And, at last the 1979 show that inspired it:
Others I know have disagreed with me about HFC, and perhaps my positive response to it was affected by watching Not Only, But Always - a BBC production about the relationship between Peter Cook and Dudley Moore - just beforehand. If there's any one of the Pythons' rough contemporaries I admire as much, if not more, than them, it's Peter Cook. "Genius" is a word I generally disdain, "comic genius" even more so - I reserve the term for those few whose brains are (mis-)wired in a particular way, especially if it enables them to fabricate an entire, skewed comic universe out of whole cloth. Jonathan Winters? Genius. Spike Milligan? Genius. John Cleese? A brilliant, thoughtful man blessed with a gift for comic construction and mad logic, but not a genius. (Cleese would agree, incidentally, and I quote: "It was almost discouraging... Whereas most of us would take six hours to write a good three-minute sketch, it actually took Peter three minutes to write a three-minute sketch. I always thought he was the best of us, and the only one who came near being a genius, because genius, to me, has something to do with doing it much more easily than other people." So there.) I can't think of any other star in the Brit-com firmament since his heyday who deserves the title, at least not until you stumble across Chris Morris. (And Morris, unlike those mentioned above, knows how to harness and utilize his gift, which makes him that much more remarkable - blessed with a unique gift for spontaneous absurdity but also focused enough to devise and construct a complex infrastructure in which to house it. The 1993 BBC radio series Why Bother?, where Morris [in character as a variation of his pompous On the Hour/The Day Today newsman] interviewed Cook [in his guise as the quietly insane British peer Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling], stands tall as the final flowering of Cook's genius before his 1995 death, in no small measure because, for once, he was evenly matched - Morris able to steer Cook out of reflexive cul-de-sacs, scoring strong conceptual/attitudinal hits of his own, and meticulously winnowing down the resulting hours-long improv sessions into tight, seamless ten-minute blocks for broadcast. Well, hell, since I'm so high on embedding these days and I've once again wandered well off the point, you might as well listen to this while I try to find my way back to the main road:)
I wouldn't claim that Not Only, But Always defames Peter Cook's memory per se*, but a steady diet of biopics (and biographies in general) renders it drearily predictable. Watch/read a few and you internalize the structure - start near the end, flash back to the beginning, then follow the protagonist through his early bursts of brilliance (if he hasn't suffered a defining childhood tragedy, that is), his struggles against offended/uncomprehending audiences, meeting/marrying his first wife, the previously offended/uncomprehending audience suddenly "getting" him, the skyrocket to fame and fortune, the drugs, the alcohol, the groupies, neglecting/abandoning the first wife, meeting/pining for/courting/marrying the second (inevitably more glamorous) wife, scandal, downfall, washed-upitude, spitting on the people who boosted him in the first place, months - no, years of dissolution, the disintegration of the second marriage, the years on the skids, rehab and/or third wife, reconciliation/wiping off the spit from those old, abandoned colleagues, the big comeback, and then either fade out on his triumph (if the subject is still alive or the director's arm's been twisted) or quickly descend back into dissolution and/or ironic (because he had cleaned himself up those last few months, his friends claimed! He never looked better! If it weren't for that one stupid night...) demise. Even NO, BA's winking self-referentialism - the black and white framing device where Pete and Dud, Peter and Dudley's famed working-class git characters, sit in a theater and comment on those same biopic clichés - is in itself such a cliché at this post-post-modernist juncture that it's no more than cute.
(* You know, I'm looking at it again and scratch that - Peter Cook was clearly a complicated, sometimes very troubled man, and compressing lives into their most dramatic moments is part and parcel of the biopic game, but if Cook were as unrelentingly withering, miserable and vicious at all times as this film makes him out to be, no one would have put up with him for twenty seconds, genius or no.)
Aw, hell, take a look at it:
Okay, so let's cut to the chase, a mere ten days after starting this blog post: you can probably recognize the big problem with comedy biopics from watching a few minutes of the above, and the big problem is this - they are just not funny. Off-stage, for the purposes of drama, you can count on a fairly grim slog through endless exposition-as-dialogue