How Hampstead influenced our great comic, Peter Cook
PUBLISHED: 17:30 09 October 2013 | UPDATED: 17:33 09 October 2013
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Nearly 20 years since his untimely death from a gastro-intestinal haemorrhage, aged just 57, Peter Cook remains, to paraphrase Stephen Fry, one of the funniest men who ever drew breath. And although his comic career reached its premature peak way back in the early 1970s, his posthumorous fame shows no sign of fading. His partnership with Dudley Moore remains the benchmark against which all the best double acts are measured.
Comedians young enough to be his grandchildren still cite him as an inspiration. Beyond The Fringe is still regarded as the finest revue of the 20th century. Not Only… But Also is still acknowledged as the best sketch show ever broadcast by the BBC.
However, there is one aspect of Peter Cook’s life story which has been more or less forgotten, and that’s the central role of Hampstead in his life. He moved to Hampstead in 1965. He remained here, for the most part, until his death in 1995. Peter rarely referred to Hampstead in his comedy, but its influence was immense. This cosmopolitan London village gave him the best of both worlds – the sophistication of the metropolis, coupled with the charm of a country town.
Peter’s first Hampstead home was 17 Church Row, a splendid Georgian town house spread across five floors, once inhabited by HG Wells. Peter bought it at auction for £24,000 – a small fortune in 1965. Alan Bennett feared Peter wouldn’t make his money back. He needn’t have worried. Similar houses now change hands for several million pounds. Peter’s first wife, Wendy stripped the antique woodwork and put up lots of fashionable William Morris wallpaper. In his attic study, high above the rooftops, Peter and Dudley created some of their most famous Pete & Dud routines.
If the attic was Peter’s domain, the basement kitchen was Wendy’s. A superb hostess and a brilliant cook, she threw countless dinner parties here, with a guest list that read like a Who’s Who of the ’60s: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Joan Collins, Kenneth Tynan, Peter Ustinov, Bernard Levin, Alan Bates… Peter’s daughters, Lucy and Daisy, spent their early years here – it was the perfect family home – but sadly this domestic idyll only lasted for a few years. Peter and Wendy separated and the house was sold in 1971 for £45,000.
In 1969, Peter bought a 16th century farmhouse called Kenwood Cottage, on Millfield Lane, Highgate. He lived here with Judy Huxtable, soon to become his second wife. It was here that he and Dudley wrote the third series of Not Only… But Also. After Peter and Judy moved out, Wendy lived here with Lucy and Daisy. The girls attended Gospel Oak Primary School.
Peter’s third and final home in Hampstead was in Perrins Walk, a cobbled mews just off Hampstead High Street. A Queen Anne coach house, it looked like a romantic folly, with little arched and latticed windows. “I hope I never have to move again,” he told his parents. He never did. He bought it in 1973, just before he departed for America, with Dudley, for the US tour of their two-man stage show, Good Evening. At the end of this marathon, Dudley decided to stay on in the States and try to make it as an actor. Peter returned to Perrins Walk with Judy, but she eventually decided she needed to be in the countryside. Peter made several attempts to join her, but he always ended up back in NW3.
Peter’s life in Perrins Walk is often portrayed in melancholy terms – a fading star killing time in front of the television, watching his former partner become a Hollywood superstar from afar.
In fact, he lived a languid life of tipsy semi-retirement. Whether this sounds heavenly or hellish is a matter of opinion, but it was the life he chose to lead. “Ambition fades,” he told Dudley. He seemed content to confine his immense talent to a series of sporadic, but brilliant star turns. Happily his third wife Lin repaired his friendship (though not his partnership) with Dudley, and his TV appearance on Clive Anderson Talks Back, less than two years before he died, was as good as anything he’d ever done.
Peter’s funeral and memorial service both took place in St John’s Church, Hampstead, just around the corner from his first and final Hampstead homes. Yet in the local pubs and restaurants he frequented (The Flask, Villa Bianca…) his friendly ghost lingers on. One of his most inspired schemes was a spoof campaign for Hampstead to host the Ryder Cup. He even designed a course, incorporating the North Circular, Highgate Cemetery and Kenwood. “The green will be within range of the big hitters off the tee, but they will have to carry the lake, the orchestra and Edward Heath MP, who will be conducting.” However, his most fitting tribute to his adopted home was a TV documentary (sadly never made) called Peter Cook’s London. Its subject? The 40 yards of pavement between his local newsagent and his front door.
William Cook’s One Leg Too Few – The Adventures of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore is published by Preface.