John Otto Cleese

So, Anyway by John Cleese. Random House 2014.

“Most of you don’t give a tinkers cuss about me as a human being or feel for the many different forms of suffering that make me so special. No, you are flipping through my heart-wringing life story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren’t you?”

Last week I cited an incident from John Cleese’s greatest comic half hour, Fawlty Towers, in my NBR column: for those of you who have a sub, its here.

There is, I reckon, a Basil Fawlty’s Fire Extinguisher Rule of Politics: If you know the episode you can probably work it out.

But anyway….John Cleese is visiting New Zealand in the near future, along with fellow ex-Python Eric Idle. I’ve written about him before, here:  some years back, when his imminent arrival was causing some excitement.

His autobiography has its moments, although he is very hard on his mum, I feel.

The rest of it isn’t so bad. He discusses school days, noting that rugby was “invented for large nasty rough boys” (as if this were a bad thing) and also the rules were baffling.

This kind of misses the point of rugby: a game administered by and often played by yobbo lawyers, it is hardly surprising it has turned out full of violence and difficult-to-follow rules.

But small boys at his school, he says weren’t all that worried about rules: he recalls watching  two classmates playing chess and how one of the kings had been taken:  when he pointed this out was told dismissively,  ‘we know.’

The funniest bits, as you might expect,  are about the Monty Python years and also contain classic Cleesian sarcasm. Recalling the internal arguments of the team of comedians which made up the troupe, he outlines the different responses to confrontation (Palin withdrawing to a safe distance, Chapman staying silent and puffing on a pipe, Idle trying to be reasonable and constructive, Gilliam “would side with anyone else called Terry” while Terry Jones himself would charge at Cleese and vice versa.

They might settle an argument after hours and then the next day when they reconvene Jones would announce he had thought about it a bit more and “I really feel that…”

 “It seemed as though he had a fundamental belief that the merit of his argument depends on the strength of his feelings about the matter, and since it always felt uncontrollably passionate about everything, then he was always right. This irrational claptrap, coming as it did from a swarthy excitable plump Celtic’s demi-dwarf, struck me is not only thoroughly impertinent but also noisy and attempts to undermine the most basic principles of the Enlightenment. What is more…”

It impossible, I find, not to hear Cleese’s voice when reading that.

Cleese has always seemed a schoolmaster ( and I use the word ‘master’ rather than ‘teacher’ deliberately) on the verge of a mental breakdown: he has a strong didactic impulse and has lectured the wider public, at different times,  on everything from making money to proportional representation to the benefits of psychotherapy.

The apogee of this persona was probably the sex education lesson in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, lecturing a bunch of schoolboys on foreplay [“What’s wrong with kiss…?…there are plenty of possibilities before we go stampeding for the clitoris, boy.”]

There is also the under-appreciated film ‘Clockwise’ which has Cleese as headmaster from a decidedly less-than-top-drawer school being invited to speak at a headmasters’ conference.

It combines Cleese’s two great comedic personae – the rampaging, lecturing classroom didact,  and the barely-contained-class-insecurity-and-rage of Basil Fawlty.

The trailer is here: to my mind it is a comedic gem, more conventional than most of his comedy but better than, say, the over-rated A Fish Called Wanda.

 

This didactic impulse gets full rein in this autobiography: one of his teachers who taught him maths, he says, left him convinced at the end of each term he had learned nothing but at the start of the next term the youthful Cleese would find he grasped the lessons of the previous term instantly.

“Promotion, in other words, was followed by bewilderment, and that the next term, by full comprehension,” Cleese informs us.

Lessons of comedy were learned in the classroom as well: one fellow pupil was trying to draw a circle with a compass but as he was about to complete a nice neat circle the point of the compass would slip. After several slips, the pupil borrowed a penknife and began furiously sharpening the metal compass with a penknife “while all the time just, just stifling the seething, roiling bloodlust  motivating within… “Adding to the tension was the fear, which all the class had, of the withdrawal of affection from the teacher of this particular class, because the entire dynamic of the classroom hung around seeking, and hoping to keep, this particular teacher’s prized goodwill.

This, Cleese found hysterical: it partly inspired Basil Fawlty.

Basil’s anger, Cleese explains – at length – is always underpinned by fear –  fear of hotel inspectors’ bad report,  psychiatrists,  Germans or German guests or fear or offending people,  or failing to measure up. Then because of the stress caused by the fear he starts making mistakes,   over-corrects, and becomes increasingly panicky and desperate.

And of course he is terrified of his wife, Sybil,  who he variously insults under his breath “my little golfing puff adder” “sabre toothed tart”.. and or  “rancorous, coiffeured old sow”.  she delivers as good as – better, in fact – she gets, describing him as “an aging, brilliantined stick-insect” .

This brings me to one problem I have with Fawlty Towers – it has some truly marvellous lines, but they are too clever for the characters uttering them.

They are not the kinds of insults uttered by hoteliers, unless those hoteliers, like Cleese,  trained as barristers at Cambridge.

Cleese contains a few chunks of script from the now-mostly-forgotten At Last the 1948 Show, which was a precursor to Python. He forestalls any criticism by saying there are several good reasons for doing so. One is “the sketches are really funny (in my opinion and it’s my fucking book).” and although the book is quite supposed to be an autobiography”.

 

The book closes with the 2014 Monty Python reunion, and musing on how much had changed since the show began 45 years previously – how on the one hand attitudes to swearing and vulgarity meant what was fairly shocking in 1969 is ordinary conversation in 2014. On the other hand there was what he dubs the “life denying for school political correctness”.

“This may have started as a kind intention but was soon hijacked and taken and observed by few individuals without any sense of proportion – which means by definition they werewithout any sense of humour either.”

In the book closes with the second night of the 2014 reunion, when please is waiting to go on stage, he peered out at the packed auditorium and wondered “how is it possible that I’m not feeling the slightest bit excited?” The final words of the book are  “perhaps I should stick to writing from now on.”

I’m not so sure.

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