One man, one thousand memories - John Cleese reflects on his legendary career
Comedy legend John Cleese brings his hit one-man show back to the UAE, having already toured Canada, Australia and South Africa. In the nostalgia-packed show, John looks back on his childhood in England, his school days and his incredible career – including Monty Python and Fawlty Towers as well as his film work – all delivered with his killer comedy timing.
You’ve been asked about your career so often. Do you ever get bored of talking about your past and your achievements? No, I’m very happy to chat about it. When people meet me you can guarantee in the first 15 seconds they’ll mention how much they love Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, which is lovely. We have extremely pleasant conversations and 99 out of 100 people I meet are absolutely delightful. The only disadvantage of this celebrity business is that you tend to have the same conversation again and again. The content does get repetitive.
What’s the worst thing about being a tall man? I am six feet four-and-a-half and as you get older and less flexible I find that travel in almost any form becomes more and more uncomfortable, particularly on airlines. I dread flying; the space isn’t big enough. I’m convinced they make the seats smaller every year.
You were tall from quite a young age, weren’t you? Yes, and when you’re young, if you’re very tall, people treat you as if you’re older than you are; they expect you to be more grown up, and that can be difficult. The other problem is that you can’t fade into the background. I used to get bullied when I was a boy and I’m sure one of the reasons I got bullied is that I stuck out.
Do you have trouble buying clothes that fit? I can usually just about find clothes that are big enough. Before I had to start paying alimony I used to have my suits made but now I get them off the peg.
Then again, generally speaking, a woman likes a tall man, so that’s a bonus. That’s true. As a tall man, you might have a broader range of partners. Jenny, my fourth wife, is five feet ten-and-a-half and that’s lovely. When she puts on heels, she comes up to where I live. However, my first wife, Connie Booth, who played Polly in Fawlty Towers, was five feet three-and-a-half, and was very proud of the half inch and insisted on it.
Having performed this one-man show many times we’re guessing the Q&A at the end is the most enjoyable part for you. Oh, absolutely, it’s the bit I look forward to most, provided the questions are nice and stroppy. I don’t want these awful Californian questions like, ‘You are wonderful, Mr Cleese, how does it feel to be so wonderful?’
Why don’t you like nice questions? There’s nowhere to go with nice questions. I like the audience to ask slightly aggressive, teasing and mean-spirited questions. When people ask things like ‘Why have you been married so often?’ or ‘Why do you always play unpleasant characters?’ then it immediately gets much more interesting and we all have a better time. The problem in Australia is that the people are so nice they ask very nice questions and as a result my answers can be rather bland.
What would you ask yourself? I’m always interested in that business of why people find some humour offensive. A lot of what I’ve done in my career has offended people so I’ve got a lot of experience in that area. People got very upset about The Life Of Brian, for example. What people don’t seem to realise is that everyone’s sense of humour is subjective. Things aren’t ‘funny’, or ‘not funny’. Things are funny to some people and not funny to others. I can sit in an audience and not find the joke funny, while everyone else laughs. I don’t therefore say, ‘That’s not funny.’ Instead I say, ‘I don’t find this funny.’ The same thing applies to what offends people. Some people get very upset at things that you really don’t anticipate.
Such as? For example, in A Fish Called Wanda, people got very upset at the famous scene in which Kevin Kline eats a fake fish. But that wasn’t the part that upset people! What they were more upset about was the rest of the scene where Michael Palin is almost unable to breathe. They were worried about him. I thought the fish getting eaten might offend people, but not the other bit.
Looking back on your life in this show, do you find that forgotten memories pop up out of nowhere? Oh, for sure. Yesterday I sat down and watched an old TV show from the spring of 1968 I wrote and appeared in. It was really interesting to me how awful it was – the show and me. I knew I hadn’t enjoyed making it but I was astonished at how poor it was. It wasn’t shocking or upsetting but it was very interesting to see how feeble it was, and we made it just 15 months before I started doing Python.
Does looking back on memories make you sad? The show is fond reminiscing and nostalgia, it’s not melancholic. I often think back to my prep school, St Peters, in Weston Super Mare. After I left, I went back to teach there for a couple of years. It was very English in the best sense. The masters were gentlemanly, kind, well-mannered, thoughtful people. They were dedicated to teaching and doing their best. There was something so decent about the place. I sometimes think back and see the contrast between then and the cutthroat world we live in today.
Were you a good teacher? I think so. I hate to bore people and I think that’s handy as a performer and as a teacher. I really did try to make the lessons as interesting as I could. I taught English, history and geography. I didn’t know anything about those subjects and I remember the headmaster saying to me, ‘Don’t worry, John, they’re ten years old, just stay a page ahead.’
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions left? I would like to be able to read and think much more. Paying the alimony in the last seven years has kept me busier than I would like to be at this age. Reading and thinking – that’s what I want to do now.
Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat, Dubai
Tel: (04) 3666546. Taxi: Souk Madinat.