Peter Cook: Genius at Work at BFI

At this moment in time, we’re awash with comedy. If it isn’t another self-consciously wacky panel show on BBC Radio 4, it’s Russell Howard gurning away to a series of YouTube clips. Comedians not yet in their forties are onto writing the second volume of their autobiography while Peter Kay rakes in millions a night by reducing 30,000 audience members to hysterics with his ‘Who here gets post?’ shtick.

Peter Cook was a comedian very much unlike those found today. In fact, it is an error to call him a comedian in the sense of being a stand-up. He was a satirist, writer, performer, as well as being the proprietor of Private Eye, rescuing it from certain bankruptcy. He was one of the leading lights of the satire boom of the early Sixties and an influence on the members of Monty Python, Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais amongst many others. Now for the uninitiated and for his many, many fans, the BFI is hosting a season of his films, television programmes and one-off specials.

Cook’s genius lay in impersonation, the creation of comic characters and revelling in the absurd. During Beyond the Fringe, the satirical revue that established Cook as a star, he mimicked Harold McMillan, the then Prime Minister. Given that this was one of the first times this had been openly done on stage, it was shocking in the extreme. None moreso than when McMillan tried to tough it out and sit in on one of the shows. On seeing him Cook started improvising, turning a three-minute monologue into a ten-minute invective.

To get an insight into Cook’s humour, watch Peter Cook: Oddities and Rarities (21 March), a collection of Cook’s appearances on television, including chat show appearances in which he inhabits characters unable to see their own ridiculousness. It’s a chance to see both his natural wit in person and his ability to completely withdraw into a creation.

To get an idea of the esteem in which he was held by his peers, check out Peter Cook and Co, the one-off special featuring Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Terry Jones and many others. Although varying in quality as all sketch shows do, the hits greatly outweigh the misses.

Acting was not particularly Cook’s strong point with a film’s emphasis on discipline and repeating scenes over and over. Yet along with Bedazzled (1967), he did produce one cult gem in the form of The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970). Starring as the eponymous character, Cook goes from advertising wunderkind to setting his sights on running the country. Although unappreciated at the time of its release, it now does seem quite prescient. A slick, yet ultimately vacant, man going through the ranks of PR, then politics to achieve the highest position in the land. Remind you of anyone?

Peter Cook: Genius at Work runs until March 21 at:

Belvedere Road

Tel: 0844 545 8282

Image by classic film scans courtesy of Flickr

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