John Cleese’s new autobiography charts the comic’s early days before the Flying Circus. He tells ShortList what came next
In your book, you talk about how much your early career seems to have happened by accident?
Luck is the word you’re looking for. When David Frost asked me totally out of the blue – at a time when nobody in England had any idea who I was – to come and work with him and Ronnies Barker and Corbett, it was an extraordinary opportunity. He probably saved me about four years of working my way up. But I delivered the goods. I wrote some good sketches with Graham [Chapman] and performed them well, despite my nerves.
You end the book with the realisation that the recent Monty Python O2 shows didn’t excite you. Was that the nerves coming back?
No, and I don’t want people to take that as anything sour. I was having a very, very good time. We were all laughing together and none of that was fake. It was all the audience: you walked out there and realised you could do no wrong.
When did that change?
There was a moment as I was waiting to go on for the second show, before they put the spotlights on me, where I looked out at these 16,000 people and thought, “This is very nice, and I’m happy to be here, but it doesn’t feel exciting.” I couldn’t figure out why, but then I realised it was God telling me that I’d had enough of performing and should get back to writing. I’ve enjoyed writing the book so much. And since – quite genuinely – the alimony is nearly paid off now, I don’t need to do any more performing unless it’s very interesting.
Is that the end of Python, then?
I don’t think there’s the slightest chance of any more. We’re all completely satisfied. We’ll still meet occasionally, but we’re not going to suddenly say, “Oh, let’s do something,” because we can never agree on anything. We were always very different people. It worked well for a long time, but Michael Palin hasn’t really done comedy [since], even though he’s the most fertile creator of new comic characters I know. Eric obviously concentrated on music and songs, and he writes the most brilliant lyrics. Jonesy’s off in Lisbon directing operas about vacuum cleaners, and Gilliam just loves movies. I think making movies
is an absolutely miserable pastime, but the people that love it, love it.
But you’re one of a select few in the two biggest movie franchises of all time: James Bond and Harry Potter…
Oh yes, but I think I was on screen in Potter for about a minute and a half, if you added them both together. It was a completely unenlightening business, because it’s all to do with special effects. Those people live in caves and don’t talk to other human beings, so they give you strange instructions. I remember I did a surprised expression and they said, “Could you do that at half speed?” Have you ever tried to be surprised at half speed? I didn’t enjoy it at all. I loved Bond, because that was a very well run organisation, and they let me contribute to the script.
What did you make of Ben Whishaw’s Q?
I didn’t see [Skyfall], because I have criticisms of the new Bond movies. Two things went wrong: the plots became so impossibly obscure that even professional writers couldn’t figure out what they were about; and the action scenes, which are supposed to make the adrenaline run, go on far too long. They discovered these movies were popular in places such as the Philippines and South Korea, and so they dropped the humour because no one there is going to understand jokes about the English class system. They’re financially incredibly clever, as the take goes up by $100m every movie, but one of the great things I’ve learnt in the last few years is just how much money spoils everything.
Were there ever Python sketches you were surprised became as popular as they did?
Actually, I was reading a book by Roger Wilmut called From Fringe To Flying Circus, and he pointed out that if you listen to the laugh track on the Dead Parrot sketch, there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about it. He’s right, and nor is there anything remarkable about the Ministry Of Silly Walks. I think they both only started to catch on with the Amnesty and Python stage shows. They weren’t iconic when it was first transmitted.
You must have had an inkling when you produced something good, though.
The fact is that it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen, in any field. I’ll talk about this in the next book a lot: if you look at the meeting that was held with the heads of department at the BBC when we first did Python, seven out of nine of them thought the first show was a disaster. These are people whose living is made out of making television programmes, and they couldn’t see anything in a show that was about to influence most of the comics in the English-speaking world… They just couldn’t see it.
So there’ll be a second volume soon, then?
It’s a couple of years away, I think…
John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway is out now (Random House)
(Image: Rex Features)