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Peter Cook at 75

Posted: 27/02/2012 00:00

Peter Cook - who would have been 75 this year - was one of the brightest stars in a constellation of comedic talent that emerged from the Oxbridge tradition and revolutionised humour in the 1960s.

Times and tastes change but Cook's blistering wit has stood the test of time and strikes many of the same chords today as it did at the time. Whether it was reinventing the dynamic of the double-act (with his partnership with Dudley Moore), championing the art of satire (with The Establishment Club), pioneering the surreal monologue (via his character of park-bench philosopher E L Wisty) or anticipating the naughtier style comedy of the nineties and noughties (Derek and Clive), Cook was always ahead of the pack and is often cited by his peers as one of the funniest artists of his generation.

As a curator of the season, I'm old enough to remember Peter Cook in the 1960s and his appearances on television were always eagerly received, especially as they usually featured a streak of sauciness that was exhilarating to me pre-teen ears. Perhaps strangely I found him a great advertisement for education as he was one of the first truly bright individuals that really impressed me and my friends - usually we took the Dennis the Menace view of clever people, mocking them as "girly swots". But Cook seemed effortlessly to combine the satirical thrust of the intellectual with the comedic menace of Dennis - a cunning mix I hadn't come across before.

He excelled in so many different areas of comedy he remains impossible to pigeonhole but the underlying theme that seems omnipresent in all his work is that enduring sense of mischief. In his twenties he cut a dashing figure, handsome and debonair with an air of wicked charm and eyes that sparkled with impishness.

When we decided to mount a season marking his 75th anniversary we were determined to choose material that reflected all aspects of his mercurial talents: his skill as a writer and his charismas as a performer as well as his wonderful ability to extemporise - to take a subject and run with and always find the humorous kernel at its centre. So our season - which runs throughout March 2012 - will feature Peter Cook at all stages of his career, from his rakish early days (Beyond the Fringe, Not Only But Also) to his years as a character performer (Peter Cook and Co.) to his establishment as a comedy icon and an inspiration to the generations that have come since.

Modern day talents as diverse as Stephen Fry, Mike Myers and Chris Morris have lauded Cook, but perhaps he received his greatest accolade in 2004 - nearly ten years after his death - when he was voted the greatest comedian of all time in a poll conducted among fellow comedians (C4: The Comedian's Comedian).