As the British Empire was in retreat, a new generation of bright young English humorists were on the march.
Four of them were products of Oxbridge. Alan Bennett was then focused on medieval history at Oxford, where Dudley Moore was studying music; meanwhile, at Cambridge, Jonathan Miller was headed for a career in medicine, while Peter Cook was reading French and German. But the lure of satire was irresistible.
In 1960, the lads debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, known as “the Fringe” for its edginess; they called their act “Beyond the Fringe.” Dressed in sharply tailored black suits with skinny ties, they took British comedy “into the second half of the twentieth century,” to quote Kenneth Tynan, lampooning the royal family, the Church of England, the prime minister, even Britain’s stiff-upper-lip endurance throughout the Second World War. In doing so, they paved the way for Monty Python and Saturday Night Live.
Miller later noted, “We had the same timing as the Beatles and challenged the same conventions. People didn’t expect brash young men to become musical millionaires in those days, and nor did they expect to see intellectuals on the stage.”
In 1961, Beyond the Fringe wound up in London’s West End, at the Fortune Theatre. The group quickly gained a following for its anarchic sketches, such as Bennett’s parody of dreadful church sermons, and Moore’s comic masterpiece, “One Leg Too Few,” about a one-legged actor auditioning to play Tarzan. (The casting director tells him, “I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you.”) The following year, the show moved to the John Golden Theatre on Broadway, where President John F. Kennedy took in a performance.
But they soon needed a place to call their own, where the Lord Chamberlain, the British censor, wouldn’t follow them, and where their irreverent and innovative style of humor could continue to flourish. It didn’t exist, so they had to create it.
The idea first struck Cook in 1957. While visiting Berlin, he’d dropped in at the Porcupine, a cabaret that featured politically satiric acts. He wasn’t impressed with the material, but he saw how a venue like the Porcupine could provide a haven for comic misrule.
Cook found a decrepit strip club, the Tropicana, at 18 Greek Street in then seedy Soho, which Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, John Deakin, and others in the demimonde flocked to for its bars, restaurants, and sex clubs. The Tropicana was filthy, with broken windows and peeling paint. It was perfect.
Cook, the son of a diplomat, who rejected the foreign service for himself because “England had run out of colonies,” then turned to a fellow Cambridge alumnus to help finance his grand experiment. Nicholas Luard, a Coldstream Guardsman and onetime treasurer of the Cambridge Footlights Society, had inherited a trust fund set up by his wealthy industrialist grandfather when he’d turned 21. Together, they set up Cook & Luard Productions in Coventry Street and got to work.
The first thing they did was to bring in another friend, Sean Kenny, the most in-demand set designer in the West End. Kenny gutted the space and created a spare, stylish interior with black paint, Hessian steel, and sisal carpeting. The building’s exterior was painted pink. Nonetheless, the place still had a Dickensian air; after all, it was in the heart of Soho.
“We had the same timing as the Beatles and challenged the same conventions. People didn’t expect brash young men to become musical millionaires in those days, and nor did they expect to see intellectuals on the stage.”
The auditorium seated around 90 souls (the entire place could only squeeze in about 500), and a 14-foot wall near the club’s entrance was set aside for the artist Roger Law, future co-creator of the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, to caricature the famous and the fallen. Upstairs, the photographer Lewis Morley (he of the notorious nude portrait of Christine Keeler straddling a Habitat chair) occupied a small studio.
Once the club was ready for its close-up, invitations went out, exhorting people to become members of the Establishment (“the only good title I ever thought of,” Cook said), at the cost of around $9 per year, or a “founding life subscription” of around $56 (which came with a portrait of then prime minister Harold Macmillan).
Within days, hundreds of applications began fluttering in. By the time the Establishment finally flung open its doors on October 5, 1962, 7,000 people had signed up. Opening night was, by all accounts, a glamorously chic though chaotic affair.
It was a heady mingling of the old guard—novelists Graham Greene, J. B. Priestley, and Somerset Maugham, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin—and the new “Swinging London”—Tynan, designer Mary Quant, model Jean Shrimpton, director Peter Hall, actors Michael Caine and Terence Stamp.
Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, and Robert Mitchum (who had to sit on the back stairs one night when the club was packed) dropped in when in town. Paul McCartney and John Lennon showed up, and Eartha Kitt, who “was so enamored of Peter that she ended up having to be restrained,” wrote Wendy Cook. The novelist E. M. Forster dropped in like a visitor from another era, dining and still gossiping about the denizens of Bloomsbury, all long gone.
The Establishment also offered music in the basement. After the final curtain call at the Fortune Theatre, Moore, a consummate jazz pianist, would dash to the club and quickly take his seat at the piano, joining his bandmates. The sultry chanteuse Annie Ross (of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) would sometimes provide vocals. Thanks to Moore’s trio, the jazz bar soon became one of London’s most popular hangouts, and the diminutive, puckish actor was catnip to legions of young women who flocked to hear him play.
It was still a Soho club, however, and what remained of the old Tropicana was the vague threat of violence from local gangsters. As Peter Cook recalled in a television interview with Clive James, “The Kray twins came round when we were just about to open and they said, ‘Oh, it’s a very nice place you’ve got here.... It’d be dreadful, wouldn’t it, if the wrong element came in and started smashing the place up.’
“I knew perfectly well that they were the element that I didn’t want to have in,” Cook went on. “And so I said, ‘Well, thank you very much, very kind of you. But the police are just around the corner and if there’s any trouble, I’m sure we’ll call them and they’ll do their best.’” Cook then called the Krays up onto the stage. Embarrassed by the limelight, they fled the scene.
From Lenny Bruce to Dame Edna
Cook and Moore, who often performed as a duo, were sometimes described as the Mutt and Jeff of English comedy. Over six feet tall, Cook was decidedly upper class, whereas five-foot Moore was strictly state school, until a music scholarship landed him in Oxford. Their routines were divinely silly, such as “The Most Boring Man in Britain Competition.”
One of their more magnificently cringeworthy sketches was the “Frog and Peach,” about an appallingly bad restaurant that served only combinations of frog and peach: “frog à la pêche and pêche à la frog.” Wendy Cook observed that “Peter was funny on his own, but the pure comedy in Peter would come out when he was with Dudley.”
“Peter was funny in an almost supernatural way that has never been matched by anyone I’ve ever met,” Stephen Fry recalled of his friend and fellow humorist. “He had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty.” John Cleese once described Cook as “the greatest creator of comic material” he’d ever known.
Just three weeks after opening the Establishment, Cook and Luard took over Private Eye, a satirical current-affairs magazine that had been founded the previous year, and moved its offices to upstairs of 18 Greek Street. It was Cook, who owned a 66 percent share in the magazine and helped to edit it, who came up with the idea of adding naughty speech and thought balloons to daily news photos. Private Eye went on to become the largest-circulation current-affairs magazine in Britain, inspiring National Lampoon and Spy in America.
Lenny Bruce was invited for a month-long stint at the Establishment in April 1962; it was his first, and last, engagement in London. Bunking with Peter and Wendy, Bruce got Peter and Wendy’s friends to become Harley Street drug mules for him. He would sometimes heat his heroin in a silver tablespoon over a candle in their dining room, and Wendy recalled feeling, at first, that they all thought there was a certain glamour to Lenny’s louche behavior. Because drug addiction was less prevalent in Britain at the time, no one knew how to handle him, as his habit “was a hundred times bigger than anything our doctors had seen.”
Bruce would open his set by saying, “Hands up: who masturbated today?” He followed that with improvised riffs that took no prisoners, targeting everyone from leading politicians to the Pope. Some of the reviews were scathing and called for Bruce to be banned. Although his engagement at the club was largely a success and Cook invited him back the following year, the home secretary deemed it unacceptable for him to re-enter the country, and Lenny Bruce was marooned at Heathrow and forced to return to the States.
John Cleese once described Cook as “the greatest creator of comic material” he’d ever known.
