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Peter Cook: Genius at work (BFI Southbank)

Helen Lewis pays tribute to a comedian whose talent still burns bright.

Peter Cook: Genius at work
BFI Southbank, London

Peter Cook nearly wasn't famous. Or rather, he nearly wasn't famous as Peter Cook. Just days before the first Edinburgh performance of his revue Beyond the Fringe in August 1960, he got a stern warning from the actors' union, Equity, demanding he change his name to avoid confusion with a thesp called Peter Coke. Fine, replied Cook. I will instead be known as Xavier Blancmange. Or Wardrobe Gruber. Or Sting Thundercock. Equity backed off.

“I love that story," says the comedian Robert Webb. "It brilliantly demonstrates what he was up to a lot of the time: an utter contempt for the pompous and the bureaucratic wrapped in joyful absurdity. How we all wish we could talk to Orange/HMRC/the headmaster like that."

Richard Ingrams once described Peter Cook as a "conservative anarchist" - he had the rare ability to mock the powerful without alienating them: both Harold Macmillan and the Queen came to see Beyond the Fringe, for all that it was supposed to be a scandalous youth phenomenon. Cook never subscribed to the idea that comedy could change the world, either, comparing the opening of the Establishment club in 1961 to "those wonderful Berlin cabarets . . . which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler".

That laconic understatement is one of the hallmark's of Cook's wit, along with spontaneity, wordplay and inventive obscenity. A mini-season at the BFI in London this month aims to give a flavour of his career, starting with Beyond the Fringe, through to his partnership with Dudley Moore in Not Only . . . But Also and Bedazzled, and taking a detour through the notorious Derek and Clive recordings.

Comedy is notoriously ephemeral but it's amazing how much of Peter Cook's material endures. To anyone who loves language, the Tarzan sketch ("I've nothing against your right leg . . . the trouble is, neither have you") will always be funny; while "Aftermyth of War" has a universal feeling about the elite wrapped up in its clipped RAF diction:

Peter Cook I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don't come back. Goodbye Perkins. God, I wish I was going too.

Jonathan Miller Goodbye sir - or is it “au revoir"?

Peter Cook No, Perkins.

Cook influenced his peers hugely; both BBC documentaries about his career, A Slight Angle to the Universe and Some Interesting Facts About Peter Cook, are full of comedy grandees paying tribute to his youthful talent, which burned as brightly as a magnesium flare, followed by years in which he couldn't be bothered and sat at home watching obscure TV channels. But given that Cook's output was sporadic at best, does his influence persist? "Yes," says Webb. "As soon as you realise he inspired both Chris Morris and John Cleese, then you're counting the comedians who've been inspired by Chris Morris or John Cleese. Which is basically everyone."

The piece of Cookiana younger comics reference most consistently is Derek and Clive, which I can't quote here for fear of wearing out the asterisk key. You can see its impact most clearly in the work of Charlie Brooker, particularly the sitcom Nathan Barley (originally called simply "Cunt"), but also in every comedian who now uses swearing to beef up a punchline. "Peter Cook proved that you can use gutter language and it's not cheating," Radio 6 host Matt Forde tells me. The comedy historian Louis Barfe adds: "It appeals to the small part of every rational decent human being that wants to say the worst possible thing in any given situation, rather than just thinking it."

It's an achievement that something recorded at the same time as Are You Being Served? can still have such sway today. And there is one final compliment the press and comedy fans still pay Peter Cook, despite the 50 years that have passed since his heyday. "Looking around at my peers," says Forde, "I can't recall ever hearing any of us described as 'the new Peter Cook' or 'like Peter Cook on speed'."

The BFI's Peter Cook season runs until 21 March

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex