John Cleese - interview

The legendary ex-Python talks to us ahead of his wide-ranging Alimony Tour

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John Cleese interview

Gritting his teeth in the face of our horrible climate, John Cleese leaves California for his first major solo UK tour. Here he discusses hopelessness, finance and old friends

Condemned to perform until he dies, till he is an ex-Python, till he has ceased to be, John Cleese is remarkably sanguine about his current Alimony Tour, necessitated by the comedy legend’s $20m divorce from his third wife. A retrospective of his life and career, the 71-year-old maintains he’s always found humour, even in the worst of situations. Who can forget his eulogy for Graham Chapman: ‘Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard!’

The show will feature insights into working with such luminaries as Peter Sellers and Marty Feldman, the origins of the peerless Fawlty Towers and the ground-breaking Monty Python. He chuckles at the mention of ‘sibling rivalry’ with his fellow Flying Circus survivors. ‘I didn’t realise for some time that we never talked about each other’s projects outside Python,’ he explains. ‘It was taboo, people got slightly uncomfortable. It was a way of avoiding the envy or competitiveness. What made it easier was that later we all went off in quite different directions. Michael Palin decided to give up on his considerable comedy talents to make those dreadfully tedious travel shows. Have you ever tried to watch one?’

Currently living in California, Cleese simply cannot see the virtue of being in ‘cold, damp weather’. He grimly recalls the rain-lashed Glencoe locations for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the cast would race back to the hotel in their armour in a madcap effort to grab the final shower before the hot water ran out. ‘For writing, acting, editing and doing the publicity we were earning £4000 each,’ he explains. ‘Then I got a call saying “We can’t pay you £4000, we can pay you £2000. But we hope to pay the rest at the end of the shoot. And would you mind sharing a room?” I remember thinking, “I thought I was a film star? I can’t imagine Humphrey Bogart shared his hotel room. And certainly not with Eric Idle.” So I refused.’

A long-time advocate of psychotherapy, Cleese has published two self-help books about relationships with analyst Robin Skynner, Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It. ‘A couple of the Pythons completely disapproved of my doing them,’ he sighs. ‘[Terry] Gilliam couldn’t understand why I’d want to go off and do something like that.’

Some answers are divulged onstage, where he contemplates an often difficult relationship with his self-centred mother and a father who struggled to comprehend showbusiness as an appropriate vocation for a Cambridge graduate. He is fiercely proud that Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda retain a cross-generational appeal. ‘Over the years, people have told me, usually American males, that watching Python in particular allowed them to connect with their fathers. Otherwise they had a slightly uncomfortable relationship.’

Therapy also curbed the manic work ethic and restless energy that defined his early career. ‘My compulsion to always be working has become less strong and my current business is purely down to this enormous alimony. If I wasn’t doing this I’d be making documentaries about wildlife and other subjects that interest me. So a fan could say it’s a pity he doesn’t produce as much as he used to. But of course, I’m a lot happier.’

The recent change of ownership at MGM that delayed the next James Bond movie has also postponed Cleese’s Wanda musical adaptation. Co-written with his daughter Camilla and intended to feature songs by Bill Bailey, he calls it ‘a comedy with songs, not a musical with a bit of comedy in it.’ In contrast to the more musically-attuned Idle’s re-imagining of The Holy Grail as Spamalot, he reveals, ‘we want to keep the songs very short and the dance routines too, the comedy has to be dominant.’

Before that, he’s writing his next one-man show, Why There is No Hope, a ‘cutting-edge’ satirical production based on philosopher and finance mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory about unexpected events of large magnitude. Popularised in the aftermath of the credit crunch, Taleb’s theory for Cleese essentially boils down to the idea that we can never predict the unexpected and that so-called experts are invariably ‘hopeless’. ‘The implication is that there’s no hope if we go on the way we are, and that kind of research lends itself to very funny conclusions. [Taleb] is an unbearably vain main of course, but what he says is absolutely fantastic.’

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Mon 6–Wed 8 Jun; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Thu 9–Sat 11 Jun.

John Cleese's Alimony Tour

Billed as 'the most senile member of Monty Python', John Cleese brings a heady mix of showbiz anecdotes, psychoanalysis and a little too much information on tour.

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