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Friday 11th February, 2005
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Bonnie ’n’ Pete in the comeback disaster

Former child star Bonnie Langford has never acted in a straight play before. But now she is helping bring Peter Cook back to life, writes Richard Hodkinson

Bonnie Langford with her co star, Jonathan Hansler at the New End Theatre

The tenth anniversary of the comedian Peter Cook’s death late last year saw tributes broadcast on TV and radio, all attempting to capture the elusive quality that made him such a unique talent.
Documentaries and dramatisations of the great man’s life, even repeat showings of his own performances, served mainly to illustrate that the nature of Cook’s genius was unknowable.
Just opened at Hampstead’s New End Theatre, however is a new play that takes a different route into his complex psyche. Pete ‘n’ Me by Tim Marriott is a fictional account of the aftermath of Cook’s disastrous performance at the Cambridge Theatre in November 1972, the first night of ‘Behind the Fridge’ his comeback show with Dudley Moore.
Cook was a Hampstead resident until his death in January 1995 and was a well-known figure in the streets around the New End, a fact that has not escaped the stars of the production, Jonathan Hansler who plays Cook and Bonnie Langford as the second of his three wives, Judy Huxtable.
“I think that it’s actually rather lovely that we are performing here,” says Ms Langford. “I went to the pub next door to get a packet of crisps the other day and the man behind the bar knew all about Peter. He talked about Bronco the tramp he used to talk to, who died recently, and it just struck me that it is quite special to be performing in an area he loved.”
The two actors have come to their roles through contrasting routes. While Cook was a recognisable but distant figure to Ms Langford, Jonathan Hansler is a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado. “I’ve been a huge fan for decades, really,” he says. “As a kid I had the Derek and Clive album Ad Nauseam – the one that came with a free bag of sick – which I listened to very quietly under the bedcovers. I was a very big fan.”
By way of illustration he breaks into an unsettlingly accurate impression of Cook to recite from the famous Secret Policeman’s Ball sketch: “Did you know your intestines are over four miles long? It’s a wonder they can cram it all in.”
Has it been helpful or problematic for Ms Langford to come to the role relatively cold? “No, not really,” she says. “The whole show happened very quickly for me. The casting director Eileen sent me the script just before Christmas and then, obviously, everyone’s offices closed down. I thought they’d forgotten about me until Eileen rang up one Tuesday in January and said ‘I really must take you to tea at the Ritz to talk about the play – we start rehearsals on Monday!’ So I didn’t have much time to worry about the part and, in preparing for it everyone’s got Peter Cook stories.
“I was interviewed on the radio by Danny Baker who told me about their nights out, and everyone who knew him can’t help telling you about how charming he was, how dishy he was and how achingly, achingly funny.”
Has playing the role given Mr Hansler any insights into what made such a complicated and troubled man tick? “I think so,” he says, “I mean, it’s difficult, but through the research and the long hours you spend thinking about the man and the part, you develop theories about him.
“There’s a type in this country – the quiet rebel – that I think he became towards the end of his life. And he was always a bit punk. He was a comedy rock star for a lot of his career. Bands like Led Zeppelin used to play bootlegged Derek and Clive tapes on their tour planes, and you can’t get much more rock ‘n’ roll than that.”
Ms Langford interjects: “I think it’s a very English thing that we wait until someone has gone before we begin to appreciate them. He was such an unconventional character that it has become easier to place him since he died.”
“That’s true,” says Mr Hansler, “The problem with any genius is that it’s terribly flawed and it makes people uncomfortable. I mean, this is a man who was the toast of America at the age of 22, a man who, at that age, once wrote 26 sketches for a single West End show.”
As the pair prepare to return to rehearsal, Bonnie Langford, disarmingly, lets slip a fact that might have made the intimidating prospect of bringing Cook back to Hampstead even more daunting. The former child star and doyenne of the musical stage has never ‘done’ a play before. Not one. “Well,” she says, “not a totally straight one. I’ve done dozens of musicals and plays with music, but this is the first time I’ve been on stage without singing a note. Honest.”
Pete ‘n’ Me is at the New End Theatre until February 26. Box office: 0870 033 2733.