Ian Walker on Torquay, and the two sides of England's comic cornerstone
PUBLISHED: 09:00 25 September 2018
© 2015 Olaf Protze
The dual role of the resort of Torquay has played a significant part in the development of English comedy.
If you visit the picturesque Devon seaside town of Torquay and make your way up the main hill that dominates the town’s centre, you will find yourself amongst the grandeur of Victorian hotels and grand Edwardian-villa style houses.
Even now, more than a century after it was built, much of this part of Torquay still looks like the sort of place that civil servants or colonial officers or high ranking military men – the kind of men that populated the novels of the Torquay-born writer Agatha Christie – would live in or would retire to.
Torquay was the kind of town that the empire builders – the administers and soldiers, the explorers, the exploiters – liked to call home.
The comedian Peter Cook was born in one of these houses. The house (now called Kinbrae, but known as Shearbridge when Cook was born in 1937), is a handsome two-storey building that sits at the end of a long, winding road whose properties are spread out between extensive gardens or hidden away behind high hedges and walls or at the end of long drives.
Peter Cook’s father Alec and his grandfather were colonial civil servants. As a young man, armed with little more than a diligent sense of duty, Alec Cook was sent to Nigeria, where he found himself administrating vast swathes of a country of which he knew little. But he was good at his job and he had a steady career, firstly in Nigeria and then later in Gibraltar and Libya.
And while Alec Cook was administering the colonies, young Peter was raised by his mother and nannies in genteel Torquay, before being packed off to prep school and then to the elite English boarding school Radley College.
When Peter Cook arrived at Cambridge University in 1957 it was expected that he would follow in the same career as his father and grandfather. But he got distracted.
Cook would later argue that his planned career in colonial administration faltered because Britain “had run out of colonies”, which was true. But what really happened was that Cook stood out as being one the funniest and most charismatic undergraduates at Cambridge.
At university, Cook gravitated towards the Footlights which was then an amateur dramatic club that produced comic revues. In 1960, both Cook and fellow Cantabrigian Jonathan Miller teamed up with Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, who were both at Oxford, to produce the revue Beyond The Fringe, (which was mostly written by Cook). They then took the revue to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The show was one of those things that changed so much as the 1960s rolled in. In the late 1950s, the UK, like much of the western world, was undergoing a shift as the generation that had not had anything to do with the Second World War grew into adulthood. Beyond The Fringe followed on from the Angry Young Men – those playwrights and novelists who, in the last years of the 1950s, railed against the old order. Within a couple of years the Beatles, the Stones and the counter-culture would change everything. Beyond The Fringe was right at the cusp of what felt like a new world – and it was a world in which Cook would be at the centre.
Throughout the 1960s, Cook’s ascent was thrilling to witness. He invented what became known as the satire boom at his Soho club, the Establishment – though it was the fiercely ambitious and coat-tail riding David Frost who put satire on the telly with That Was The Week That Was.
Cook ended up on television himself in a double act with Dudley Moore in the show Not Only... But Also. He appeared in films and his brand of comedy crossed the Atlantic, as he became the darling of a smart set that included Jackie Kennedy.
But then, around the end of the decade, it all stopped. Halfway though his excellent biography of Peter Cook, Harry Thompson begins a chapter “By the time he left for Australia in September 1971, Peter had completed the last truly substantial piece of work he would ever write...his will to achieve went into a tailspin every bit as irresistible as the ascent that precedes it”.
This slow decline, which continued through the next two decades, ended up in the 1990s with Cook spending his days rattling about his Hampstead house, watching daytime telly, addicted to porn and drinking and smoking heavily.
The romantic interpretation of this decline was that he was bored by the world. Cook would do all sorts of daft things to distract himself, such as getting a neighbour to run in an election or ringing up a local radio station pretending to be a lovelorn Norwegian fisherman. But these antics, along with other flashes of brilliance, were few and far between.
The less romantic interpretation of his decline was that for the last two and a half decades of Cook’s life there seemed to be something within him that was irreparably damaged.
So what happened? There are all sorts of suggestions. Dudley Moore went on to have a successful film career in Hollywood whereas Cook didn’t – Cook always had too much of an angle on himself and on the world to be a convincing actor.
Moore’s success in Hollywood ate at Cook. Cook’s relationship with Moore had, at times, been bullying and cruel and this can be heard on the hilarious but disturbing Derek and Clive records. On these, a drunk or stoned Cook goes way beyond any decency as he pushes to shock his partner.
Moore tries to keep up, but he can’t. Cook keeps digging at him (“Your mother thinks very simply that you’re a c**t”), and as anyone who isn’t a git knows, ‘banter’ is just another word for bullying. The records are funny-ish, but they can also be uncomfortable listening.
