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One Leg Too Few
The Adventures of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
Beyond The Fringe at Edinburgh Festival changed English comedy. Before it was mostly harmless jokes, But BTF skewered all the sacred cows - politicians, religion, the class system, royalty, the lot. All the things that had been an unspoken agreement that you didn't talk about them in public, BTF asked "Why not?", and it turned out there was no answer.
Eric Idle said BTF made him want to be a comedian. "I never realized before that you could laugh at everything that oppressed you."
DUD: I wouldn't mind having ladies use me as a sexual object - having them satiate their lust upon my body.
PETE: But surely you'd rather be respected for your mind than your body?
DUD: No. Well, eventually, yes, but I'd like them to give my body a good going-over first.
Derek and Clive (Live) (they'd wanted to call it Derek and Clive (Dead)) was banned by both the BBC and Capitol Radio, which of course was the best advertising possible. The Sunday Times said it was 'simply satirical about people who swear every other word." Dudley noticed the change when mobbed by crowd of teenage boys at a soccer match. Instead of the usual "Where's your mate Pete?" they were saying "Here Clive, you're a cunt."
One Leg Too Few, says author William Cook, is "a sort of love story, the story of a doomed romance". The comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were temperamental - not to mention physical - opposites in many ways, but they "shared a sense of humour that amounted almost to telepathy". Their 20-year comedy partnership, like many marriages, ended badly. But what makes this retelling of their adventures especially touching is its sense that, despite their messy and sometimes acrimonious divorce, they never stopped loving each other - even when Cook was referring to Dudley as a "deformed dwarf".
Dudley, born in 1935, came from Dagenham, where his father was an electrician, Cook (born two years later) came from solid colonial service stock and went to Radley. Why can one refer to 'Dudley' but not to 'Peter'? Because Cook, and his sense of humour, though inspired and touched with genius, were also aloof and alien, while Dudley was deeply human and approachable. He also giggled at Cook's jokes in performance, which only made them funnier, as Cook stared at him unblinking, going on and on and on in that unhinged monotone.
Moore's family were respectable working-class: too respectable, and unaffectionate, he felt. When he was seven, he spent a night in hospital and a nurse kissed him goodnight. It was a life-changing moment. Ever afterwards he searched for the sensuous thrill of that first kiss. Legions of leggy blondes fell for him, though he was hardly tall, dark and handsome. He never quite made 5ft 3in, and the first time he fondled a girl's breasts, he claimed he had to stand on a pile of bricks to reach.
His other life-changing event was learning to play the church organ, which got him into Magdalen College, Oxford as a music scholar. Cook meanwhile coasted through Radley, surviving the brutal, character-building rituals of public school with ease: having ice-cold water poured down the front of his trousers, not being allowed to shut the lavatory door while defecating, being fiddled with in his cubicle by an older boy and so on. He won a prize for an essay advocating the chemical castration of the unintelligent working class, and wrote on his official leaving form that his plans for the future were "BBC, films, TV, sherry".
He went to Cambridge, where in 1958 he joined the Footlights, then the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, after which stardom beckoned. The theatre critic Michael Billington is quoted here, observing that what changed British theatre (and more) wasn't John Osborne's 1956 play Look Back in Anger (now a dull, shouty period piece), but Beyond the Fringe. Cook and Moore were brought together for it at Edinburgh in 1960, along with Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, all having shown comic talent at university, although Cook was regarded as the star.
Cook and Moore first met in a restaurant in Bloomsbury. "The main thing I remember was the food," Cook recalled. "It was revolting." He talked in a flood of astonishing improvisation while the others listened in awe - until Moore "reduced everyone to stitches, following the waitresses into the kitchen and out again, like Groucho Marx". It was a key moment. Cook, Bennett and Miller alone might have been just a little too clever and pleased with themselves, but Moore's clownishness "saved the whole thing from disappearing up its collective arse".
