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For Pete's sake
Reviews by PAUL WHITELAW Peter Cook: So Farewell Then by Wendy Cook HarperCollins, 400pp, £18.99 How Very Interesting: Peter Cook's Universe and All That Surrounds It Edited by Paul Hamilton, Peter Gordon and Dan Kieran Snowbooks, 300pp, £9.99 THE METEORIC RISE AND fall of Peter Cook is one of the most spurious myths in showbiz. Accepted wisdom states that Cook peaked by the time he was 30, and went to pieces after his partnership with Dudley Moore dissolved in the late 1970s. The biopic, Not Only But Always, starring Rhys Ifans, unwaveringly ascribed to this view, while Harry Thompson's otherwise definitive biography did little to dispel the notion that Cook ended his days as an embittered alcoholic who never achieved his true potential. Wendy Cook, the comedian's first wife, certainly seems to side with this view, but as the last chapter of her rather aimless autobiography attests, she saw him only sporadically after they divorced in the 1970s. Until then, they had lived a superficially charmed lifestyle. Glittering baubles on the swinging London vine, the Cooks were famed for their celebrity-studded soirées, where the likes of Kenneth Tynan, Bernard Levin and Jonathan Miller would rub shoulders with Lenny Bruce and a Beatle or three. The young, handsome Cook was a star of television, the West End and Broadway, rightfully fêted as the funniest man of his generation. And yet his frightfully reserved upper-middle-class background, complete with boarding school and Cambridge education, rendered him something of a cold fish. Although Wendy admits he was not incapable of affection, he was someone to whom outward displays of emotion were anathema. Perhaps because of this, she writes about him rather listlessly. Theirs was not a passionate relationship, therefore their story proves rather unengaging. She also makes the cardinal error of assuming that anyone is interested in any parts of her life that didn't involve her husband, leading to eminently skippable passages detailing in drab detail the minutiae of life as a hostess to the London gliteratti. Furthermore, her supposedly "untold" tale is little more than the already well-documented Cook saga, with very little insight of her own. Typically for even those closest to him, his former wife is no nearer to uncovering the "real" Cook than anyone else. She is, however, remarkably frank about their open relationship, which she ascribes to misjudged 1960s liberalism, and which was certainly a major factor in their break-up. Both enjoyed a series of affairs, but it was Wendy's relationship with actor Simon Gray that tore her marriage apart. In the book's only genuinely shocking revelation, she tells of being punched and kicked down the stairs by a drunken Cook after he learned of the affair; an inexcusable incident which renders a later Derek and Clive skit on marital abuse all the more disturbing. Wendy admits that her Peter differs wildly from most other accounts, which generally describe Cook as a kind, warm and generous man. Indeed, this is the most oft-repeated assessment in How Very Interesting, a marvellous collection of interviews and essays compiled by the Peter Cook Appreciation Society. The result of a heroic decade-long attempt to catalogue the musings of virtually everyone Cook worked with and influenced throughout his career, it offers a surprisingly consistent portrait of a generally gleeful man whose comedic gifts remained intact until the end, as evinced by his appearance on Clive Anderson Talks Back and the magnificent Radio 3 series with Chris Morris, Why Bother? Indeed, one of the most fascinating interviews is with the enigmatic Morris, Cook's true spiritual heir. Although the PCAS was sadly unable to track down Dudley Moore before he died, nearly everyone else is here, from John Fortune, Auberon Waugh and Mel Smith, to Dick Clement, Will Self, Ian Hislop and even the engineer who recorded the notorious Derek and Clive sessions. The overall picture painted by these accounts is of an awe-inspiring genius who, despite his emotional failings, sailed through life in a state of near-permanent amusement at the absurdities of the universe. And for someone who reputedly failed to achieve his potential, Cook's influence on comedy remains utterly without peer.