Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Funniest Man Who Ever Drew Breath: Peter Cook, Part 2


Harold Macmillan photographed by Yosuf Karsh, 1957

The following monologue, called "TVPM",  written and performed by Peter Cook in Beyond The Fringe is, I think you will agree, incredibly funny and sadly still timely.  The version here (Cook revised his material during long performance runs) is taken from the BTF performances at the John Golden Theater, New York City, in  1962.  

Peter Cook at the time of Beyond The Fringe


"Good evening, I have recently been traveling round the world, on your behalf, and at your expense, visiting some of the chaps with whom I hope to be shaping your future.  I went first to Germany, and there I spoke with the German Foreign Minister, Herr. . .  Herr and there and we exchanged many frank words in our respective languages, so precious little came of that in the way of understanding.  I would, however, emphasise, that the little that did come of it was indeed truly precious.  I then went on to America, and there I had talks with the young, vigorous President of that great country, and danced with his very lovely lady wife.  We talked of many things, including Great Britain’s position in the world as some kind of honest broker.  I agreed with him when he said that no nation could be more honest , and he agreed with me when I chaffed him and said that no nation could be broker. This type of genial, statesmanlike banter often went on late into the night.  Our talks ranged over a wide variety of subjects, including that of the Skybolt Missile programme.  And after a great deal of good-natured give and take I decided on behalf of Great Britain to accept Polaris in place of the Skybolt.   This is a good solution because, as far as I can see, the Polaris starts where the Skybolt left off – in the sea.

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy photographed by Yosuf Karsh, 1957

        I was privileged to see some actual photographs of this weapon.  The President was kind enough to show me actual photographs of this missle, beautiful photographs taken by Karsh of Ottawa.  A very handsome weapon – we shall be very proud to have them.  The photographs, that is.  We don’t get the missile until around 1970.  In the meantime, we shall just have to keep our fingers crossed , sit very quietly, and try not to alienate anyone.  This is not to say that we do not have our own Nuclear Striking Force.  We do.  We have the Blue Steel, a very effective missile, as it has a range of 150 miles, which means we can just about get Paris.  And by God we will.

British Avro-Vulcan Blue Steel "stand-off" (i.e., deterrent) nuclear missile (1963-70; replaced by U.S. Polaris missile)

        When I was abroad, I was very moved to receive letters from people in acute distress from all over the country.  And one in particular from an old age pensioner in Fife is indelibly printed on my memory.  Let me read it to you.  It reads, ‘Dear Prime Minister, I am an old age pensioner in Fife, living on a fixed income of some two pounds, seven shillings a week.  This is not enough.  What do you of the Conservative Party propose to do about it.’ (tears up letter)  Well, let me say away, Mrs McFarlane, as one Scottish old age pensioner to another, be of good cheer.  There are many people in this country today who are far worse off than yourself.  And it is the policy of the Conservative Party to see that this position is maintained."

Forth Bridge, Fife, Scotland.  Opened March 4, 1890, this cantilevered railroad bridge was the first all-steel bridge constructed in Great Britain and until 1917, when the Quebec Bridge was completed, it had the longest single cantilever bridge span in the world. The Forth Bridge, which crosses the Firth of Forth and connects Edinburgh with Fife, now has the second longest single span.  The Forth Bridge figures in a memorable scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film, The 39 Steps.

Reader Note:  

        When Peter Cook introduced this speech, parodying then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during Beyond The Fringe’s original Fortune Theater stand in London’s West End, it became an immediate cause célèbre, especially after the Prime Minister himself attended a performance of the satirical, cliché-breaching revue. “When I’ve a spare evening”, improvised Cook, as Macmillan, there’s nothing I like better than to wander over to a theatre and sit there listening to a group of sappy, urgent, vibrant young satirists, with a stupid great grin spread over my silly old face.”
     Later, Cook said, a little unconvincingly (to me):  “My impersonation of Macmillan was in fact extremely affectionate.  I was a great Macmillan fan.  He did have this somewhat ludicrous manner, but merely because it was the first time for some years that a living Prime Minister had been impersonated on the stage, a great deal of weight was attached to it.”  The link found Here, beginning at about 2:30, contains excerpts from TVPM, as well as opinions offered by Cook's friends and collaborators Jonathan Miller and Richard Ingrams, expressly concurring with Cook's remarks. Ingrams describes Cook's political views as being "Conservative Anarchist", rather than conventional "Hampstead Left-y", and from everything I've read, this does sound about right.  (Ingrams would certainly know.)   

       Perfect parody is always a two-edged sword.  I have no doubt that the great parodists of SCTV (think, for example of Andrea Martin impersonating Liza Minnelli (over-) singing "Ring Them Bells"  or Martin Short playing Jerry Lewis in the sketch "Jerry Lewis Live on the Champs-Elysee") do have genuine affection for their subjects, as they maintain. 

        But in their parody work, as in Cook's,  Beauty is Truth and Truth is Cruelty – a traditional, combustible, and discomforting mix.

Peter Cook text published in Tragically, I Was An Only Twin -- The Complete Peter Cook, ed. William Cook, London, Century, 2002.

For more on this subject, see Here.

President John F. Kennedy with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at the White House, Washington, D.C., 1961

U.S. Polaris missile being launched from a nuclear submarine 



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