Spent last night downloading a load of MP3s of Peter Cook's conversations with Rainbow George at his house in Hampstead. Since seeing Not Only But Always on TV a couple of weeks ago, I have become reacquainted and re-obsessed with the works of Cookie. My dad complained to me one morning last week, because I had gone to bed slightly drunk* the previous night and put Derek & Clive Come Again on my CD player at rather a high volume, in order to lull me to sleep.
In a quiet little satellite town like this, I suppose it must be somewhat disturbing to be woken at three in the morning by the sounds of drunken swearing, buttock-quaking expectorations and dirty songs, my favourite of which is:
Oh my dear little Flo
I love you so
Especially in your nightie
When the moonlight flits
Across your tits
Oh Jesus Christ Almighty
- sung in a peculiar Scottish accent by Mr. Dudley Moore on the album Derek & Clive (Live)
In the early 90's I used to hang around in Camden, Belsize Park and Hampstead a lot, and I remember seeing Mr. Cook a few times in the area. Always at pelican crossings, I remember (though my mind may be playing tricks on me). He'd be crossing from one side, and I'd be crossing from the other. I remember him as being very big, wearing an enormous white t shirt, jacket and trousers, long grey hair. The couple of times it happened I remember thinking "fuck me! it's him!" about ten seconds after he had passed by. I would never have dreamed of approaching him though, as, putting myself in his position, I wouldn't have wanted to be pestered by some little arsehole while trying to get across the road.
There have been complaints from Wendy Cook and Lin Cook (Peter's two wives), regarding the accuracy of Rhys Ifan's portrayal of their husband in Not Only But Always, which is fair enough. Peter Cook is portrayed as a charming but consistently arrogant, cruel, and later, drunken character, the villain of the piece, who endlessly persecuted poor little club-footed Dudley Moore. Of COURSE this is nonsense. Anyone with any sense can see that. As much as we would like to believe it, things are never, ever that black and white. But then that's what art is all about, isn't it? Trying to make sense of it all. To distil order from chaos. To get rid of the grey areas so that there is good and there is evil and everything makes some sort of sense. To attempt to simplify things that can't be simplified.
Since time immemorial, human beings have enjoyed hearing and reading stories, because stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Real life also has a beginning, a middle and an end, but generally not half as tidy, coherent and structured as we'd like. Thus, we write and listen to stories. It imposes shape on the shapeless, meaning on the meaningless.
I approached Not Only But Always not expecting to see the REAL Pete 'n' Dud, anymore then I expected Gary Oldman to be the REAL Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy, or Anthony Hopkins to be the REAL Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's Nixon.
What I got from it, in the end, was a very good story about a dysfunctional creative relationship which hit me where I lived (many things have hit me where I lived in the past, but I initiated divorce proceedings immediately and they duly went away to hit other people where they lived).
To me, it didn't matter that it wasn't really Peter, it wasn't really Dudley. It was the feelings that it evoked that mattered, like all good art. Just like well-written history documents tides and movements rather than individual personalities, and, as someone a lot more eminent than me has noted, history, like art, is refracted through the mind of the human being writing it.
But if you are using well-loved personalities that exist in living memory for your ciphers, this obviously causes problems. They have people that loved them, and who would quite understandably object to such two dimensional caricatures. So what do you do? Change their names? Wait another fifty years until everybody that ever knew them is dead? Or do you accept that Art is not Science, that History is not real life, and that the billions of shades of grey involved in being a living, breathing human being are a bit difficult to depict on the canvas, on the screen, on the written page, on the stage?
Oh Christ, what am I on about? I think it's time for bed…..for more information on Peter Cook, go to The Establishment. Also, for a great introduction to his work, go out and get the audio cassette of Why Bother? which is a series of improvised interviews between Peter Cook (as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling) and the equally wonderful Chris Morris. Highly recommended.
*I say I was slightly drunk, but apparently, when you tell doctors how much you drink, they always assume you're understating it and duly double it on your medical records. So, for the sake of accuracy, I was slightly slightly drunk.