A Little Bit Of Pete & Dud
Over the course of the coming year there will be a deluge of Beatles-themed films, books, radio programmes, articles and blogs all celebrating the fifty year anniversary of the Fab Four’s part in the changing of the world from a monotone of sour-faced austerity to one of exploding colour, fun and fine tunes. It has become common for lazy pop-cultural commentators to quote a line of Larkin about the ‘first Beatles LP’ in order to qualify the mistaken view that the loveable mop tops changed the world for ever. As with most revisionist views of the way things were (and nostalgia sure ain’t what it used to be) there is a grain of truth in the idea that a shake of the head and a Little Richard-style ‘woooo’ knocked the old order off it’s perch. However, there had been a few, admittedly non-musical, iconoclasts and disruptive influences to have shook things up before Brian Epstein put his Liverpudlian boys into nice suits.
As odd as it may now seem, the four collar-length haired, besuited satirists of Cambridge and Oxford who constituted the parts of Beyond The Fringe laid major groundwork for the Beatles to follow them. The irreverent, mocking humour of Alan, Jonathan, Peter and Dudley transferred seamlessly from Edinburgh in 1960, via London’s West End to America and a sold out Broadway run in 1962 (even President JFK took in a performance). That was almost two years before John, Paul, George and Ringo made their jokey first US appearance on American soil, of course.
Of the Beyond The Fringe quartet, Cook and Moore went on to occupy similar territory to the Beatles over the course of the 1960s with a series of television and cinema performances that offended and delighted in almost equal measure. The Pete & Dud dialogues of 1964 have been copied by scores of comedy double acts over the past five decades, while their psychedelic farce Bedazzled (1967) has been remade (in 2000) and continues to be referenced by successive generations of artists and performers in their own work. Peter Cook’s founding of the Establishment Club and its in-house journal Private Eye ensured his place in the counter-cultural pantheon of damaged idols, while Dudley Moore’s unlikely Hollywood success has meant that far less talented Brits since have managed to (at least) remake his hits in LA, thus gaining themselves access to starlets and celebrity gossip columns.
After the death of Cook in 1995, his erstwhile comedy partner Moore suffered ill health (including a series of strokes) and during increasingly rare public appearances he seemed to be drunk, and was almost incoherent: in fact, as he announced in 1999, he was suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy. Dudley died in 2002. In 1999 we commissioned a biography of Pete & Dud from the London Evening Standard comedy editor, Alexander Games. A fan and one-time Private Eye contributor, Games set about his task with determination, flair and affection. We are delighted to be republishing that text, with minor additions to update it, as an eBook.
What follows is an extract from the introduction to Pete & Dud, by Alexander Games:
At the time of my first writing this, Dudley Moore was days away from his 64th birthday. The frailties inevitable for a man of his generation were showing: his one-time mate Anthony Newley had just died and the health of Dudley Moore had become the subject of some debate, not to say concern. Dudley’s movements were a mystery – even, some say (though his closest friends denied it with strenuously veiled hints), to himself. Ex-wives and friends who had known him from the time he was a virgin – and that was a long time ago – admitted they didn’t know where he was, couldn’t get in touch with him, hadn’t spoken to him for almost two years. Was he in hospital or with friends? Was his infirmity a media myth? Which was the greater tragedy: Peter Cook’s premature death or Dudley Moore’s then-ragged survival?
This book aims to be, for the most part, a celebration of the two of them, in performance. Happy together, unhappy together, bickering or jointly holidaying, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were one of the entertainment world’s most distinctive double acts. They had an instinctive on-stage empathy, and yet they could go six months without seeing each other. They created two characters, Pete and Dud, who delved into their own personal histories for subject matter, and yet in private they often found conversation hard going. Physically, only a foot separated the men — Dudley’s diminutive five feet two-and-a-half inches tucked under Peter’s beanpole six-foot-two — however, emotionally as well as mentally they were miles apart. It was a strange symbiosis. Double acts often make a feature of their differences. From Laurel and Hardy to Morecambe and Wise via Abbott and Costello, physical differences throw up a mass of comic potential. But with Cook and Moore it went way beyond that. Peter’s father was a colonial governor who spent a lot of time in Africa; Dudley’s father was a railway electrician who spent too much time in Dagenham. Peter boarded at Radley; Dudley walked the few hundred yards each day to Dagenham County High School. Peter was fit, and good at football. Dudley, agonisingly, was born with a withered left leg at the end of which was a club foot. He was extraordinarily gifted at music, though, through which he won a scholarship to Magdalen College Oxford. Peter could not hold a tune in his head, but his quick wits won him a place at Cambridge. They came together to create Beyond The Fringe in 1960, with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. The rest is history, but the non-parallels don’t end there.
