“John was a boy that kept to himself,” recalled Mrs Hicks, Reg and Muriel Cleese’s next-door neighbor in Totnes in Devon, deploying the formulation traditionally reserved for the landladies of suburban serial killers. “I suppose he was all right with his Cambridge people, but us being country folk he wouldn’t say very much. At one time I looked after John for a couple of days and did his bedroom when his parents were away. He was writing something on his desk at the time. Course I didn’t look at it, but it was sarcastic sort of stuff about Churchill. I do often wonder what happened to him.”
Listening to Mrs Hicks, you appreciate the particular challenge of comedy writing – for who could ever improve on that? Nonetheless, she’s not the only one to wonder what’s happened to John Cleese. He turned eighty a couple of weeks back, and the jubilations were more muted than one might once have expected. My local PBS station still shows Fawlty Towers as part of its Britcom lineup, but Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, bemoans that Cleese has now turned into Basil Fawlty lui-mÃªme. Younger “comics” regret that the a great comedic talent is now the pub bore he played in his youth.
And why would that be? Well, after supporting Brexit, he moved to Nevis in the British West Indies and announced that the imperial metropolis was “not really an English city anymore”. Mayor Khan replied that “Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength” – although, strong as it is, it doesn’t seem much use during a knife attack. During the ensuing Twitterstorm, an opposing Tweeter declared that “I can’t stand Englishness”, and Cleese wistfully responded:
I suspect I should apologise for my affection for the Englishness of my upbringing. But in some ways I found it calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money-oriented than the one that is replacing it.
The Two-Minutes Tweet-Hate rampaged on, and Cleese retreated to the charms of his post-colonial backwater:
Nevis has excellent race relations, a very well educated population, no sign of political correctness… conscientious lawyers, a relaxed and humorous life style, a deep love of cricket, and a complete lack of knife crime …and the icing on the cake is that Nevis is not the world centre for Russian dirty money laundering…
I think it’s legitimate to prefer one culture to another. For example, I prefer cultures that do not tolerate female genital mutilation. Will this be considered racist by all those who hover, eagerly hoping that someone will offend them?
Is this the room for an argument? Not anymore. There are just things you’re not meant to bring up, lest the hoverers pounce.
As it happens, I agree with almost all of the above. But then I always have. It’s odder to hear it from Cleese. In essence, he misses the England of Mrs Hicks, of couples called Reg and Muriel, of saloon-bar majors, bowler-hatted civil servants, Church of England vicars, socially insecure lower-middle-class hoteliers and all the other stock types of a now vanished Albion he mocked at the height of his celebrity. The counterculture triumphed so totally that there is no longer a culture to counter, and the void of “diversity” makes London feel, even overlooking the stabbings and clitoridectomies, just like a large version of every other cookie-cutter multiculti western city.
“I know they were very disappointed with John,” Mrs Hicks told Cleese’s biographer Jonathan Margolis. “Muriel was so excited when she came in here and said John had passed his exams at Cambridge. They thought he was going to be a solicitor, and then he fell in with David Frost and that was it.”
Cambridge was the difference between Cleese’s generation and their variety-hall predecessors. The new Oxbridge comedian was not bound, as humorologists say, by “the tyranny of the punchline”. During their varsity days, Cleese and Graham Chapman were dispatched to entertain the Cambridge Allotment Society, who sat polite but baffled through the entire act. Afterwards one of them went up to the pair and said: “We do wish we’d had your education.”
Yet Cleese was always slightly aloof from the other Pythons: he was, by instinct, more conservative – not politically so much as comedically. As callow, ostensibly anarchic youths, they all took their turns at playing generals and bureaucratic jobsworths and other risible figures, but only Cleese seemed like a natural there. Yet the succession of American blonde hotties on his arm, somewhat perplexing and vaguely irksome to Chapman & Co, hinted at a desire for the same bigtime mainstream luster as the slightly older Dudley Moore: “I suppose if you’re a clubfooted midget from Dagenham being a Hollywood star must seem quite attractive,” remarked Moore’s old partner Peter Cook. 6′ 43/4” with unclubbed feet that never padded the streets of Dagenham, Cleese called his character in A Fish Called Wanda after Cary Grant’s real name, Archie Leach, because “I feel this film is as near as I’ll get to being Cary Grant.” True, Grant never cavorted, as Wanda‘s star did, in his tighty-whities, but Cleese looked good in them and not implausible as a big-screen leading man.
The moment would never come again. He spent a decade teasing about a Wanda sequel to be called Death Fish 2 or some such. But Cleese, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis waited too long. The eventual much-delayed extensively-reshot not-exactly-a-sequel opened under the unmemorable title of Fierce Creatures and to a mixture of box office indifference and critical scorn. “A stinker,” said one review. “As terrible as movies get,” said another. Everything about it seemed half-hearted: Kline looked embarrassed, Curtis emaciated, and Cleese showed alarming signs of taking himself seriously – at least as far as the sex scenes were concerned. Perhaps the years of party political broadcasts for the Social Democrats (the most soporifically establishment and fanatically Europhile of UK political parties), and a lucrative line in corporate training films for his Video Arts company, and a psychobabble series for Radio 4 co-hosted with his own shrink, and anti-smoking public-service announcements with a hectoring tone even his writing partner Graham Chapman (who died of cancer) would have blanched at, perhaps all had taken their cumulative toll. But, faced with a girl in bra and panties trapped in a wardrobe, even hardcore Cleese fans wondered: hang on, isn’t this the kind of comedy the Pythons were supposed to be the antidote to?
