Dudley Moore: Sir Arthur, what is the porpoise of your visit to Australia?
Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling (Peter Cook): There is no porpoise involved in my visit to Australia. I’ve never got involved with a porpoise. One of my strictest rules — never get involved with a porpoise. Whatever you may have read in the sensational tabloids, I have never become involved with a porpoise. What I think is happening is you’re misreading the word ‘purpose’.
The porpoise, or rather the purpose, of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s visit to Australia in September 1971 was to tour the country with their new sketch show Behind the Fridge.
At the start of the Seventies Pete and Dud were the hottest comedy duo in the world. The Oxbridge graduates had taken the Sixties by storm with their irreverent, surreal and ground-breaking humour. They had their own television shows, starred in films and enjoyed a glamorous jet-set lifestyle. What could possibly go wrong for the golden pair? Well, quite a lot actually.
It was on their tour to Australia that big cracks in their relationship began to appear, as chronicled by William Cook (no relation to Pete) in his hugely entertaining new biography of Pete and Dud, One Leg Too Few. It was in Australia that Cook became an alcoholic, Moore tried to seduce Cook’s lover and the pair started to have some serious quarrels.
The tour got off to a controversial start. To publicise Behind the Fridge, Pete and Dud appeared on Channel Nine in an edition of the Dave Allen show. They performed the sketch ‘Gospel Truth’, described by William Cook as a ‘friendly send-up of the Nativity’. Back in 1971, however, conservative Australia didn’t find the sketch all that friendly. Although two of the most controversial lines were taken out before the transmission, a ‘piss’ and a ‘bum’ were left in. The outraged chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board said he’d never seen such a ‘blatantly offensive reference to homosexuality and masturbation’. Pete and Dud’s punishment was to be banned from performing live on TV or radio in Australia. But the scandal worked wonders for bookings for Behind the Fridge, and their tour was a sell-out. Pete sent a telegram to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board to say thank you. No one could ever accuse him of not being polite.
Behind the Fridge opened in Canberra ‘to a rapturous reception’. ‘We’d hit a peak,’ recalled Dud. ‘I couldn’t think of anything being more enjoyable.’ He was soon to change his tune. Pete had been going through a messy divorce. On 2 October, when the duo were preparing to open in Melbourne, he received a telegram from his ex-wife Wendy to say that their daughter had been hospitalised after a bad asthma attack. Cook, who always felt homesick when too long away from London, hit the bottle, and got so drunk he ended up walking into the hotel pool with all his clothes on. It was no one-off incident. Cook started to drink heavily on a daily basis. The most brilliant wit of his generation became an alcoholic. Another great British comic and alcoholic, Tony Hancock, had committed suicide in Australia three years earlier, and it was in an Australian hotel that Cook’s effectively embarked on his own long-drawn out suicide.
Dud was pissed off at his partner for being continually pissed so, to get his own back, he decided to get pissed himself before going on stage. ‘That’s the worst performance you’ve given,’ Pete said afterwards. ‘I didn‘t know what to do.’ ‘Now you know what it’s like, you cunt,’ retorted Dud.
Not that the lesson did Pete much good. ‘In Sydney I thought he was drunk for a whole week,’ Dud wrote. It was there that Dud told the British television presenter Michael Parkinson that he wanted out of the partnership. In their hotel, Pete drank with the Australian cricket team. William Cook relates how Pete was drinking at lunchtime, during his pre-show supper and downing a bottle and a half of wine every evening after the show. He was also popping pills, taking slimming pills before going on stage to ‘pep himself up’, Valium after the show ‘to mellow out’ and sleeping pills at bedtime. Unsurprisingly, Pete’s sex life bombed. For Dud, that was a golden opportunity. He set his eyes on Pete’s beautiful girlfriend Judy. ‘His sexual appetite was uncompromising and insatiable,’ writes William Cook. ‘It was addiction just as powerful as Peter’s addiction to alcohol.’ Dud sent Judy flirtatious notes from the honeymoon suite saying he was in the whirlpool and that he wished she was there with him.
Later, when the pair were in Auckland, Dud tried to seduce Judy in a hotel foyer, believing Pete to be crashed out drunk in his room, but the lift opened and there was Pete dressed only in his underchunders, to beckon his lover to come back to bed. Dud still carried on with his attempt to steal his mate’s girl, deviously booking Pete on a sightseeing trip to get him out of the way. Fortunately, Pete didn’t go. Somehow the pair got through their tour. ‘Australian audiences were forgiving — maybe too forgiving — and, even in this addled state, outright cock-ups were surprisingly few and far between,’ records William Cook.
Later in 1972 Pete starred alongside his mate Barry Humphries in the film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. ‘He was not sober at any time during the making of the film,’ says Humphries. ‘His sense of the ridiculous was too highly developed. Nothing was serious enough, not even it seems, his own life.’ Peter Cook died in 1995 aged 57, from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage. Dudley Moore died seven years later, aged 66. The pair’s partnership effectively came to an end in the late 1970s. It was fun while it lasted, if not always for them, certainly for those lucky enough to have a front row seat. ‘Like millions of their fans I still miss them even though I never met them,’ William Cook observes: ‘We shall not see their like again.’
Neil Clark is an Oxford-based writer and a regular contributor to the Guardian and Daily Express. One Leg Too Few by William Cook is published by Preface.