Sunday, September 10, 2006

Good Evening...

They were two of the most oddly charismatic figures I’ve ever seen on a stage, this comically mismatched pair. One was tall, thin, and absolutely reeked of upper-class British self-contentment, even when it was just an act. The other was short, congenial, the very model of a comic foil. With nothing but the barest necessities in the way of props and lighting, they took one of the most meager forms of theatre – two-man sketch comedy – and came up with vivid bits of absurd theatre conjuring up a world in which the most unlikely premises, from the visitation of the Magi to a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan – were greeted with deadpan familiarity.
According to William Cook (no relation), who has compiled two books of their material, audiences in England - depending on their age - best remember Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as either “Pete and Dud”, a pair of affable dunces they played on their tv series “Not Only…But Also” in the 1960s, or “Derek and Clive”, the foul-mouthed and filthy-minded stars of a semi-underground recording made in the 70s. Their gift, he argues, was with sketch comedy, and unfortunately the majority of their work was unceremoniously erased by the BBC in order to conserve videotape. Curiously, Cook (the editor of the books) argues that prior to Dudley Moore’s brief standing as a film star in the US, movies were not a good medium for them, but I disagree. If they had never done anything other than Bedazzled, - high on my list of movies shamefully unavailable on DVD – they’d still be remembered as one of the funniest film partnerships in history.
I was fortunate enough to see Cook and Moore in 1975 when they toured the U.S. with “Good Evening” (The original title in other countries was “Behind the Fridge”, a waiter’s mangling of their first triumph “Beyond the Fringe”), the show that contained, in my opinion, many of their best sketches: “The Frog and Peach”, in which Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling explains in his best stiff-upper-lip fashion why his venture in the restaurant business – the name also describes the menu- was a failure; “One Leg Too Few”, in which the above-mentioned would-be Tarzan – Moore bouncing merrily on one leg- would frequently crack his partner up with his giddy optimism ; and my favorite, the opening scene in which two men exchange pleasantries on the street while gradually coming to the realization that they’ve never met before.

PC: Hello.
DM: Hello.
PC: How are you?
DM: I’m terribly well! How are you?
PC: I’m terribly well as well!
DM: I must say you’re looking very fit.
PC: I’m feeling pretty fit actually. Isn’t it amazing – us just bumping into each other like this?
DM: Yes. I mean here of all places.
PC: Here of all places! I mean, I haven’t seen you since…er
DM: Now, er..hold on a, when was it? Er, we..we haven’t seen each other..
PC: Well actually we haven’t seen each other..
DM: We haven’t seen each other…er… before.
PC: That’s right. We’ve never seen each other before, have we?
PC: You’ve never seen me.
DM: And I’ve never seen you. What a small world!

And so it goes as they continue to compare notes on family and acquaintances, in every case, finally agreeing that they must get together again soon.
One of the most unique things about Cook and Moore, as Cook (the editor, again) points out, was that their sketches are vitalized by the sheer pleasure they seem to have in working together. While Moore frequently plays the straight man, the energy behind much of their work (like the “Pete and Dud” sketches) comes from the collaboration of the two, stepping on each others lines, reworking and twisting the dialogue simultaneously. At their best, they played off of each other brilliantly, the comic effects materializing from their joint wordplay. Enjoying each others company (the exception of “One Leg Too Few”, it was usually Moore who would lose it on stage), they fix upon an idea, subject it to their fits of fantasy and then quickly make a joint getaway.
Sadly, the pair broke up not long after “Good Evening”. Moore had a brief fling as a film star, made some poor choices and briefly returned to his real love, music, before succumbing to a debilitating variant of Parkinson’s Disease. Cook became increasingly uninterested in performing for the public: In his final days, his best material was delivered in the form of late-night phone calls to a radio host. Both died too young, never really recognized for their talents. Reading their sketches in the two books below, it might be hard to see exactly what made them work. It helps if you can hear their voices or see their mismatched physical presence. (Even an almost purely verbal sketch like “The Frog and Peach” was given touches of physical comedy on stage with an elaborate series of leg-crossings that emphasized the difference in physique between the pair.) But if you’re fortunate enough to have seen them on some old videotape, or in any of their scenes together in Bedazzled – can I mention again what a shame it is that 20th Century Fox will not release this film? – and can fill in the blanks, these are invaluable mementos of two great comic minds, half scripted, half improvised, playing together.

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