a review of Harry Thompson's biography of Peter Cook, published 1997 by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK. ISBN 0 340 64968 2
The British humourist Peter Cook was born in Torquay on 17th November 1937. When he died on 9th January 1995 the media generally gave the impression that he had not lived up to the promise of his genius. That's far from certain, but he was certainly one of the funniest Englishmen who ever lived.
He is best known for his partnership with Dudley Moore, in the sixties BBC TV series Not Only... But Also as Pete and Dud, and later as Derek and Clive. He was also a member of the cast of the ground-breaking satirical revue Beyond the Fringe with Dudley, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.
In the early sixties, Cook did extremely well out of the 'satire boom', opening the Establishment Club in Soho, London. The club eventually went bust, and his film career came to nothing - he was a masterful comic performer and writer but couldn't act. He had also long nurtured a desire to be a pop star - despite his total lack of musical talent. This is reflected in Consequences, when Mr Blint talks about pop music:
"I also mentioned that though my musical orientation is more Bach than Beach Boys, I do take an interest in the world of popular music. I'm something of an expert, but can be fallible. I remember being surprised about Gene Chandler and 'The Duke of Earl'. I never saw that as chart material. The lyrics meant little to me: Duke, duke, duke, duke of Earl, duke, duke..."
Indeed, Peter understood pop music and its fickle ways only too well. In the film Bedazzled (a reworking of Faust which speaks volumes about his relationship with Dudley Moore), Peter appears in a TV pop show as Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations. His dull monotonous dirge 'I don't love you / leave me alone / I'm self contained / Just go away' attracts hoards of adoring girls away from Dudley Moore's previous sweeter pop turn. Cook's performance is somewhat reminiscent of Blint's performance of 'The Duke of Earl' in Consequences.
Cook's career had taken something of a nosedive by 1977, and he had become increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. Given this fact, it seems amazing to me that he made one of the characters in Consequences, Mr Haig, an alcoholic. Cook's contributions to the LP were fitted in between filming of Paul Morrisey's disastrous Hound of the Baskervilles. Harry Thompson quotes Kevin Godley:
"Most of the time we spent during that album we were stoned out of our minds on various substances, both Lol Creme, myself and Peter... We were never totally in sync because Lol and I would work until quite late, one, two or three in the morning, and get up quite late. Peter was an early riser, he'd be up and around by eight, bathed, showered, fresh as a daisy. And he'd be in the studio ready to boogie by the time we staggered downstairs for breakfast at half-eleven, looking like shit. By the time we finally came to, he was going out of it, because he'd start drinking around midday. He was going down as we were coming up, so we'd meet for maybe an hour in the middle."
It wasn't just his own alcholism that inspired Cook - the chief theme of a messy divorce drew on his divorce from his first wife Wendy. Thompson shows how in his later work, Cook could plunder his personal life for material - and his second wife Judy Huxtable played Lulu. Twelve years later he was to be divorced from Judy.
Thompson compares the use of the number 17 in Consequences with Douglas Adams' later use of the number 42 in his radio series The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and concludes that Peter Cook simply used it because he couldn't think of any other way to resolve the storyline, whereas Adams 'ingeniously set up' his numerical punchline throughout the plot. I'd take issue with that - the number 17 doesn't try to tie the plot of Consequences together, as its mystical significance is made clear at an early stage.
Harry Thompson rates Consequences as as big a turkey in the music business as The Hound of the Baskervilles was in the movie business. He says 'today the record has a cult following, and - remarkably - its own website, its small but devoted fanbase dedicated to working out what it all means.' Remarkable!
Certainly Consequences was a commercial and critical flop. Kevin Godley is quoted as saying that the Sex Pistols and punk invalidated the entire project: '...it was such an incredible failure that that it forged a sort of bond between the people involved.' Peter Cook remained fiercely loyal to the project, asking a hostile Dutch journalist what he did with his time. 'Nothing' said the journalist. Cook said 'Well f*** off home and do it'.
There a few other (admittedly fairly tenuous) links between Peter Cook's life and work and Consequences. Fans of Roland the goldfish might be interested to note that Cook had a pet goldfish called Abe Ginsberg. He used to take Ginsberg to pro-celebrity golf touranments, placing his bowl alongside the tee so he could watch for infringements.
There was a sketch in Not Only... But Also featuring a 'dead' wife called Rosie - who turns out not to be dead, but living with a sailor in Frinton. This brings to mind Blint's monologue about his wife Rosie who died in the Blitz, and the song that follows.
Walter's musings on hang-gliding, and in particular his words about crosswinds and it not being 'a good day for a debut' echo an experience Cook had during the filming of The Bedsitting Room in 1968. He and Dudley Moore had to get in a car suspended from a balloon. The balloon expert said 'I wouldn't go up on a day like this', to which Cook replied that they were indeed going up on a day like this. The expert said 'we're at the mercy of the winds' at which point a gust of wind grabbed the balloon and threw them to the ground. One of Peter's knees was seriously injured, severely restricting his future sporting activities.
Harry Thompson's biography is extremely readable, and exhaustively researched. There is a slightly pointless chapter in the middle where he makes a half-hearted attempt to analyse Cook's comedy, but Thompson acknowledges that to dissect comedy is to murder it. The latter parts of the book chronicle Cook's battle with alcohol and his untimely death and make depressing reading. I get the impression that, like Orson Wells, Peter Cook did fulfill his potential - he just peaked very early in his career.
N.B. Images on this page are from the Consequences LP booklet, not from Harry Thompson's biography.
As I write this it is pouring with rain. There is a hole in our roof and it's letting in water. The water is dripping slowly and rhythmically into a bucket. Perhaps I should put Consequences on one more time...
Giles Booth, 17th January 1998