Stage show reveals the afterlife of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images
Bridget Galton talks to director Vadim Jean about making ‘em laugh and cry.
Vadim Jean is laughing at his 16-year-old self as he recalls hearing a bootleg cassette of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as their foul-mouthed alter egos Derek and Clive.
“I remember listening to 30 seconds thinking, ‘it’s not funny, it’s not clever – it’s just swearing, and it’s bootleg, which is illegal’.
“I was prim and proper then. Thank God I’m over all that!”
In the mid 90s, living in London, Vadim would tune into the LBC late night phone-in when he couldn’t sleep.
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“This character used to ring up from North London. I’d be in bed, just wetting myself with laughter thinking this person was hysterical and not realising it was Peter Cook.
“Every now and then Peter would do things that reminded you how iconic he was, like his one scene in The Princess Bride, when he stole the show.”
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Now the director best known for movie Leon the Pig Farmer and TV adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, is temporarily switching to theatre for a stage show about Pete n Dud.
Goodbye, The (After) Life of Cook & Moore performed in the undercroft of St George’s, Bloomsbury is set in limbo, the day after Moore’s death in 2002.
Cook, who lived in Hampstead for 30 years before his death in 1995, has been running a bar for dead comedians such as Peter Sellers and Frankie Howerd while awaiting his friend’s arrival. Once reunited, the duo wait to hear divine judgement on blasphemous characters Derek and Clive.
Jean thinks it’s a scenario they would approve of.
“I love the notion of where we end up, the comic potential of limbo and purgatory. I think Pete and Dud would have liked the idea of this play. It’s like the setting for one of their sketches. We’re even doing it in a crypt!”
Jean believes the pair, who met at Oxford University and first worked together in the 60s with Beyond the Fringers Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, were “geniuses”
“The alternative comedy generation now in their 50s owe them big time. They were edgier than the Pythons, the punk rock of comedy. They broke the rules of what you could do or say. It knocked down the doors to enable those guys to do what they did.
“They were brilliant improvisers. Sometimes with two people there’s a connection of brainwaves. Dudley was an oik from Dagenham and Peter a public schoolboy. They were big and small, from different classes.
“Hopefully the play shows comedically that underlying their differences was this enormous affection that was like a marriage in a permanent state of imminent divorce.”
With Dudley’s musical talents and Peter’s gift for words, it was “a partnership of equals and opposites” that famously fractured when Moore moved to America to build a film career.
By the 80s, Moore was starring in hit films 10 and Arthur, while Cook was holed up in Perrins Walk, Hampstead with a worsening drink problem, emerging to make sporadic TV appearances.
“Dudley was a musical genius who had real charisma. A 5ft 2in bloke with a club foot from Dagenham who became an unlikely sex symbol and one of the most bankable Hollywood stars – it was a remarkable story,” says Jean.
“Peter with his love of words and florid turn of phrase couldn’t stand the faux glitter of Hollywood and mocked the way Dud had gone to a place of vapid mediocrity to become a movie star- that’s the heart of the resentment.
“But after Peter died, Dudley was terribly affected and would ring his answerphone just to hear his voice.”
Jean credits his own career to a Hampstead connection, after making his first feature, Leon the Pig Farmer, about a north London Jewish estate agent who discovers his sperm donor father is a bluff Yorkshire pig farmer.
“It was a quintessential north London Jewish comedy but when I finished it, no-one wanted to distribute it. A copy got into the hands of the booker at the Hampstead Everyman who said ‘I will play it as long as you want me to.’
“For two years it held the box office record at the Everyman as the highest grossing film. In that time it became a hit. I owe my career to the north London Jewish Community.”
Bristol-born Jean initially yearned to work in movies because “I wanted to be famous and get a girlfriend” but later discovered his true motivation.
“There’s something incredibly powerful and satisfying about the group experience in cinema or a play if you can transport people away to a place where they laugh and cry,” he says.
“Whether it’s a musical, comedy, fantasy TV or this play, it’s that old thing of, ‘make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry’.
“We have that great British tradition of storytelling and movies like Billy Elliott and The Full Monty, that are moving and humorous, and I hope this play does the same.”
Among Jeans’ proudest achievements are his TV adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and The Colour of Magic
“On my bucket list was the chance to adapt Terry. I was a massive fan and to be the first person to do one was one of my proudest moments. To write it myself so satisfyingly and powerfully – I think I really captured the humour and feel of that book - it’s still the highest rated show on Sky 1 ever.”
His latest project is an independent comedy featuring Frasier star Kelsey Grammer as a British banker in the 2008 crash, and his next a musical biopic about maverick Oliver! creator Lionel Bart starring Geoffrey Rush, Stephen Fry and Michelle Dockery.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get a film made,” says Jean who views the process as collaborative rather than dictatorial.
“I would like to have a big hit that everyone recognises, as much as anything else because that buys you the freedom to keep working and to develop projects.
“But I never do anything for money. I have to be passionate about something to do it.”
In the meantime he is loving the entirely new experience of theatre and wants to do more.
“I love being stretched in a completely different medium. I love the collaborative exchange of ideas, and that unlike film you can keep changing it and making it better during the run.
“Although TV is probably the best way to reach the greatest number of viewers, it is third hand.
“You can’t sit in a cinema or theatre and enjoy it with them.
“Anyway if it was all about being seen by millions, you’d just upload a clip about a funny animal to YouTube.”
Goodbye – The (After) Life Of Cook & Moore runs from February 3 in The Cooper Room, Museum of Comedy.Visit museumofcomedy.com