In Beyond the Fringe, Cook and Moore ridiculed with cerebral irreverence the national anthem, the Church of England and "the Few", but Cook also wrote sketches mocking anti-nuclear protesters and African post-independence leaders. Later, the two men would re-create themselves as Pete and Dud in the joyous Not Only ...but Also, which ran on BBC television from 1964 to 1970.
The author recounts their story with wit and clarity, through early successes, later failures and multiple affairs and marriages, but it is as a psychological portrait of the pair, and their devoted and then fractured friendship, that One Leg Too Few (the name of one of their funniest sketches) is really compelling. Moore struggled all his life with feelings of "confusion, depression, indecision, paralysis of mind, lack of purpose, lack of faith". He had years of psychoanalysis. But the book makes the point that Moore's serious talent as a classical pianist, and the self-discipline it entailed, was probably the greatest help. He played right through Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues every morning: quite a feat.
Cook, too, dabbled in psychoanalysis, but could never take it seriously. He could never take anything seriously, which was his greatest curse. Author Cook doesn't have much time for the cliched observation that comic Cook wasted his talent, but he was essentially a brilliantly surreal monologist, ideally impromptu. I once witnessed him in full flight in a bibulous after-lunch speech, where he went off on one of his pet obsessions, the threat of killer bees, and it was pure, unrepeatable comic genius. But it doesn't exactly make a career.
He tried to be a chat-show host, but he was, apparently, painfully unfunny. Nor was he a big-screen actor or pop star, though he wanted to be both. Failure led him to joke that he was going to make a programme called Peter Cook's London, "about the 40ft of pavement between his local newsagent and his front door". Like all the best jokes, this has a streak of melancholy.
Cook and Moore's last joint, bad film was The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978), and their final, drunk, dismal recording was as the outrageous but not terribly funny Derek and Clive in Ad Nauseam (1978), which came with its own sickbag. Then, a year later, stumpy Dudley, not tall, handsome Peter, suddenly became a huge film star and Hollywood sex symbol with 10 (1979) followed by Arthur (1980). Cook showed himself human after all, simultaneously capable of seething jealousy, resentment, pride and deep affection. They continued to see each other on rare occasions, but they would never work together again.
Both died young, Cook in 1995, at 57, of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage brought on by years of heavy drinking, and Moore in 2002, at 66, of a horrible degenerative condition called progressive supranuclear palsy. The author dismisses rumours that Moore brought it on himself with too much, er, "partying", and also points out that Cook's drinking was particularly damaging because he had contracted serious hepatitis as a youth. He was a steady tippler, but he was not on serious self-destruct.
When Moore heard of Cook's death he felt there was "a hole in the universe", while of the later years of estrangement between these two soul-mates, you can't help thinking of Cook's line: "Tragically, I was an only twin."
Who's famous now?
In 1981, Moore and Cook, both in Hollywood, were persuaded by the Daily Mirror to do a reprise of Pete and Dud in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Afterwards in the bar there was applause, but all for the famous Dud. "They had no idea who Cook was," said the Daily Mirror man, "and he took it badly."
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William Cook (no relation) calls Peter Cook and Dudley Moore the best double act in the history of British comedy — a preposterous claim, when also in the ring are Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies, and Hale and Pace.
I am also not sure that Cook and Moore were particularly comical, either and, as this book makes all too plain, what characterised their performances and what remains of interest now that their jokes are old hat, was that their partnership, professional and personal, turned into a complicated, rancorous marriage. Looking at their work today, says William Cook, with justification, is like eavesdropping on a drunken quarrel or a violent domestic dispute, which belongs more with Strindberg and Ibsen than in the annals of light entertainment.
From the start, Cook and Moore fell into a master/servant or bully/victim dynamic. Cook was tall, patrician and supercilious. Even at Radley, he monopolised the conversation with his funny voices and impressions. He perfected a barrier against intimacy. Moore, by contrast, was much more of a natural clown. Barely 5ft tall and with a club foot on to which he projected all his feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, his background is actually more interesting and impressive. From a Dagenham council house he won an organ scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where his tutor said he was the only genius he ever taught. Moore, whose compositions suggested Delius and Elgar with a dash of jazz, was even considered for a fellowship, but declined, preferring Chinese food and women. There’s nothing else.
