Like his father and grandfather before him, Alec Cook was a careerist with the Foreign Office. Peter was expected to follow in the family tradition but during his university years at Cambridge he was seduced by the world of entertainment and his anarchic humour became a favourite of the anti-establishment crowd of the swinging sixties. On his death, January 9, 1995, Peter Cook was hailed a comic genius.
Peter’s grandfather, Alec’s father Edward Cook, was Traffic Manager for the Federated Malay States Railway at Kuala Lumpur when he committed suicide by blowing his brains out with a revolver; it was May 1914 and Alec was only eight years old. Apparently, Edward had become depressed due to the pressure of an impending promotion to Acting General Manager. In tribute, the Malay Mail noted his popularity and wrote of how he was, “…able, energetic, kindly and thoughtful, but whose cheerful and amusing exterior skilfully concealed an easily depressed temperament”. And that was the thing about Peter’s antecedents, despite that one tragic event, they were, like so many of the ‘Raj’ set, clever with world-weary senses of humour, traits that Peter inherited and took to new heights.
In his book A Biography of Peter Cook (1997) Harry Thompson wrote of how likeable and loyal Peter’s male predecessors were: “For successive generations the Cook family put service to the Empire above mere family considerations, representing their monarch dutifully in a variety of distant locations, while the sons they produced were sent home to boarding schools to begin the process anew. Theirs was a line of gentle, witty, dutiful and impeccably-mannered men, with melancholy souls that undoubtedly owed much to their lonely, separated childhoods.”
Without a father to provide influence and financial support getting a ‘proper’ education proved problematic for Alec. He attended the Imperial Service College, Windsor where he excelled at cricket and in 1924 earned a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Four years later he won a place in the Colonial Office, and almost immediately was sent to serve as Assistant District Officer in Calabar Province, Nigeria.
Alec didn’t speak any of the three languages of the region, but he performed his duties with a “dry, slightly subversive sense of humour” which was well received in the towns and villages scattered throughout the region. Eventually he would reach the rank of District Officer with a responsibility for half a million Ibos spread over a thousand square miles.
Following each 18 months of service Alec received four weeks’ vacation, and it was during one of these holidays, while visiting friends in Eastbourne, that he met and fell in love with Margaret Mayo – the daughter of a local solicitor. Margaret was academically brilliant, but due to the parlous state of family finances she was unable to attend university. Alec’s clever mind and exotic lifestyle appealed to her intellectually frustrated side. The couple married in June 1936 and sailed for Nigeria on July 1st. Within a few months Margaret was pregnant so she returned to England and on November 17th, 1937 in a hospital at Torquay, Devon, she gave birth to her first child Peter Edward Cook.
While Alec returned to administering Nigeria, Margaret stayed behind to look after her new born baby. But after only a few months she reluctantly took up her colonial duties. As a result, Peter was raised primarily by his maternal grandparents at the family home in Torquay. With such elderly guardians he had few childhood friends and his early birthday parties were attended mainly by adults.
Peter only saw his parents on their four week breaks every other year and during World War II Alec and Margaret remained in Nigeria. Peter didn’t see his mother again until the end of 1944 when she sailed home through the dangerous waters so that she could give birth to sister Sarah (born in January of 1945) on British soil. Alec didn’t appear at home until after the War ended and that is Peter’s first memory of his father: “I suppose I first realized who my father was when I was seven, when he came back with some very black bananas from Nigeria. And I thanked him for those. But I didn’t quite know who he was, and I was told he was my father. So, we shook hands and agreed on it. He was a total stranger to me.”
The family were together for only a short time before Alec was given a surprise posting as Financial Secretary at Gibraltar. It meant Peter was again separated from his parents but at least now he could visit them on his school holidays and the annual visits to the world’s most famous Rock would be the most treasured times of Peter’s childhood and teen years.
