British comedy takes some getting used to. It’s more outrageous, wacky, and not as straight jacketed by puritanical impulses as American media, then or now. The secret lies in the fact that in the 1960’s, the people making these programs didn’t take themselves too seriously. Try getting Franklin Graham to guffaw along with Benny Hill, Monty Python or Red Dwarf. Hah. Good Luck.
John Lennon’s first book, In His Own Write, was published in March 1964, during the filming of the Beatles’ first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, which also began in March; both shortly before I was born, I might add. 1964 would be the group’s busiest year, and John was still very much invested in their success. And it was grueling, with their world tours to America, Australasia, and Europe, three albums to records along with various singles, television appearances and radio shows, endless interviews in every stop on the road, with only two roadies to assist. Not to mention their legendary first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February and two Christmas Shows bookending the year.
By a strange coincidence a young performer named Dudley Moore was looking to begin his own solo project, but unsure of going it alone, he enlisted a fellow colleague, Peter Cook, his partner in the stage comedy revue Beyond the Fringe (1960+). And thus began the comedy sketch program Not Only…But Also. For three series transmitted in 1965, 1966 and 1970 we were treated to their warped sketches and musical performances, which was very common in shows of that period.
John was acquainted with both Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, as well as Norman Rossington, who appeared alongside him in A Hard Day’s Night. On November 4th Norman and series producer Joe McGrath visited John backstage at the Ritz Cinema in Luton and invited him to participate in the first edition of the new series. John agreed. The first part involved the filming of an outdoor surrealistic sequence on November 20th, to accompany the reading of his poem “Deaf Ted, Danoota, (and me). Shot at Wimbledon Common in Southwest London, this involved John, Dudley and Norman bicycling (over a fence at one point), swinging, dancing with balloons and strolling over the grounds.
Part two was taped the evening of November 29 before an audience at the BBC’s Television Centre in West London. Among the items read to the camera, from In His Own Write, was “About the Awful”, read by John himself. This was his own mangled autobiography, from the book’s back cover.
John’s prose is not for the linear-minded. His work tends towards the surreal, more like a stream of consciousness with a dash of the comedy troupe, the Goons, thrown in. It’s best experienced as it is here, as spoken performance, or as with his poem “Good Dog Nigel”, with Norman Rossington and a wriggling basset hound in John’s arms. “Unhappy Fred” is a two-hander shuffling back and forth between Dudley and Norman while John, Norman and Dudley do a back and forth to “All About Speeching”. John deadpans his way through “The Wrestling Dog” while Norman barks and ducks in and out. While Dudley mangles and shrieks through the closing number, the other players prance in front of his piano, ending with John flitting manically across the stage.
This first edition was broadcast on BBC2 on January 6, 1965. John enjoyed the experience so much he returned for the Christmas Special, broadcast on Boxing Day, December 26, 1966. John recorded his part on November 27, appearing briefly as Dan, a doorman in a 15-minute segment, a “Swinging London” parody masquerading as The Pipesucker Report, from Idaho. Cook plays an investigative reporter and towards the end of the sketch he approaches an exclusive club, the Ad Lav only to be stopped by Dan (John). He is only allowed access once he convinces Dan he is the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—and also offers John a small bribe. (The Ad Lav is a spoof of the Ad Lib Club, which was much visited by the Beatles.)
While these had little to do with music, they stand as John’s first public appearances outside of the Beatles. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook would enjoy many years, together and solo, as actors and comediennes, notably in the original version of Bedazzled (1967). Moore might best be remembered for his role as the titular alcoholic in Arthur (1981). Sadly all three of these greats are no longer with us, but their works will live on.
Available On: Much of this series is lost, due to the shortsightedness of the BBC. From 1970 to 1974 it became official policy mandating that recordings of programs deemed of less historical or commercial importance be wiped, a cost saving measure so that the master tapes could be reused. Priority was given to preexisting national or local news items; comedy was not considered of cultural value among the BBC higher ups. Peter Cook offered to buy the existing prints for Not Only…But Also from the BBC, but was turned down flat.
What we have, as with the slaughter of 1960’s Doctor Who, The Avengers and other programs, is items recovered from foreign networks and the remaining 16 mm film inserts. These bits were collected into six 100-hour episodes called The Best of What’s Left of Not Only…But Also. These episodes were subsequently released onto a VHS of the same name. In 2003, a 90 minute Region 2 DVD compilation was released as The Best of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. In America this would see a DVD release as The Best of…What’s Left of…Not Only…But Also by BBC Worldwide in September 2008, featuring all six compilation episodes, with certain edits due to rights issues.