After lazing around at Cambridge, where he got a 2:2 by memorising Eleanor Bron's lecture notes, Cook contributed sketches to revues for Kenneth Williams and Sheila Hancock. Moore was emulating Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner at Ronnie Scott’s and composing incidental scores for plays at the Royal Court. One way and another they were introduced to each other and to Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, and after the premiere in Edinburgh, Beyond the Fringe ran for years in London and on Broadway.
Moore's parodies of Britten and his rendition of the Colonel Bogey March in the style of a Beethoven sonata remain the highlights of the Beyond the Fringe recordings. Though Miller said we knew it was funnier than anything we'd ever seen, it is archaeology now, not humorous; very smugly Oxbridge. William Cook does well to remind us how shocking and innovative it was, back in 1960, to poke fun at the Queen and the Prime Minister - with such satirical bite, indeed, the Queen and Harold Macmillan attended performances.
A spin-off of sorts was Cook's foundation of The Establishment club, where the establishment formed the membership: the government, civil service, Oxford dons such as Isaiah Berlin. It was always crowded. "Alan Bennett managed to get in, leaving Patrick Leigh Fermor on the doorstep." The walls were decorated with a mural by Roger Law of St Francis of Assisi being eaten alive by crows. The club went bust, alas, because the staff turned out to be fiddling the management blind. Moore played the piano in the cocktail bar.
This all led to Not Only . . . But Also , which 'was like being back at university, but with bigger grants'. Cook relied on the autocue and enjoyed making Moore corpse. It is fortunate, I think, that the BBC wiped the tapes ('obliterated them without a care' ), because what remains is very slow and tame, atrociously acted and edited. This is because Cook and Moore’s gifts were literary; their material works brilliantly on the page. Hence the success of William Cook’s previous two works, which are anthologies of their sketches and monologues, Tragically I Was an Only Twin and Goodbye Again . Interestingly, when Cook briefly had a chat show - such a flop it was axed: he was replaced by a young Michael Parkinson - his first guest was S. J. Perelman, the most literary comedian who ever lived.
The films they made were fiascos, except for Bedazzled , which was a hit when dubbed into Italian. The money rolled in, however, and soon there were nice houses in Hampstead, pretty blonde wives and bitter misogyny. Cook and Moore were really only married to each other. Moore's home was identically decorated to Cook's. "Whatever one had in life, the other wants it too," sighed Judy Huxtable, the second Mrs Cook, whom Moore creepily and persistently tried to seduce. On several occasions, the men even shared the same prostitute.
Cook, however, owing to a growing apathy, became a vicious and unpleasant drunkard. During the long tour of Behind the Fridge he never drew a sober breath. He'd go on stage plastered. "Drink was replacing Dudley as the other half of the double act." When Moore, alarmed and disgusted by the chronic alcoholism, decided to remain in America alone, Cook treated this as a betrayal, like a husband who is indignant that his wife won't sit still to be battered. He called the break-up of the double act an 'acrimonious divorce'.
According to one of his wives, there were weeks when "Peter didn't change his clothes or wash his hair, or take a bath. He didn't want to go outside. His rage was hard to live with." Out of this emotional inferno came the Derek and Clive albums. William Cook deplores them, but I rather relish the rococo filth and rage. The recordings, released in 1976, are the point where horror and comedy meet. "Peter looks possessed, like a man on the brink of murder," our author says. "Dudley looks like a man who wants to crawl away and die."
Cook died of cirrhosis in 1995, aged 57. Apart from performing old sketches at benefit gigs and making guest appearances on other people's programmes, in his last years he achieved little. Moore, before he died in 2002, aged 66, enjoyed a few years of unexpected Hollywood fame. With 10 and Arthur, the man Cook had called a 'deformed dwarf' became the third biggest movie star after Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds.
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