In 1962, Barry Humphries was a restless young actor appearing in the popular musical Oliver! at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, when Beyond the Fringe were at the John Golden Theatre around the corner. “It was while we were in New York that Peter recruited me for a gig at the Establishment, on the strength of some Australian gramophone records,” Humphries would later recall. With a three-week engagement at around $280 a week, Humphries’s “morale soared.”
It was on the stage of the Establishment that Humphries’s irreverent, cross-dressing character, Dame Edna Everage, made her inauspicious English debut. “As soon as I got there,” Humphries confessed to his biographer, John Lahr, “I felt a little uneasy. The shape of the room was long and narrow. The audience weren’t close to me, and they weren’t an experienced cabaret audience either. The huge success of ‘That Was the Week That Was’ had led them to expect a certain kind of humor. Very topical and often very witty and very irreverent about British institutions.... It was the wrong time and the wrong place.”
The usually raucous house was quiet as an oil painting: “Still Life with Comic.” A few lukewarm reviews dribbled in, the bookings dwindled, and Humphries’s three weeks dwindled to 10 performances. “I had always feared that I wasn’t funny,” Humphries later said, “and the Establishment seemed to prove it.”
Cook told Lahr, “There were about three or four people who thought this is very, very funny. Mainly John Betjeman [former poet laureate of England], [playwright] John Osborne, and me. I felt ashamed of my fellow-Londoners for not appreciating him.” Time would prove Cook right as audiences eventually came to appreciate Dame Edna, and Humphries’s subsequent career in comedy was a sustained howl of success up to his death earlier this year.
When Beyond the Fringe moved to Broadway, the club lost its marquee performers, and the club’s popularity suffered. Some also felt that Private Eye had stretched the founders too thin. In 1964, the Establishment closed its doors. A Lebanese gangster named Raymond Nash bought the place and turned the onetime strip club into a sex cinema.
The closing of the Establishment didn’t end the partnership of Cook and Moore, however. They co-wrote and co-starred in the 1967 film Bedazzled, a satiric tale about the Devil and the Seven Deadly Sins (with Raquel Welch in a small, unforgettable role as Lillian Lust). In the early 1970s, they continued to appear together in a show they wrote called Good Evening, but Cook increasingly performed while under the influence. Drink further de-stabilized his life, and his marriage to Wendy broke up, followed by two more marriages, to Judy Huxtable, a debutante turned model and actress, and then to the Malaysian-born businesswoman Lin Chong.
When Moore moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and became a beloved comedic actor in hit movies such as 10 and Arthur, his partnership with Cook ended. “It broke [Cook’s] heart,” Wendy wrote. “I don’t think Peter ever came to terms with Dudley becoming a Hollywood star. It wasn’t jealousy, it was just incomprehension. ‘Hey, this was Dudley from Dagenham!’”
After thousands of cigarettes and too much drink, Peter died on January 9, 1995, at the age of 57. Fry chafed at the way his friend’s death was being lamented; there was more hand-wringing that Peter had not lived up to his potential than celebration of his comedic genius. Fry described Cook as “a man absolutely untainted by bitterness or remorse. He didn’t want a yacht, a house in Cap-Ferrat or a knighthood. Nor did he want a pool in Beverly Hills.... The only regret to be uttered is on behalf of a Britain that now has no Peter Cook in it.”
Moore, who married four times (once to Tuesday Weld), endured five years of indignantly bad health and died in 2002, at the age of 66. “I can hear the music all around me” were reportedly the last words of the Establishment’s resident pianist.
After a long career as a director of both theater and opera, Jonathan Miller died at the age of 85, in 2019. Alan Bennett, who went on to become an acclaimed playwright as the author of The Madness of George III and the Tony Award–winning The History Boys, will turn 90 next year.
In February 2009, the Heritage Foundation of the City of Westminster put up a plaque at 18 Greek Street, the site of the Establishment Club. It reads:
Co-founded and ran
The Establishment Club
Today, the club is a restaurant and cocktail bar that features a drag brunch. Something tells us Cook would approve.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL. Previously a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends