Memories of Bede's: Peter Pyemont
In the first of our Memories of Bede's series, Peter Pyemont writes 'A Tale of Two Comedians: Peter Cook and Eddie Izzard'.
Pictured top: Eddie Izzard in the orchestra (middle row, third from the left)
Peter Cook in the rugby team (back row, third from the right)
In the late 1940s/early 1950s Peter Cook was a contemporary of mine at St Bede’s Preparatory School.
Peter’s parents were based in India and Peter was sent to St Bede’s at the age of 6. He saw his parents every other summer holiday. I sometimes wonder if this could have been a reason for his bitter-sweet life. He was very intelligent, quick witted, a keen and proficient footballer, a clever mimic and a boy who liked to be the centre of attention. Better it was to be with him than against him for his tongue could whiplash with razor-like effect.
My tale covers Drama. We acted together in a play which followed the events of the biblical story of the Birthright. I played Isaac, the father, Peter Jacob, the devious brother who cheated his older twin out of the Birthright. Jacob had prepared for me a “mess of potage”, a favourite stew, which on stage was some chocolate creams in a bowl. So delicious was the fare that I paid more attention to it than to my part. The next thing I knew was that Peter had grabbed me by the collar, hauled me to my feet and we were bowing to the audience. He had dealt with my part as well as his own.
I followed his career with great interest – Cambridge Footlights, Pete and Dud, Beyond The Fringe, Monty Python etc to the alcoholism which caused his premature death at the age of 57.
Peter Cook in the football team (back row, second from the left)
As Headmaster of St Bede’s, in September 1969 I welcomed Eddie Izzard and his older brother Mark into the school.
Eddie too had been 6 when he had first started boarding. His mother had just died, his father worked in Aden with BP and an English boarding school seemed to be the answer for the boys. Drama was possibly in Eddie’s blood even then. On his pillow lay a row of teddies which he would get to perform every evening.
My tale covers Sport. Eddie played on the left wing of the 2nd XI rugby side which I coached. The team was pretty raw when our first match arrived, away to a local Prep School Chelmsford Hall. That mid-January day was foul. It was cold, the rain fell in torrents, the wind was spiteful. Neither team looked like scoring. The players became ever more inept, frozen and disinterested. And then, late in the second half, the miracle happened. We were awarded a scrum. Soon after, the ball was delivered to Eddie.
Eddie was small but well-built and quick. He easily beat his marker, who had been waving to his mother on the touch line, and whipped past the opposing fall-back, made for the unguarded try line and placed the ball down between the posts. Somebody said something to the unfortunate full-back who burst into tears. Eventually it was decided that Eddie, having scored the try, should take the conversion. He duly dug a hole with the heal of his toe and placed the ball into the crater. He approached the ball and connected firmly. Off it went like a rocket, and hurtled along the ground, bounced and struck the poor full-back square in the face. The lad’s mother rushed to his aid. I led our team gingerly off the field. Many of them considered Eddie a hero. Eddie accepted his praise modestly.
I have followed Eddie’s career with interest. Indeed Elspeth and I witnessed his first professional show. In August 1989 we met Eddie for a pre-performance chat at the Edinburgh Festival. He took one look at me and declared, “My Headmaster! You can’t possibly see this show. The language is dreadful and much of it is about St Bede’s.” So funny were the next 45 minutes that tears flowed down my cheeks. The audience that evening numbered 6; the next year it was 60; the following year 600; off he went.
We still keep in touch. For us it takes but little time to reach the real Eddie – highly motivated, iron disciplined, European, linguistic, physically immensely fit, thoughtful, adaptable professionally, political and of course amusing.
Eddie Izzard in the cricket team (back row, second from the right)
Both Peter and Eddie have reached the top of the tree professionally. Indeed Peter Cook was voted, in a poll of 300 comedians, the top comedian of his era. For me, there is one difference. Peter Cook would sometimes laugh at you; Eddie Izzard always laughs with you.
Special thanks must go to John Cousin, our Prep School volunteer archivist, for his invaluable help with sourcing the photographs for this piece.