I am a child of the 80s. I was 11 when The Young Ones hit our television screens in 1982, 12 when The Black Adder introduced Baldrick to the world and 17 when Alexei Sayle’s Stuff was inflicted upon us. I remember some sit-coms of the late 70s too, mind you. Robin’s Nest and Rising Damp are the two that bring back the strongest memories for me. But throughout the eighties the ‘alternative comics’ ruled the roost.
There wasn’t the glut of television channels that we have today either. I remember there being just three. When Channel 4 was launched late in 1982 that brought the number of channels up to…four. So there wasn’t that much opportunity for repeats of the old classics. I do remember The Goodies being repeated a lot. And BBC2 would screen regular Laurel & Hardy shorts. But the classics I love today – Not Only…But Also, Hancock, That Was The Week That Was – I can’t remember much stuff from the 1960s ever being repeated in the 1980s.
A dear, long lost friend, Wade Hughes, introduced me to Monty Python sometime in 1987. He brought over The Meaning Of Life one evening, waxing lyrical about its anarchic, clever, insane humour. So he slotted the VHS tape into my Nan’s rented video recorder and pressed play.
Now I was 16 at the time and, as most 16 year olds do, was going through a ‘It’s a weakness to show emotions’ phase. It was shortly after my ‘I’m God’s younger brother’ phase and before my ‘Let’s settle down to watch Eastender’s’ phase.
So I sat through the whole film holding back my laughter. I didn’t want to be seen as weak, of course. All part and parcel of exploring who you are as a teenager I guess.
From that evening onwards I became a Monty Python fan – but that’s a story for another time. I mention it here because the only reason I stayed up late one evening a few months later to watch a repeat of The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the amnesty international benefit revue from 1979 – was because John Cleese and Michael Palin were in it. When Peter Cook appeared I had no idea who he was.
And there it was. I found myself laughing. Months of my ‘I’m a better person than you if you don’t see me laughing’ phase suddenly went down the drain. The irony of it was, I didn’t even know the history of this sketch. I didn’t know who Jeremy Thorpe was and the political shenanigans that went on surrounding his trial. All I knew was that this tall thin man on stage, Peter Cook, had made me laugh and I wanted more of it.
The ‘more’ was hard to come by in the late 80s. It was the video retail boom of course, but the weekly releases were mostly movies. I scoured the bookshelves and stumbled across this wonderful book in an old book shop in Newport one day.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the evolution of British comedy from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. It details the formation of Beyond The Fringe, comprising of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller in 1960. This revue suddenly pushed comedy forward, away from the music halls of the previous decades. This revue, in 1960, suddenly made comedy hip and trendy and ushered in the satire boom that continued with the formation of The Establishment Club and the television series That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963).
But going back to the Beyond The Fringe team – what an incredible mash-up of talent! Although that is easy to say now, in hindsight. None of these performers were that well known at all in 1960. Look at the career paths that each of them followed. Each of them accomplished so much with their lives and were so talented. And look at this ageing photograph now. A snapshot of what once was. See the fire in their eyes. The warmth of their humour. Their zest for life. I look at old photographs like this and my heart quivers. But then, I’m a sentimental old fool.
On 17th December 1993 Peter Cook appeared on the CLive Anderson Show. I was there when it happened. Some people are proud to have been alive to watch the moon landing on TV in 1969, other’s claim to fame might be watching Ali beat Foreman in Zaire in 1974. I even know one person who thinks witnessing his cat open his fridge was a momentous occasion. I, however, was there on that day when Channel 4 screened this classice episode of the Clive Anderson Show, where he appeared in the guise of four different characters and proved, if ever proof were needed, that he was a genius. I don’t use that word lightly. In fact, I have never used the word ‘lightly’ until now, and that was only to prove to you that I don’t use it.
He was a dashing character as well, in his youth. I’m a bloke. I’m not gay. But I know a handsome fella when I see one and I can tell that Peter had that wonderful debonair flair.
Peter Cook died on 9th January 1995, aged 57. I never even got to write him a letter. I wished I could have, just to thank him for his legacy. To thank him for making me laugh in my times of sadness, for making me realise that the zany and absurd should always come before the serious and dignified. I thank Peter Cook for the way I am now, for I don’t take life *that* seriously really. I will always pretend to have ‘one leg too few’, from time to time.