Friday, 18 November 2016

TV Review: The Undiscovered Peter Cook, BBC4 (16/11/16)

There have been many documentaries about the life of Peter Cook. As he's my ultimate comedic hero, their proclivity doesn't bother me in the slightest, the more the merrier I say, but Victor Lewis-Smith's The Undiscovered Peter Cook on BBC4 this week offered us something unique and previously unavailable from previous TV biographies - Cook's archive.

Following the Cook's death in 1995 aged just 57,  the great satirist's third and final wife Lin, refusing all requests for access by the media,  proceeded to put up the shutters of his Hampstead home and it's effectively been locked up ever since. Only Lewis-Smith's poignant 2000 film, Dudley Moore: After the Laughter, convinced Lin to do something by way of a lasting tribute to her husband and now, sixteen years on from that film, Lewis-Smith received unprecedented access to go - in the words of David Frost, who Cook once saved from drowning; his only regret in life - 'through the keyhole'  to sift through the plethora of rare photographs, files and paperwork, private audio and visual recordings, half-finished and long forgotten projects and associated clutter.  

For a Cook fan such as myself, this was manna from heaven; there was restored footage of long believed wiped/missing sketches from Not Only But Also (including one sketch with a corpsing Peter Sellers unearthed in the US Library of Congress no less) outtakes from the profane Derek and Clive sessions, and most excitingly, audio of Cook's notorious chat show Where Do I Sit?, along with home video material of Cook playing golf in the street, dancing around a hotel room with a fag on the go (of course), inventing the sport of 'Los Bollockos' during an all expenses paid (by John Cleese, basking in his A Fish Called Wanda glory) celebrity-laden cruise down the Nile, and of his memorial service.

Given that much of the material was audio based, the film was enlivened by deliberately crude animation making use of photos of Cook himself. Admittedly some of the material was consigned to oblivion for obvious reasons; the audio of an improvised sketch about the dangerous side-effects of eating too much marmalade was one such laughter-free zone, which made it all the more puzzling that the programme-makers chose to open with it and, whilst there's no denying that Cook was a genius and a brilliant renaissance man, one thing he most certainly could not turn his hand to was singing, so the inclusion of him attempting does - as Lewis-Smith says at one point - leave us to wonder why they bothered, but it does at least afford us an affectionate playful look at the man's private life and one of the more innocent ways in which he kept himself amused.    

It would be easy too to point the finger at the levels of impartiality in evidence in Lewis-Smith's film, given that it ignores Cook's children and his first two wives, Wendy Cook and Judy Huxtable, in favour of Lin, a complex and divisive figure among Cook fans with a reputation for alienating many figures from his past including family and former spouses, but given that she is the gatekeeper to the material on offer here it is perhaps unsurprising that the film chooses to pay some small tribute to her amidst the overall celebration of - as Stephen Fry put it - 'the funniest man to draw breath'.

EDITED TO ADD: And now (1st Dec, 2016) news has reached me that Lin Cook herself has passed away this week at the age of 71.

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