29 Nov 2008: John Cleese is sick as a (dead) parrot, says Amy Raphael, about the weather, football, and that message to Manuel
I hear John Cleese before I see him, his rather grand English voice booming up the stairs of a private London club. He arrives in the room and — my God! — he’s as tall and as leggy as a supermodel. A nice shirt, jeans, boat shoes and, despite the chilly rain outside, no socks. The hair transplant he recently discussed at length on Richard & Judy has yet to take, but he’s looking good at 69. Rather than being as prickly as others have reported, he’s in fact open and warm, with the firmest of handshakes.
When he’s sitting right in front of you, it’s somehow impossible not to think of Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks or doing the Dead Parrot sketch. Yet, despite the fact that he’ll forever be associated with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, he’s spent the last few decades trying, with various degrees of success, to make a name for himself on the big screen. Clockwise was followed by A Fish Called Wanda, which he is currently trying to turn into a musical with his daughter, Cynthia. More recently, he’s introduced himself to a new generation by taking on roles in the Harry Potter films and Shrek 2.
Cleese grumbles about the UK weather and wonders why he ever leaves his Santa Monica home, but then he takes a seat, asks for black coffee with honey and is all smiles. He seems happy to talk about anything except his recent, headline-grabbing divorce, has a ridiculously contagious laugh and is funnier in person than most comedy actors, which is a huge relief: it would be shattering to meet a grumpy Python.
Where did you watch the US election?
In New York, with my daughter and an actor friend of hers. We ended up in the middle of Harlem, in this huge open-air area with thousands of people. I was very struck by the atmosphere, which was excited rather than triumphal. As the results came through, one could feel the tears. I can still feel it now. I was walking home later that night and I saw a small group of black guys. I couldn’t help going, “Wahey!” [punches the air]. I found it incredibly moving that so many of my female friends took time out to help Obama’s campaign. There’s this lovely woman who arranges my itinerary when I go up to Cornell University, where I’m a phoney professor. She paid her own way to Florida, paid for a hotel and registered 269 people to vote. I thought how wonderful that anyone would put themselves out like that [he pauses; tears in his eyes]. There was a real feeling on election night of reclaiming the country.
We could do with a similar injection of enthusiasm here.
The most depressing thing about this country – more so even than the weather – is that nobody I meet ever thinks it’s going to get much better.
What do you miss most about England?
My friends … soccer, cricket. The West Country – I grew up in Weston-super-Mare and was educated at Clifton College in Bristol – and the New Forest. I don’t miss London much. I find it crowded, vast and difficult to get around. Cabs are incredibly expensive.
Do you still support Bristol City?
Yes. I supported West Ham for a while but then one day I looked at the team and they were all Czechs and Slovenians. When I watched Bristol City as a kid, six of the team were from Bristol and so there was a real sense of geographical identity. Now players just pull on a shirt for three years and any passion they show for the club is totally phoney. I think that money spoils most things, once it becomes the primary motivating force.
You can’t have been paid too much at the start of your career.
Oh no! When I started The Frost Report in 1966, I got £70 a week. No, let’s be accurate, it was about £80, which was split 50-50 with [co-writer] Graham Chapman. When Python was first on television, I made £240 a show. The first series of Fawlty Towers, I got £6,000 for 43 weeks’ work. For the second series, I was paid £9,000.
At least you’re now getting paid for the endless reruns of Fawlty Towers. There might only have been 12 episodes, but at least you didn’t let the joke run dry.
That’s right. Although, when I was making Fawlty Towers, someone said they loved it but I was trying too hard. He suggested making a two-minute sketch stretch for eight minutes. I didn’t take his advice [laughs].
Do you follow modern comedy?
Not much; I’m just beginning to. I cut myself off.
You make it sound intentional.
It wasn’t quite intentional. In the early days of my career, I’d have these moments of utter delight: at the age of 21, I discovered Buster Keaton; at 24 it was Harold Lloyd; then WC Fields. Just occasionally, one discovers someone new for oneself. I thought Bill Hicks was a genius, Eddie Izzard too. I don’t want to be mean but there are several highly regarded shows around right now – and I’m not talking about Ricky Gervais, because I think he’s excellent – that I don’t much care for. So basically I keep my mouth shut. At this stage of my life I have to accept that I’m not likely to come across anything as startlingly good as Buster Keaton.
Can you see the influence of Python upon post-1970s comedy?
No, by and large. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry told me years ago that when they started to write something that seemed Python, they’d say: “This is too Python, we can’t go there.”
Did you regularly censor yourself in your Python days?
Do you mean in terms of good or bad taste stuff? Yeah. Usually I was more conservative and had to rein in Terry Gilliam. I think he had Christ nailed to a telegraph post at one point and I remember thinking [roars with laughter]: “That’s a bit much!”
Talking of comedy and censorship, do you think that Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross went too far?
I think that phone call was astoundingly tasteless. Apparently Russell Brand had actually slept with the girl, who works in a slightly raunchy club. Oh yes, a burlesque club. Anyway … I can’t imagine why they would ring Andrew [Sachs] up. It was, as I say, very tasteless. Most of the bad taste I’ve been accused of has been generic bad taste; it’s been making fun of an idea as opposed to a person.
Oddly enough, the one or two jokes I really regret on Python are the more personal ones. We did have this thing about [Blowup actor] David Hemmings [stifles a laugh and a cough] … something about him being played by a piece of wood. At the end there was a voiceover saying [can’t get words out for laughing]: “David Hemmings appeared by permission of the Forestry Commission.” Afterwards, I felt [desperately trying to swallow his laughter] just a little bit guilty. But it wasn’t horrible, not like that phone call. I thought that was extraordinary, especially as I’ve met Jonathan Ross and liked him; it’s very hard to see why he would have done it.
I guess we should mention your forthcoming film, The Day The Earth Stood Still, about an alien and a giant robot visiting Earth. Do you believe in aliens?
No. Sci-fi has never really been my bag. But I do believe in a lot of weird things these days, such as synchronicity. Quantum physics suggests it’s possible, so why not?
OK, our time’s nearly up: how’s the hair transplant?
There’s no benefit yet, darling. Nothing happens for three months … look [leans over to show the Guide his wispy pate]. I should be able to comb it across then [hoots with laughter as his own vanity]. Well, I wouldn’t mind, but I’ve got such a pointy head …
• The Day The Earth Stood Still is out on December 12