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John Cleese: "We live in a world run by arseholes"

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John Cleese tells ShortList what he thinks of Theresa May, how he’s voting, and why he’s not giving up on the BBC.

John, last time we spoke you said you’d never work for the BBC again. Now you’re going to be appearing in a BBC sitcom called Edith. Why the change of tune?

I shouldn’t have said ‘never’. And I should have made it clear that it wasn’t my personal experience [that made me feel that way], it was what I’d heard from lots of young comedians about the barriers preventing them from getting their shows on the screen; the enormous amount of interference by executives, all of whom have neither written nor directed nor acted but they think they have some instinctive understanding of comedy, which it takes some of us 30 years to get.

There’s a general election in a week. How are you feeling?

I do feel a kind of apathy and I was trying to think what it was about. First of all, I don’t think there’s the slightest chance of Mr Corbyn being elected. And that does take rather a lot of steam out of it, you know? But I think the other thing is that I was always a great proponent of proportional representation. In the present parliament, Ukip got four million votes and they have one MP, and the SNP had a million and a half votes and they have 56 MPs, and the Liberal Democrats got two and a half million votes and they have eight MPs. My feeling is it is nothing to do with democracy at all. So it’s very hard at the moment for me to get very worked up about it.

Do you get worked up about Theresa May at all?

There’s something about her I rather like but I am very afraid that she’s doing the usual very corrupt stuff. When she went to America for 24 hours, instead of talking to the New York Times, one of the best papers in the world, she went to the Wall Street Journal and well well well, it just so happened that the owner of the Wall Street Journal happened to be there and also just happened to be Rupert Murdoch. So they had a brief chat, which I imagine went like this. Theresa May: “If you support us in the general election, what do you want?” Rupert Murdoch: “We want the other 60% of the Sky shares.” Answer: “Done.”

John Cleese with his hands

How are you going to vote?

I’m not sure; I believed in the Lib Dems because they believed in proportional representation but they were always a little bit more keen on Europe than I was. I’m not sure how horrendous a hard exit [from Europe] will be but if I decide that it’s better to take a soft exit then I’ll probably stick up for the Liberal Democrats again on the grounds that it’s good to have people in Parliament who are more in favour of a soft exit.

You’re in the UK very little now. How does the US compare?

There’s pluses and minuses. It depends very much which part of America you’re in. Monty Python is hugely popular there; much much much more popular than it is in the UK. There’s a general feeling in the UK that it’s history and it probably wasn’t that good anyway, which is largely spread about in the British press. In America they’re hugely enthusiastic about it and they say that it changed the face of comedy. It’s a great pleasure to play there.

What about the less appealing aspects?

Well, it’s quite crazy. And nobody understands what’s going on. And how can they, when Trump changes his policies overnight? There’s a feeling that maybe he’s getting some things right but, as someone else said, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

You said in 2015 that you were adapting a Georges Feydeau farce. How did it go?

It was played at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. It ran for two and a half weeks, which is about the time you need to get a farce into good shape. We would like to bring it into the West End but these things take time, partly because it’s not easy to find a theatre open, particularly as most of them are clogged up with musicals.

John Cleese being odd

What’s your favourite part of the creative process?

I think rehearsal – where you’re discovering how to make things work. That’s the most creative part. In my experience, you still never know what’s funny. I mean, I think I’m unlikely to produce something that’s completely unfunny, but I really can’t tell sometimes whether it’s going to be hugely funny or reasonably funny. And that continues to this day.

Do you think it’s a difficult time for comedy?

I think that’s true but I know that Billy Connolly and I both discovered that we were saying the same thing 20 years ago. You kind of think, “What sort of a world are we living in?” And the answer is: a world run very largely by arseholes.

You seem to have become quite cynical. Do you think you’re more cynical now than when you were a young man?

I think I was, oddly enough, quite trusting, but at the same time had a tendency to be subversive. And I think that the big shock in the last few years for me has been to realise just how corrupt Britain is. I don’t think it was so corrupt 50 years ago.

John Cleese is at Byline Festival in East Sussex, 2-4 June. www.bylinefestival.com

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