Another suggestion as to why Cook took such a nosedive was that while success came effortlessly to him, success also came to those that made the effort, especially David Frost who would network and charm his way up the greasy pole. When it came to having to make an effort, Cook didn’t bother, and he soon found himself being eclipsed by lesser talents.
But perhaps the most compelling argument for Cook’s decline was that his family fell apart. His first marriage to Wendy Snowden, with whom he had two daughters, broke down in 1971. This separation coincided with the start of that long, slow decline. He may have been professionally successful but his family had failed – and this brings us back to Torquay.
Cook’s parents had a long, affectionate and happy marriage. Cook himself seemed to have an enjoyable childhood in Torquay. And while today few may find virtue in the idea of empire, it was the case that Cook’s father Alec had a strong sense of selfless service.
Peter Cook had money, success and women and he moved in the most glamorous circles right through one of the most exciting decades of the last century, but he never had what his parents had. He never had that stability or the selfless dedication to work, or to family, and when his own family failed – when he failed to live up to what his parents had – he fell to pieces. His final rapid decline in the mid-1990s came in the wake of his mother’s death in 1993, an event which devastated him. And perhaps this was his ‘Rosebud’ – he just never regained something that he had known from his childhood in the gentle middle-England of a seaside town in Devon.
But if a domestic bliss found in Torquay, which haunted a tragic figure, constitutes one entry in the history of British comedy, a second domestic set-up in Torquay, which was anything other than blissful, provides a second entry.
About a 15-minute walk from the house where Peter Cook was born is the Sachs Lodge retirement complex. On the wall is a blue plaque which states that this retirement home has been built on the location of the Gleneagles Hotel, which was the inspiration behind Torquay’s most famous fictional hotel.
In May 1970, the Monty Python team, after the success of their first series, travelled down from London to Torquay for location shoots for their second series, including such sketches as Derby Council vs the All Blacks, Scott of the Sahara (filmed on Paignton beach) and a Godard pastiche involving a rubbish tip and an exploding lettuce.
Monty Python was indebted to Peter Cook. John Cleese was one of the first to follow the comedy career path – Footlights and then television (usually via the Edinburgh festival) – that Cook invented. (It has since been followed by John Bird, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke Taylor, David Baddiel, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Griff Rhys Jones, Tony Slattery, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins, Olivia Colman, Hugh Dennis, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, plus many, many others.)
Cleese saw Beyond The Fringe at the Cambridge Arts Theatre when he was an undergraduate and, much like Cook, he changed his career plans. He was going to enter law – but, instead, he became a comedy writer and performer.
His first real success came with A Clump of Plinths. The success of this revue show followed the same pattern as Beyond The Fringe; Edinburgh, London, America and then television.
Cleese became one of David Frost’s mob of clever young men who wrote for the That Was The Week That Was. By the end of the 1960s, Cleese had the highest profile of the team that would become Monty Python. (As such he was, in many ways, always the most reluctant member of the team.)
When the Pythons arrived at the Gleneagles, the hotel seemed pleasantly modern, the decor was bright, the location was delightful. But before long the difficulties started.
Arriving back at the hotel at 12.30pm after a night shoot the Pythons found the owner, Donald Sinclair, standing and staring at them accusatively, with what Michael Palin described in his diary as “self-righteous resentment”.
Graham Chapman then asked for a brandy – but that was never going to happen. There was a unique approach to customer service in this establishment. Sinclair then went on to criticise Terry Gilliam’s “too American” table manners and throw Eric Idle’s briefcase out of a window because he thought it may have contained a bomb. So the Python team decided to change hotels.
But Cleese, along with his wife Connie Booth, decided to stay – and they took notes. Sinclair and the Gleneagles became the inspiration for Basil Fawlty and Fawlty Towers.
Fawlty Towers, which was first screened in 1975, went on to be one of the UK’s most beloved sitcoms. Despite never being filmed in the town, the show put Torquay on the British comedy map if only for the lines: “Well may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...?”
Fawlty Towers has a fairly bleak view of provincial England. It’s one dominated by know-it-all men, whose constant irritability is sometimes held in check by a deeply unpleasant, passive aggression – and sometimes isn’t. Misogyny, mild bigotry and the world view that everyone else is an idiot seethes forth. It is a world of angry Little Englanders.
Cleese knew this world first-hand – he himself had grown up in the provincial seaside town Weston-super-Mare, a town he once described as being tedious and sexually repressed. When Cleese found himself in the hotel of an angry Torquay hotelier he probably knew immediately what he was dealing with.
Torquay is not the comedy capital of the UK (that is London, obviously), but it is certainly more than a footnote in the history of British comedy. For Cook, Torquay may have represented the ideal that he wanted to return to, whereas for Cleese, it was that bitter and frustrating provincial England that he had wanted to escape.
These two stories offer a snapshot of the power of England’s provincial towns to be both the ideal and the place from which to flee. It’s a tension that still shapes so much of what this country is – and isn’t.