Monday, September 03, 2012

The giraffe on the Moon: Peter Cook and Britain's Cold War space programme

The comedian/satirist Peter Cook (1937-1995) made numerous references to Britain's Cold War space programme, some of which appear in an anthology of his work (Cook 2003).
The grasshopper is an interesting creature. It has a disproportionate leaping ability. It's the powerful hind legs that cause it. You can see them hopping over grassy terrain. That's why it's called a grasshopper. But it is its leaping ability that interests me. Do you know that if the giraffe had the same leaping ability, pound for pound, he'd be able to jump onto the moon and Britain would be the first in the space race? (Interesting Facts, from Pop Goes Mrs Jessop, Cambridge Arts Theatre, 1960)

Since 1946, Britain had been involved in a joint missile/space programme in partnership with Australia, based at the Woomera rocket range in South Australia. In the 1960s both nations were involved in the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), aimed at putting a European satellite in orbit. By this time, however, only a few years after the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, it was becoming clear that Britain was probably not going to be a major player in space exploration. Hence Cook's gentle dig at Britain's technological capabilities ......

This one is from a parody of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (apparently quite shocking at the time as no-one had satirised a Prime Minister before!):

I then went on to America , and there I had talks with the young, vigorous President of that great country, and danced with his very lovely lady wife. We talked of many things, including Great Britain's position in the world as some of honest broker. I agreed with him when he said that no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I chaffed him and said no nation could be broker. This type of genial, statesmanlike banter often went late into the night. Our talks ranged over a wide variety of subjects, including that of the Skybolt Missile programme. And after a good deal of good-natured give and take I decided on behalf of Great Britain to accept Polaris in place of the Skybolt. This is a good solution because, as far as I can see, the Polaris starts where the Skybolt left off - in the sea.

I was privileged to see some actual photographs of this weapon. The President was kind enough to show me actual photographs of this missile, beautiful photographs taken by Karsh of Ottawa. A very handsome weapon - we shall be very proud to have them. The photographs, that is. We don't get the missile until around 1970. In the meantime, we shall just have to keep our fingers crossed, sit very quietly, and try not to alienate anyone. This is not to say that we do not have our own nuclear striking force. We do. We have the Blue Steel, a very effective missile, as it has a range of 150 miles, which means we can just about get Paris. And by God we will.
(TVPM, John Golden Theatre, New York 1962)

The US president was, of course, John F. Kennedy. In 1962, he and Macmillan met in the Bahamas and as part of the Nassau agreement the UK agreed to replace the US's cancelled Skybolt missiles with Polaris missiles. Britain of course had cancelled its own intermediate range ballistic missile, the Blue Streak, in order to buy US products. Blue Steel was one of many missiles tested at Woomera. (And now, of course, it's better known as a "look" by model Derek Zoolander).

Cook, William (ed) 2003 Tragically I was an only twin: the comedy of Peter Cook. Century

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