To quote Thompson’s book: “Margaret went with him (Alec) because the Mediterranean was considered officially suitable for young children, so did baby Sarah. Peter was left behind again but this time he was also to be separated from Granny Mayo, and Aunt June and Uncle Roy.”
It was time for Peter to go to boarding school and St. Bede’s in Eastbourne was the chosen institution because it was affordable and considered appropriate for a youngster anticipating a career with the Foreign Office. Peter was a good student and a capable athlete, but St. Bede’s was typical for its era, cold, harsh, and rife with bullying. Peter, whose primary tormentor was an older boy named Ramsbotham, soon discovered that wit and sarcasm were his best defenses, thus he unwittingly honed the sardonic demeanour that would become the hallmark of his comedy.
While Peter suffered boarding school and damp English weather, his parents enjoyed the sunshine of the south and became popular players in Gibraltar society. As Financial Secretary Alec was an important figure in the community, his signature appearing on Gibraltar bank notes. He was a good sport whose fancy for a flutter* led him to launch the Gibraltar Lottery in 1951. Margaret played violin in the Gibraltar Symphony Orchestra and the Cook’s Gibraltar house was a happy one full of music.
Peter would later tell his wives (Wendy Snowden, 1963-71, Judy Huxtable 1973-89 and Lin Chong 1989-his death), but only his wives, of how lonely he had been at school. While his parents were alive Peter would tell interviewers that he loved visiting “…all those different places” but Thompson writes in his book that in fact Peter lived for his visits to Gibraltar, so he could be with his family again. There his little sister Sarah became his constant companion as they scoured the Rock and the rivers in Spain in search of “creepy-crawlies”.
“They caught little fish at Rosia Bay using home-made rods and bait, and fed them to the cat. They rescued terrapins from a dried-up river bed in Spain and made a pond for them among the figs and geraniums of their rambling garden. Peter installed a fearsome-looking praying mantis in a shoe box, which terrified the life out of his sister.”
It was because of Peter Cook’s fascination with terrapins that I learned of his connection to Gibraltar, and that was only last year. I was reading the book Tragically, I Was an Only Twin, a collection of Peter’s interviews, scripts and quotes edited by William Cook (no relation). In the book Peter’s youngest sister Elizabeth, 14 years his junior, recalled, “It’s a family tale that Peter once smuggled a terrapin from Gibraltar… Peter wept uncontrollably when his terrapin poked its head out of a teapot and was confiscated by customs”. I took that to mean that Peter was attempting to smuggle the terrapin into the U.K., but in his book Thompson says Peter was trying to smuggle it from Spain into Gibraltar. Either way it makes for a comical image, a cartoonist’s delight.
Probably one reason I was so surprised to find the reference to Gibraltar in the book is because in many years of watching (and reading of) the brilliant comic in his many guises and roles – actor, stand-up, sketch writer, author and master talk-show guest – not once was there ever a reference to Gibraltar. Interestingly in Tragically, William Cook reports that shortly before his death Peter was tossing around the idea of producing a radio show from Gibraltar. It’s unfortunate he didn’t live to do it because there is every chance it would have been hilariously funny, and if nothing else, it would have been worth hearing about his adventures with the creepy-crawlies and other denizens of the Rock.
*In 1951, the year the Gibraltar lottery was launched, Alec had a dream that a horse named Nickel Penny would win the Grand National. There was no Nickel Penny in the field but there was a Nickel Coin with odds of 40-1. More than 250,000 people turned out to watch 36 runners compete in the 105th running of the historic steeplechase. An unprecedented 12 horses fell at the first fence and only three of the starters, all long shots, finished. Nickel Coin was 1st at 40-1, second place Royal Tan was also 40-1 and third-place Derrinstown was 66-1. The favourite Arctic Gold, 8-1, fell at the 8th fence. Alec wagered a small amount on Nickel Coin, but a close friend bet big and cleaned up. Alec never let family members buy Gibraltar Lottery tickets because he was afraid one of them might win and create a scandal.
BY REG REYNOLDS