The legacy of Bedazzled

Comedy - The DVD release of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's finest flick reveals why the career of one

Normally nothing dates quite so quickly as a dead comedian, but since Peter Cook and Dudley Moore cashed in their chips (in 1995 and 2002, respectively), they have become the height of fashion. Over the past few years, there's been a steady stream of Pete'n'Dud on television, and this month, their finest film is finally released on DVD.

If any film deserves a revival, it has to be Bedazzled - if only to erase the memory of the recent remake starring Liz Hurley. A comic version of Faust, starring Cook (rather than Hurley) as the Devil, the original had all the ingredients of a sure-fire hit. Moore played a short-order chef who sold his soul for seven wishes, to woo a grumpy Wimpy waitress, superbly played by Eleanor Bron. Cook's Devil was assisted by the Seven Deadly Sins, including Barry Humphries as Envy and Raquel Welch as Lust. The director was Stanley Donen, who directed Singin' in the Rain. By rights, Bedazzled should have been that rare thing - a blockbuster with box-office clout and highbrow appeal.

Yet somehow this stylish film never quite took off. When it was released, in 1967, the commercial and critical reaction was muted, and it has taken nearly 40 years to acquire the status of a cult classic. In the meantime, it has become something far more interesting - a metaphor for the turbulent relationship between Cook and Moore, and an illustration of how, after the rave reviews of their early years, that relationship began to curdle.

Up until Bedazzled, Cook's career had been a non-stop orgy of success. He had written a revue for Kenneth Williams while he was still at university. He had starred in Beyond the Fringe, in the West End and then on Broadway. He'd starred in Not Only . . . But Also, the best sketch show ever broadcast by the BBC. He had started The Establishment, London's first satirical nightclub. He had even rescued Private Eye. Most sickening of all, he was still the right side of 30. Dudley Moore had contributed to these triumphs, but in most people's eyes (not least his own) he was very much the junior partner. Bedazzled was the moment when these partners started to swap places.

Bedazzled was their biggest break so far and Cook was determined to get it right - so determined, in fact, that he resolved to write the script alone, without any interference from his pint-sized partner. Logically, this should not have made much difference. Cook had written the lion's share of Beyond the Fringe, and virtually everything of any note in Not Only . . . But Also. However, he sorely underestimated Moore's importance as a sounding board. Moore's contribution to the writing process had always been elusive, but he gave Cook's work the human touch, and in Bedazzled his amiable influence was conspicuous by its absence. As a stage play, Cook's script would have worked a treat. As a screenplay, it felt cold and stilted.

This difference was reflected in their acting. On stage and on the small screen, Cook had always been in charge, but on the big screen he seemed distant and distracted. "Peter wasn't really a very good actor," says Barry Humphries. "He couldn't be other people very successfully." Moore's naturalistic acting, on the other hand, had never felt more spontaneous and self-assured. This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. It was Cook, not Moore, who had been touted as the next Cary Grant. However, Bedazzled was the crystal ball that revealed their real futures: Cook the cameo actor, but Moore the leading man.

After Bedazzled, it became clear that Cook had no real future as a film star, and even though he carried on working with Moore for another decade, the balance of their partnership had changed. Moore acquired a more dominant role in the performing and the writing, while Cook acquired a drink problem as his first marriage dissolved. The results were often riveting (albeit in a car-crash kind of way), but they were never quite so funny. The third (and final) series of Not Only . . . But Also compared pretty poorly with the first two, and the series they made for ITV (Goodbye Again) was only a qualified success.

When Cook and Moore's world tour Behind the Fridge (aka Good Evening) wound up in 1975 in San Francisco, Moore decided to remain in California to try and make it as a film actor. Cook returned to London alone. Although they teamed up for one more movie (an ill-fated remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles, described by Barry Took as one of the worst films ever made), Britain's greatest double act never collaborated regularly again.

With a legacy such as this, you might expect Bedazzled to be a stinker - but half a lifetime since its release, the biggest surprise is why it wasn't a smash hit first time around. Donen's adroit direction provides the perfect counterpoint to Cook's clever wordplay, and although he made Bedazzled for just £250,000, it still looks like a classy piece of work today. "I think what worked very well in that film was Donen's more classic approach," says Humphries. "He wasn't imposing visual jokes upon the text and so we could hear the dialogue." And what dialogue! Cook's acting may have been remote and awkward, but his script is littered with brilliant bons mots. "What rotten sins I've got working for me," says the Devil. "It must be the wages."

An even bigger treat is Moore's irresistible performance, which anticipated his "sex thimble" roles in Hollywood hits such as 10 and Arthur. By 1981, this "club-footed dwarf" from Dagenham had become one of the world's biggest film stars. For a while, only Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were bigger.

Looking back, the failure of Bedazzled to conquer America actually looks like a blessing. If this film had been a transatlantic hit, more American movies would have followed, and while it is tempting to suppose they would have all been as erudite as this one, it is more likely that Cook would have ended up churning out the sort of tepid comedies that bedevilled Moore's later years. Left alone in London, Cook became increasingly indolent, but in his autumn years he produced a handful of comic masterpieces, culminating in a sublime radio series with Chris Morris, appropriately entitled Why Bother?. "He had a real appreciation of the absurdity of the world," says Humphries. "I think he'll be the comic creator of his period that posterity will be most interested in."

Unlike Cuddly Dudley, Cook's world-view was far too absurd for Hollywood - but although Dudley may have had more fun, it seems unlikely that posterity would have been so interested in Peter Cook if Bedazzled had transported him, like Moore, from Hampstead High Street to Malibu Beach.

Bedazzled is released on DVD on 25 July by Second Sight (£19.99). William Cook edited Tragically I Was an Only Twin: the complete Peter Cook and Goodbye Again: the definitive Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, both published by Century