Peter Cook is clearly used to being seen as a legend in his own lunchtime. Halfway through a deluxe hamburger after a press screening ofthe Falklandesque farce that is Whoops Apocalypse. he reacts calmly to hack-speak about his status as ‘elder statesman ofsatire‘. ‘Well. so long as I‘m not asked to be younger statesman ofsatire. then it‘s within my reach.‘
But as the barrage of rhetorical questions continues — ‘you did. did you not. invent the Cambridge Footlights. Beyond The Fringe. Private Eye . . .‘- something sparkles under the long eyelashes and Cook looks increasingly like a schoolboy determined not to giggle.
‘I mean we didn‘t sit down with Beyond The Fringe and think here are these targets. we just wrote what we thought was funny. People called us satirical and I suppose we were. . . But we weren‘t angry young men. I think we were yuppies before they thought ofit . . . We‘d be angry now.‘
Oddly enough. he would agree that the zany Whoops Apolcalypseft‘lm could even be deemed harsher satire. ‘People are doing pictures with more bite now. 'he says. Whoops is after all about a Britain dominated by the slogan ‘there is no alternative’ and racing headlong into nuclear annihilation. And as Sir Mortimer Chris. subtitled ‘a loopy person‘. Peter Cook is worrying plausible as the ultra right-wing Prime Minister who crucifies cabinet ministers and solves unemployment by convincing the employed to jumpoff Beachy Head.
The part was in fact originally written forJohn Cleese. also a candidate to play the villain. Lacrobat. But as co-wroter Andrew Marshall says. ‘In a way Peter Cook isJohn‘s precurser. and I think in fact people believe Peter more somehow.‘ ‘Anyone tall from Cambridge. I suppose.‘ says Cook of the casting. adding that the carefully chosen moustache — also a prerequisite for an early stage part as Harold Macmillan — was probably what made him look so convincing. ‘Always glued~on ofcourse. The only moustache lever had that looked really bogus was one I grew myself for 3 Brian Rix play in the Sixties.‘
For an ‘elder statesman‘ he says he is not nostalgic about the satirical heyday ofthe Sixties and unsympathetic to the waves of new comics from the Cambridge Footlights who might be intimidated by his precedent — ‘I mean I had to follow Jimmy Edwards.‘ And he is generous about today‘s alternative comedians. adeptly ducking the many opportunities flung at him to rubbish them once and for all. ‘I think a lot of them are very funny.‘ he says. speaking he confesses as ‘one of the few people to enjoy Filthy Rich And Catflap .‘ Whoops is the first time he has acted with Alexei Sayle. but not the first time he has appeared with Rik Mayall. Cook played the mass murderer in an American TV programme called Mr Jolly Lived Next Door. ‘1 was a
murderer who wonders which detergent to buy. I spent most ofthe
Peter Cook takes Stephanie Billen on a tour by way of various comic milestones.
time covered with blood. The director was Stephen Freers, but judging from the amount of blood on me. I‘d say it wasn‘t as sensitive as
A My Beautiful Laundrette . . .‘
For all that he is mildly disappointed that ‘the best comedy on TV is Cheers. and that‘s gone off.‘ More ofa treat he suggests are the repeats of Bil/<0 or the Mary Tyler Moore Show . . . Seeing the journalists‘ eyes light up. Cook lethargically drags the conversation back up to date with praise for a sketch on Saturday Live about some unusually demonstrative owls. and. more thoughtfully. praise for Cleese for finishing Fawlty Towers before he ran out ofthings to say.
Nondescript in an open-necked shirt. grey hair unkempt. a relaxed Peter Cook fields more questions with his customary lack ofgravity. The theatrical role he would most like to take? — ‘The part of Ernest Borgnine‘s mother.‘ Actually he prefers sketches to plays anyway. Meanwhile he says the film scripts are piling up to such an extent that he is thinking ofmoving from his Hampstead house. ‘ldeally I like to have an enormous fee to read them. though obviously one has someone else to do that . . . No. I get a few reasonable scripts. . . I could be very big in India ifonly I could master the Hindu.‘
Ifthere is a lack oftempting material it is not really a problem considering that he aims only to do about one film per year. His dominating ambition it seems is to have a good time. something he was sadly unable to do with his undemanding but embarrassing role on the Joan Rivers show recently. ‘l‘d rather have been in New Zealand than on the end of the sofa as I was.‘ he says. displaying a sense ofhumour about himselfthat defies
any embarrassment on his part. ‘lt all went in a whirlwind ofshowbiz. We did six programmes in six days. so there wasn‘t much chance to look back. . .‘ He smiles at the memory of reviews suggesting he ‘learn his lesson‘ afterthe first episode . . .‘ I think Joan is very funny. but I don‘t like her chat much..l‘m not really interested in whether Barry Manilow enjoyed kissing Nancy Reagan.‘ Nor did he enjoy chatting much himself. ‘It was nice meeting them before and talking to them afterwards. but not really during.‘ Yes. he adds. it was a genuine phone call to Nancy on the show. ‘()fcourse I slept with her way back — National Service — it was mandatory in those days.‘
Cook llits easily from subject to subject. conscious but not unnerved by the presence ofa PR lady hovering to introduce him to more people and ultimately to the minicab waiting outside our venue at London‘s newest Wardour Street cafe'. He has been involved with Private Eye since the Sixties and is now its largest individual shareholder. Predictably. he has viewed its various law-suits with a sense of proportion. the recent Maxwell case being enlivened by the appearance of his Not Private Eye publication. "That really baffled the newsagents. Some were giving it away free with the Daily Mirror. others burnt it. others gave it to down and outs to wrap themselves in during the hard weather. . . Still. at least he‘s lost weight.‘
Not so lean himselfany more. Peter Cook stretches languidly and lights another cigarette. Prompted to talk about his future plans. he says he is waiting for a call to create a government in exile somewhere sunny. generously to include us: ‘l‘m a fairly freewheeling sort of person. Pick your position and you‘re it.
Minister ofhanging around and taking the last vodka sounds good . . .‘ The reality is not so unappealing. a holiday in Australia — the minicab is to take him back to pack before he goes. While there he will be doing little other than to put in an appearance at the Melbourne comedy festival with Barrie Humphries. ‘I‘m opening it and closing it. What goes on in between I don‘t know.‘
Later. having allowed me to talk more with him in the back of the cab. he reveals that he is a little nervous about his trip — not the festival. but getting to Australia at all. ‘What a business getting the passport. It took me a couple of hours. They want it in metres now -- your height. 1.85 metres or something. My act of rebellion was to leave out the dot.‘
The cab crawls on and (‘ook lights up again seeing too late the landlady—like notice on the back of the front seat saying ‘Thank You For Not Smoking‘. ‘I)o you mind'.’ I‘m gasping.‘ he leans across to the driver. leaning back as quickly. grateful for permission. Last year he lost his driving licence on a drinking and driving charge and has since then been relying on others‘ transport. Not really a jetsetter. he has spent time in the States. notably starring in the shortlived Two 's ( ‘ompany series there. but he is less than enthusiastic about Hollywood. ‘l lollywood‘s perfectly all right. I just didn‘t like it. At nine o‘clock in the evening. the town shuts down. Everyone‘s up at six jogging or having meetings.‘ In New York. where he recently met up again with former I’ete 'tt' [)utl partner. Dudley Moore. he finds ‘rather alarming'. not least because ofthe height ofeverything. ‘l‘d resisted going up the Empire State Building for twenty-five years but I finally did it last time when l was there. Terrible — all the people and the waiting. . .‘ Nospecial treatment for stars then.‘.’ ‘Well. you get down quick when they throw you off. . .‘
There appears to be none ofthe rampant jealousy of Dudley Moore's fate that newspapers regularly detect in Cook. Instead he comments vaguely. ‘l)udley‘s not particularly bothered where he is. he just enjoys acting. . . I think he‘s happiernow he is playing the piano in a restaurant sometimes.‘
As Ilampstead hoves into view. we touch on The List and (‘ook‘s love of the ‘what on earth is going on‘." attitude of Edinburgh residents. Asked to say something about (ilasgow too. (‘ook looks tired and says that the radio station is hard to find there. ‘I was tip till four last night.‘ he apologises. ‘there‘s real nostalgia for you. We were trying to find my record ofthe (‘rew (‘uts. . .‘ It sounds eccentric. yet in many ways doe-eyed Peter (‘ook has the air of one who is genuinely and supremely sane. Ile revealed much more about himselfwhen he once said about Dudley Moore: ‘l le is always worrying about his identity — I can‘t think why. I've always known who he is.‘
Whoops Apocalypse opens in Glasgow in the near future.
The List 20 March — 2 April 5