Something Like Fire: Peter Cook Remembered by Lin Cook (ed.) - review by Craig Brown

Craig Brown

A Love Letter from the Friends He Left Behind

Something Like Fire: Peter Cook Remembered


Methuen 268pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

A year or two before Peter Cook died, I arranged a meeting between him and my editor at Century, Mark Booth. Mark wanted him to write an autobiography. They met at Rules. Peter arrived announcing that he had just finished his autobiography, and that he had it with him. ‘I’d love to see it,’ said Mark. Peter brought out a couple of pages of notepaper with a few rough sentences scribbled over them. ‘Is that it?’ asked Mark. ‘I thought we might flesh it out with a few photographs,’ replied Peter, his peerless lack of drive spurred on to even greater heights by his Olympian sense of humour.

In the absence of an autobiography, a string of books about Peter Cook will appear over the next few years, some authorised by his widow, Lin, others not. The first of these is Lin Cook’s own collection of reminiscences from his friends. Something Like Fire has a wealth of rich material in it, although one senses that quite a few contributors have, quite understandably, held back from too searching an analysis, wearing Sunday Best in deference to Lin’s deep love. So for my taste there are rather too many showbizzy reminiscences of a type Peter might have enjoyed parodying, beginning ‘Peter WAS the funniest man in the world’, and floating ever onwards on a bubbly stream of hot air. A greater sprinkling of his Private Eye friends might have lent a little oomph. As it is, there is no Willie Rushton, no Richard Ingrams, no Ian Hislop, no Christopher Booker, no Paul Foot.

But there is still much to enjoy, and many essays – notably those by John Wells, Stephen Fry, John Lloyd, Alan Bennett and Barry Humphries – bring back his memory with happy precision. Everyone agrees on what a lovable man he was: Auberon Waugh recalls him in the company of teenagers at a school play, ‘so gentle, so friendly, so ungrand and unpatronising’. There is also consensus on the extraordinary reach of his comic vision. To those with the nerve to pursue their analyses further, his genius for transforming everything he spotted into jokes had a touch of Midas about it: ‘We clocked in, as it were, whereas Peter never clocked out,’ recalls Alan Bennett. ‘He was utterly at the mercy of language.’

This book shows that he was a hero – the hero – of his own Beyond the Fringe generation, the Monty Python generation, and the Stephen Fry generation that followed them. His heroic stature combines with his sheer friendliness to ensure that all the contributors treat him as unique and special to themselves. In this they are not alone: I had lunch with him barely half a dozen times, but, in my solipsistic way, I still somehow feel qualified to write about him, as though the world was composed of a joke shared only by him and me. Yet his true character remains elusive, allowing everyone to paint him in their own image. This becomes comically apparent when contributors attempt to touch on his political views. To his Cambridge contemporary Adrian Slade, ex-President of the Liberal Party, he was ‘fanatically interested’ in politics, and even ready to stand as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead in the 1992 election. Nicholas Luard, on the other hand, chalks him up as a conservative with a ‘contempt for socialism’. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Luard recalls that ‘his politics were anarchic’. On the other hand, the screenwriter Peter Bellwood believes that ‘It was “the little people” who fascinated Peter, a group for whom he had the utmost affection.’ Personally, I would imagine he considered politics best viewed as some sort of joke, but perhaps, like the others, I am merely reflecting my own views in his mirror.

Analysis of his comic vision by contributors is more profitable, though scarcely less disparate. It was formed early on, while he was still a pupil at Radley, and – fascinatingly – most of it seems to have been inspired by an elderly waiter at the Radley High Table who went by the name of Mr Boylett. Michael Bawtree recalls Mr Boylett:

Dressed in shabby tails, grey waistcoat and tie, like a waiter in some Hungarian nightclub … In our arrogant way, we never stopped to think twice about Mr Boylett. He was part of the landscape. But it was Peter who took painstaking note of the man … The more pathetic and simple the poor man was, the more Peter saw in him an absurdist superhero … He used to point out that the wonderful thing about Boylett was that he was so very ordinary, so very grey, so unremarkable. Peter had a way of seeing the world through the eyes of such people, weaving around them a world of cosmic triviality.

Cook himself confirmed this view of his talent as early as 1959, in an interview for the New Yorker:

Sometimes I think of old men who live in single rooms. I see them listening to their portable radio sets and charting news bulletins, which then take on great importance in their pathetic little lives. They become amusing, not because one pokes fun at them, but because they make unimportant things seems important and base their lives on false premises.

Exasperatingly – though predictably, given his mesmerizing ability as a performer – many of his jokes fail to echo their original punch when transferred to the two-dimensional world of the page. Transcripts from only quite funny old radio quizzes are unwisely reprinted at length. But now and then flashes of his real hilarity zap their way through. In his sweet eulogy, Stephen Fry recalls the time when someone on a chat show remarked to Cook that it wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor’s fault that she was putting on weight, it was her glands:

I know [he replied]. Poor woman. There she is, in her suite in the Dorchester, harmlessly watching television. Suddenly her glands pick up the phone and order two dozen eclairs and a bottle of brandy. ‘No!’ she screams, ‘Please, I beg you!’ but her glands take no notice. Determined glands they are, her glands. You’ve never known glands like them. The trolley arrives and Elizabeth Taylor hides in the bathroom, but her glands, her glands take the eclairs, smash down the door and stuff them down her throat. I’m glad I haven’t got glands like that. Terrible glands.

Fry rightly pinpoints the relentless repetition of the word ‘glands’ as the linchpin of the joke: ‘Hitler may have said that if you repeat a lie often enough it’ll be believed,’ he observes. ‘Peter Cook proved that if you repeated it more than enough it’ll be exposed.’

Was he happy? Many of the contributors seem almost overanxious to insist that he was. ‘The man died happy. Bless him’ is a typical conclusion. But every comedian is inextricably linked to his creations, and the seamlessness of Peter Cook’s vision of ‘cosmic triviality’ must surely have come from somewhere deep within him. John Wells suggests that ‘His originality lay in a kind of despairing boredom with the ordinariness of life.’ Cook made this boredom into something comic and Samuel Beckett made it into something tragic, but the source of their inspiration is much the same.

I would like to have read more about his family: his daughters, his former wives, and, perhaps most particularly, his parents. One of only two contributors to mention his mother, Alan Bennett recalls how after her death, just a few months before Cook’s own, ‘he regularly referred to himself as an orphan. This seemed to me so strange and uncharacteristic, both in Peter or in any man in his mid-fifties, that it made me feel that I perhaps hardly knew him at all.’ I remember Peter telling me how his mother’s death had cracked him up – an unusual confession from a man so free of self-pity and so reticent with his emotions. And I also remember Mark Booth telling me after their meeting at Rules that Peter had said, in all seriousness, that he could never publish an autobiography while his mother was still alive. His mother, I suspect, may be the key to a deeper investigation. Until then, Something Like Fire is a fitting love letter from the friends he left behind to a sublimely funny and lovable man.

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