TV: The Undiscovered Peter Cook, BBC4

It’s the kind of scoop every journalist/documentarist dreams of. Getting access to hitherto unseen archives of someone dead and famous. And that is exactly what Victor Lewis-Smith landed when Peter Cook’s widow Lin allowed him to rummage through Cook’s personal possessions in his Hampstead mews home that hadn’t been touched since his death in 1995. The results have been painstakingly cherry picked and put together to produce this fascinating doc on a man who has already had umpteen fascinating docs made about him.

The most notable find here is the Dead Sea Tapes, an album made with Dudley Moore in 1963 which should have been released but never saw the light of day because of fears of the blasphemy laws. The clips played – supposed recordings of stories by mates of Jesus – hardly scares the horses today but it is interesting to see how this predates Life of Brian by a good decade. 

The spirit of Python frequently looms over this film. Partly because the animations used to bring Cook’s audio recordings to life are very Gilliamesque and partly because Cook was a great chum of John Cleese. There is extensive footage of a trip down the Nile which Cook and other comedians (including a young Stephen Fry) went on with Cleese, who paid for it. It is not clear how Lewis-Smith got access to this footage - was it in the Cook archive or was there another source?

Elsewhere get get quite aa lot about Cook’s flawed but brilliant movie Bedazzled. Cook being interviewed during the making is the apotheosis of cool, as he is in a lot of early clips. Lewis-Smith also makes much of Cook’s nun fixation, even noting that his home overlooks a convent. Although his fixation seems to have started before his move there.

The comedy, including some disocovered and reconstructed clips from his 1960s series Not Only But Also which was wiped by the BBC, stands up remarkably well. And talking of standing up well the weirdest moment is a clip of a bizarre Hungarian version of Cook’s famous one-legged Tarzan sketch which entirely misses the point. 

It will be a pity if this programme makes headlines because of the c-bomb littered Derek & Clive soundbites as there is lots of good non-smutty stuff here, right up to footage from Cook’s memorial service. The result paints a rather benign portrait of a clearly complex man who had periods of sobriety as well as wild times hanging out with the Rolling Stones. Anyone looking for a warts-and-all tortured genius hatchet job will have to look elsewhere. For fans of comedy history though this is pretty essential viewing.

The Undiscovered Peter Cook, November 16, BBC4, 10pm, 

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