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I was Peter Cook’s caddy writes Madeline Smith, remembering Peter Cook who would have been 85 last year.

Blog | By Madeline Smith | Apr 07, 2023

Get in the hole! Cook, 1983

On Monday 25th August 1980, most people were asleep when Betjeman’s Britain was aired at 10.40pm on ITV.

A selection of John Betjeman’s poems had been set to music by composer Jim Parker, and visually represented by various television heavyweights including Eric Morecambe, Peter Cook and Susannah York.

Peter Cook (1937-95) played the dedicated golfer in Betjeman’s poem Seaside Golf. I was his put-upon caddy, reluctantly trailing behind him on the course. Both of us were dressed to the nines in exquisite Edwardian costumes.

With Madeline, 1980

Our poem was brought to Technicolor life on the windswept Sheringham links course in Norfolk.

Australian director Charles Wallace had hawked his project around the TV stations for nearly two years. A half-hour programme of poems had little appeal to the networks.

The idea was heavily influenced by the recent release of an LP, Banana Blush: Betjeman poems, read by the poet himself, set to gentle brass-band-inspired music by composer Jim Parker.

Jim lived in Barnes, a leafy London suburb, but was originally from Hartlepool, and a long-time resident member of the Barrow Poets. This jolly group of musicians and narrators would set up shop and perform in pubs, basements, crypts and any number of small-scale venues all over the land.

Charles Wallace was smitten.

After a slow couple of years, Anglia Television finally bit.

Philip Garner was the highly regarded controller of the station. He realised their arts output had been sorely neglected and decided that a programme highlighting the works of the Poet Laureate might provide a temporary solution.

A commission appeared. Philip, a member of Sheringham Golf Club, could provide the location. The Links Hotel for Charles, the camera crew, Peter Cook and me was provided free of charge.

What a thrill to act opposite Peter Cook, a teen idol of mine. When I was just 15, in the mid-sixties, a friend whose father was something in PR kindly took me to the BBC Studios in White City. We saw a recording of Not Only… But Also…, one of the most popular light-entertainment shows at the time.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were the stars, but I had eyes only for Pete (who would have turned 85 on 17th November).

My idol did not disappoint when we came to make our film in 1980. Peter made me laugh so much – with ‘business’ that was not even in the script – that I actually felt quite ill with hysteria.

Peter could have carved out a successful career as a mime artist. To amuse me, he performed some ridiculous antics with the wing mirror of our ancient prop car, fiddling around with a cloth and copious amounts of spit and polish. Dear, silly Peter.

When I greeted him on our second day of filming, it was obvious that make-up could not hide his pallor. Peter looked ghastly.

He told me he had dreamt of murdering his friend Dudley Moore. He felt that Dud had deserted him with his ambitions for stardom in America. Pete had himself tried to make it in the USA, but with patchy success. He returned, much chastened, to these shores.

So Peter had now just spent an unholy night wandering the corridors, mostly in conversation with the hotel’s commissionaire.

Then disaster fell. The pre-digital film in the second camera was out of focus and therefore did not match successfully with the film in the first camera.

We returned again to the golf course on a bleak autumn day to recapture the entire poem. Our faces DO look strained, but only I would notice!

Peter’s costume had not been retained – so none of the previous footage could be used. Once more, I was required to wear high-heeled shoes on the green – which, in normal circumstances, would have had us expelled from the club for life. Peter was apopleptic at the breach of custom.

Rightly so. In real life, he was a consummate golfer (in one inspired moment, he campaigned for Hampstead Golf Club to host the US Masters) and knew the etiquette. I walked on tiptoe – not easy on grass already sodden by east-coast October rainstorms.

My hero Peter asked me for my phone number. There being no mobiles in those days, I gave him the direct home line, with a warning that the call might be answered by a man.

Inevitably, I never heard from Peter, and within a matter of a few years he had become a bloated and tragic figure, dying in 1995, aged only 57. He would have been 85 this November.

I often think how different things might have been. For him. For me. Had I not told h