. While Cook may have been the king of the satire movement for those in London and Cambridge who were in the know, Frost was going out to television sets around the country on a weekly basis.

Beyond The Fringe ended its American run in 1964 and Cook returned to Britain, now married to Wendy Snowden, his girlfriend since Cambridge, to find his club all but finished and what he thought, with some justification, was his idea for a television series having been stolen, made into a huge hit and hosted by a man Cook now referred to as "The Bubonic Plagiarist". The satire movement on which Cook had built his career thus far was rapidly diluting itself. Cook's career experienced a brief lull before the opportunity to re-invent himself as a television comedian when he was re-united with a colleague from Beyond The Fringe, Dudley Moore.

go to part two

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