Tuesday, 17 April 2012

How Peter Cook made me fall in love with laughter

As a colourful new celebration of Peter Cook’s life opens, one-time co-star Madeline Smith recalls the dramatic day he dazzled her on a golf course – and then confessed to a VERY strange dream

Written by Madeline Smith

One midsummer night in the late 1970s, Peter Cook dreamt that he had murdered Dudley Moore. How do I know? Because the next day, he confided it to me.

Way back in 1965, as a 15-year-old schoolgirl seeing Cook for the first time, however, I never could have foreseen that I would get to know both of these fascinating men. On that occasion, my friend and I sat entranced as privileged members of the audience in a draughty BBC studio, watching Peter Cook and Dudley Moore record an episode of the now legendary sketch series Not Only… But Also.

18887089Peter would have turned 75 this year and, to mark the occasion, the BFI Southbank is hosting a retrospective celebration throughout March. It will include many previously undiscovered nuggets, with film showings, an extended recording of Beyond The Fringe, an aptly named evening of Oddities And Rarities and plenty more besides.

It was Dud whom I met first, in autumn 1969, when he starred in the London stage version of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam. It was a very slight piece but, given that he was the lead, it opened in the West End without a tour. By now, Dud was boxoffice magic and, as an actress in the 1960s, it was my destiny to portray every man’s dream dolly – including Play It Again, Sam.

Very little acting would have been required for my tiny part in the play, but the thrill of having the chance to spend
each night for a year in the company of Dudley Moore was overwhelming.

Sadly, it was not to be. A mean-spirited film company, which had long dispensed with my services, refused to release me early from its contract, and instead, another young actress stepped gamely into my shoes. We were all interchangeable.

Despite this, Dud had secured my phone number and, occasionally, he rang me to wine and dine – and on one awkward occasion, even to get ‘amorous’ with me in his studio flat. It wasn’t a success. He was unable to share anything of himself, except to talk in deadly earnest, endlessly, and with absolutely no humour at all, which came as a complete surprise to me.

But he did, however, say that he loved my company and when he left to work in the States, he asked my permission to contact me again. This he never did.

In extraordinary contrast, Peter Cook seemed to reach out to people with his hilarious and generous humour at every opportunity. It was nearly a decade later that I was invited to partner him in a film portrayal of John Betjeman’s poem Seaside Golf, part of a compilation set to the music of the composer Jim Parker.

Anglia Television had set aside half an hour of its schedule for us, but I doubt that the rest of England was able to enjoy this treat. Susannah York and Eric Morecambe also gave their time to it, virtually free I believe. Peter, still fit and handsome, and I – encumbered by a very dignified Edwardian costume – hit it off from the first moment. It is not for effect that I say he is the funniest man off-camera that I have ever met. Purely to make me laugh, entirely unconnected with filming, he invented some ‘business’ with the wing mirror of an old classic car that made me
almost physically ill with laughter. Certainly this was the way to my heart.

We filmed the golfing sequences on the sublimely beautiful golf course of The Links Hotel in Cromer, Norfolk. It was
high summer and it was the perfect role for Peter, who was a keen golfer himself. Perhaps we got a bit carried away but there was love in the air. He asked me for my number, which I gave him cheerfully, but gritted my teeth as I told him that he might hear a male voice at the other end – I was attached at the time. He said not a word, and hung his head. How different things might have been had I been free. We were soul mates, no false sentiment intended, for however long it was meant to be. Short or not, who cares?

Later that night, Peter roamed The Links Hotel, seeking solace in the company of the commissionaire. But he was too much of a gentleman to come rapping at my door. The next day he related to me his ghastly dream. He was haunted by Dud’s apparent desertion, defection, to the United States. I believe theirs was the ‘marriage’, and that Peter never recovered from the ‘divorce’.

In fact, I believe it killed him.

Peter Cook: Genius At Work runs from 1 to 21 March 2012 at the British Film Institute Southbank, London SE1:   020-7928 3232;

The wit and wisdom of Peter Cook -‘We’ve all got royal blood in our veins, you know. It’s the best place for it in my view… We’re all in line for the succession, and if nineteen million, four hundred thousand, two hundred and eight people die, I’ll be king tomorrow.’ -‘I’ve always been after the trappings of great luxury. But all I’ve got hold of are the trappings of great poverty.’ -‘I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin.’ -‘There’s terrific merit in having no sense of humour, no sense of irony, practically no sense of anything at all. If you’re born with these so-called defects you have a very good chance of getting to the top.’ -‘My biggest regret in life is saving David Frost from drowning.’

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