March 18, 2011 10:09 pm

The funny thing about Britain

Peter Cook created a genre of ‘declinist’ humour

When a young British comedian began impersonating the prime minister on the London stage in 1961, hardly anyone in Britain had seen such a thing before. You didn’t mock the British prime minister: why, the man led the world. But Peter Cook played Harold Macmillan as a bumbling old buffer, who was bravely pretending against all evidence that the UK still led the world.

Cook’s Macmillan would shuffle onstage, and boast that he’d persuaded President Kennedy to give Britain Polaris missiles. “We don’t get the missile until around 1970,” “Macmillan” admitted in his quavering Etonian tones. “In the meantime, we shall just have to keep our fingers crossed, sit very quietly, and try not to alienate anyone.” In any case, “Macmillan” would add, Britain already had its own nukes. “We have the Blue Steel, a very effective missile, as it has a range of 150 miles, which means that we can just about get Paris. And by God we will.”

The great benefit of national decline – almost making the whole thing worthwhile – is humour about decline. Americans often complain about the rancour in their political debate. President Obama is daily reviled, seldom mocked. But as the US joins the UK on the down escalator, both countries can now look forward to a renaissance of Cookist comedy.

Cook had personal expertise in national decline. When he was born, in 1937, his father was away administering Nigeria. Alec Cook devoted his career to empire. When his son’s Macmillan first hit London, Alec was in Tripoli as economic adviser to the United Nations.

Cook had grown up expecting to run the empire, too. But he didn’t get a good enough degree, and anyway, by the time he graduated, a crumbling empire was being replaced with satire. He abandoned global domination with tinges of regret, though. Much later he reflected: “I’d still say yes if the governorship of Bermuda came up.” And Jonathan Miller, a partner in their Beyond the Fringe show, recalled: “You felt you were with someone from the Foreign Office who had suddenly gone completely bananas.” (Both these quotes are in the late comedy writer and TV producer Harry Thompson’s hilarious biography, Peter Cook.)

It’s not that Cook was a satirist. A natural conservative, he didn’t hate Macmillan at all. He simply saw the joke. As the British empire collapsed, its belief-system suddenly became funny. For instance, the empire had revered manly polar explorers. Cook created a buffoonish parody called “Scribble” Gibbons, who reminisced about his last expedition: “We set up camp and prepared to set out the next morning. But we hadn’t prepared for the polar nights, and for six months we waited for the dawn to break.”

The empire revered military heroes, glorifying them in films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai. Cook helped make a record called “Bridge on the River Wye”, after the gentle rural English river. “It was 1962 in England,” he intoned, “but still 1943 in Japan, such was the difference in teeth between these two great religions.”

In fact, as Thompson’s biography shows, Cook found almost everything in the great British past funny. He tried to write an entire film inspired by a story he had been told by his friend Richard Ingrams that the latter’s grandfather had been Queen Victoria’s gynaecologist. Later, during the Falklands war, he named his then wife’s animals after the conflict’s main protagonists.

As a 23-year-old Cook had impersonated Macmillan in front of audiences that included Macmillan, President Kennedy (who, professionally, avoided laughing during the sketch) and Queen Elizabeth (who guffawed). Yet Cook is strangely little remembered today. The BBC destroyed many of his recordings, and even threw away some scripts. Scripts weren’t much use anyway, as most of his acts were improvised on the spot. His Derek and Clive sketches, recorded with Dudley Moore, were too obscene to broadcast. He spent his last decades mostly on the sofa, drunk, watching bad TV, before dying of drink aged 57. Nonetheless, in 2005, when Channel 4 conducted a poll to find “the comedian’s comedian”, Cook came top.

Cook had created a genre of British “declinist” humour. When Richard Ingrams later put together an anthology of writing about England, he reflected that an apt title would have been Going to the Dogs. This sort of humour is what Americans can now expect.

The US in 2011 curiously resembles the UK in 1947. The wartime leader – in the one country, Winston Churchill, in the other, a Winston Churchill impersonator – has left the stage. In both cases, you have a country battered by war and debt, quietly exiting south Asia, shedding grand ambitions, under a leader who is mostly just trying to give his own people healthcare.

Barack Obama’s enemies still believe that the mighty president is destroying their great country. Eventually, they will probably shift to the Cookist position: people in power aren’t mighty. They are just funny.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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