In Fierce Creatures, Cleese is running an English zoo, now fallen into the hands of a Murdochean tycoon. His old chum Michael Palin, as in the previous film, has a trait rather than a character: in Wanda, it was a stammer; in Fierce, it’s verbal diarrhoea, which, as running jokes go, is light on the jokes and heavier on the runs. There are two credited directors but it doesn’t matter. As co-producer, co-writer and star, it was Cleese’s baby, and he had to take responsibility. The film had its knockers, and they belong to Jamie Lee Curtis. In the years since Wanda, Miss Curtis, like the Cheshire Cat with cleavage, appeared to have faded away to just a smile and a bosom. Cleese, meanwhile, says things like “make the breast of it â er, best” and “I like him breast of all the smaller mammaries â er, mammals”. “Sorry, Freudian slit… slut… slot…” he apologizes. At the Cambridge Allotment Society screening, no one would be saying, “I do wish I’d had your education.”
Miss Curtis’s breasts are very agreeable, but they can’t support an entire movie, and this one eventually nosedived down her cleavage to be crushed by the massive bazooms of plot and character. The film was a bust, and ended any lingering Cary Grant ambitions. Pushing sixty, Cleese was at last the right age for all those pompous tinpot bureaucrats he’d played on Python in his twenties. Greyed and paunchier and no longer nimble enough to do the Rockette-level silly walk, he still had the supercilious overly emphatic speech, the icy sneer and the curled lip he made a classic British comic type. He was briefly an unimpressive successor to Desmond Llewellyn’s Q (inevitably, R) in the Bond franchise, and Nearly Headless Nick, a not quite decapitated schoolmaster to Harry Potter. On the last Python reunion at Wembley Stadium, I remember him interrupting a sketch to denounce Paul Dacre, the editor of The Daily Mail, as an arsehole, upon which Michael Palin gently suggested that, as he’d gone to the trouble to learn the lines of the scene, it might be fun to do them as some of them were quite funny. The prompt was in its way as radical, post-modern and punchline-defying a moment as anything in the original series.
He is, in my limited experience, good company, and shows genuine interest in others; there is something generous in his make-up. The first time I met him was for a short interview, which I conducted not terribly competently. “I’m going to remember the spelling of your name,” he told me. The next time I saw him, at a West End theatre for The Secret Policeman’s Ball, he called out across the crush, “Steyn! S-T-E-Y-N,” which impressed my date no end. He sent me a nice note after one Spectator column, and had m’learned friends threaten to sue me over another in The Sunday Telegraph. He can be aloof, and at dinner parties will sometimes lapse into an unnerving silence or talk to fellow-guests slowly, as though to a feeble-minded child.
But one should forgive him these habits, since for Cleese the price of fame – a fame based on genuine comic genius – has been the obsessive adoration of nerds. There is a man in America who organizes Basil Fawlty-for-President campaigns, and another in Britain who runs a guesthouse called Fawlty Towers, changed his name to Stuart Basil Fawlty Hughes and was subsequently elected to East Devon District Council as a member of the Raving Loony Green Giant Party. It seems entirely appropriate that Cleese should have proved more electorally effective as an involuntary aid to a breakaway faction from Screaming Lord Sutch than to the Liberal Democrats, who once tried to put him in the House of Lords. As the LibDems are now campaigning to reverse Brexit, one assumes the offer is no longer on the table.
The only thing that’s funny about the Python and Fawlty groupies is, of course, how unfunny they are. It’s unlikely that Cleese has discussed it with his shrink and co-author Dr Robin Skynner, but how appropriate that the most enduring Monty Python sketch of all should be about killing off a parrot. For what else were all those Python devotees? In all those by-the-book bureaucrat roles, Cleese bequeathed a very British sort of ritualized funniness. Half-a-century ago, the fans knew the lines by heart and, on the morning after the broadcast, in sixth-form common rooms and college pubs, they’d re-enact the sketches to the letter: “No, no, it’s ‘Nudge, nudge, say no more’ next, not ‘Say no more, nudge, nudge’.” Just as Basil Fawlty found the guests an irritating obstacle to the smooth running of his hotel, so many Python junkies found comedy a disruption to the smooth running of the sketch. Cleese himself got bored long before the fans did: he pulled the plug on Fawlty after a dozen episodes; a guest-shot on “Cheers” delighted American audiences, but he couldn’t be bothered reprising the role, so the producers installed Roger Rees as a kind of Cleese clone.
One could attribute this to an endearingly British, even Fawltyesque quality, were it not for