The twinkly-eyed Dudley had, as Jonathan Miller told The South Bank Show, ‘an almost pagan, Pan-like capacity to enchant ladies’, which, of course, led to him being labelled with the ‘cuddly Dudley’ or ‘sex thimble’ moniker. Peter, who early on wished he could play someone his own age instead of a 55-year-old, made a feature of his expressionless face for comic effect, and seemed more aloof, even a trifle cold. Both had some sexual adventures – Peter had three marriages to Dudley’s four – but whereas Dudley believed in ‘the meaningful one-night stand’, Peter was essentially the marrying kind. Dudley spent much of his life in therapy and talked about himself a lot, on stage or in interviews. Peter was, to most people, most of the time, a closed book who thought psychiatry and psychotherapy rather ridiculous.
Essentially, Cook was a wit and Moore was a clown. Cook had a satirical or political side (Private Eye and the notorious but short-lived Establishment Club) in which Moore never took an interest. But whereas Moore achieved success as an actor, Cook struggled with anything longer than a short sketch. Cook didn’t make it as a screen actor, and he said he never wanted to live in Hollywood. Moore became a top Hollywood actor and one of Tinseltown’s best-known residents.
Even their vices divided them. With Peter, it was the bottle: in Dudley’s case, it was the lure of the Hollywood lifestyle, with many of its attendant vices. At every stage, one seemed to be the antithesis of the other. In a sense, it was their differences that drew them together.
Following Cook’s death the impression persisted on TV, radio and in the Press that he and Dudley had done their best work in the Sixties. Cook and Moore’s renaissance as Derek & Clive received scant coverage. There are good reasons for this, since not everyone might appreciate sketches that contain explicit references to hand-jobs, blow-jobs and colonic cancer. But I felt then, and still do, that the Derek & Clive oeuvre had been undervalued. Even when Harry Thompson and Barbra Paskin’s biographies were published, they pretty much endorsed Private Eye editor Ian Hislop’s line that ‘It was rubbish. It was Peter and Dudley swearing at each other in a studio.’ For me, and for thousands more, Derek & Clive were a revelation.
Obviously, I was a gauche teenager when those records appeared in the Seventies, but they have never lost their gaudy allure. To hear two famous comedians abusing each other was utterly liberating. They also, I would maintain, enfranchised a whole section of working-class society, giving it a comic voice which had been overlooked by middle-class comedians for years. Back in the Sixties, at the art gallery, the zoo, on the bus, at the library looking up the most disgusting word in the world (which, as Laurence Marks, Maurice Gran and Rik Mayall of the sitcom The New Statesman will be able to tell you, is ‘B’stard’) Pete and Dud are permanent outsiders, looking in at a world they don’t understand and trying to make sense of it. Derek & Clive, by contrast, have entered the world, or have constructed their own distorted likeness of it, and they are its legitimate occupants.
Derek & Clive recognised the simple but overlooked fact that ordinary people swear a fuck of a lot, but the way that Cook – especially Cook – uses language is so casually evocative that he achieves something that surpasses mere obscenity. One only has to listen to the scores of imitations which this album spawned – especially, though they deny it, the ‘Head To Head’ series by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones – to see that talking seriously about stupid subjects is not at all easy, and in the hands of lesser talents merely sounds stilted and pointless.
There is much else to enjoy in the Cook and Moore canon — I look forward to humming the praises of a marvellous if under-appreciated song called ‘Isn’t She A Sweetie?’ — but I sincerely hope to explain why, for example, ‘Having A Wank’ is such a great sketch.
Dudley Moore once described himself and Peter Cook as being ‘diametrically opposed in everything’. Peter Cook went further, describing his working relationship with Dudley Moore as ‘the worst kind of polite marriage: you sort of sit round, and neither of us is really very good at coming out with what we really think.’
This book is an appreciation of that marriage.