CLEESE, JOHN

British Actor

John Cleese belongs to a tradition of university humour which has supplied a recognisable strand of comedy to British television and radio from Beyond the Fringe in the late 1950s to Blackadder and beyond. The brilliance of his writing, the dominant nature of his performances (due largely to his extraordinary height) and the variety of his successes have made him undoubtedly the most influential figure of this group. He has always shown an unerring instinct for how far to go with any one project or idea, with the result that there is little in his large body of work that could be counted as failure, though he is also highly critical, in hindsight, of anything he regards as not having worked precisely as he might have wanted it to.

Following the success of Cambridge Circus, the Cambridge University Footlights Club revue to which he contributed and which toured Britain and the World between 1963 and 1965, Cleese made his first big impact on television by writing and performing sketches on David Frost's The Frost Report (BBC). (He had already written material for That Was the Week That Was, the seminal BBC satire show which had launched Frost's career.) Fellow performers included Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, with whom he created the classic "class" sketches, and the show won the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1966. Cleese's written contributions were created in collaboration with his writing partner, Graham Chapman, then still a medical student at Cambridge. At the same time he was also writing and performing in the cult BBC Radio series I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, together with Cambridge Circus colleagues like Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie. There were a total of eight series of this show between 1964 and 1973, probably the only thing Cleese ever over-did.

Cleese was now much in demand and his next major project, produced by David Frost for Rediffusion, was At Last the 1948 Show, a sketch comedy series written and performed in collaboration with Chapman, Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, two series of which were transmitted in 1967. Although not seen throughout the country, the show gained a cult following for the brilliance and unpredictability of its comedy and the innovative nature of its structure, in which the show was linked by a dumb blonde called The Lovely Aimi MacDonald. Cleese was now developing a full range of comic personae, including manic bullies, unreliable authority figures (especially lawyers and government ministers) and repressed Englishmen, all of which were later to gel in Basil Fawlty. The quality of invention in At Last the 1948 Show was consistently high and it gave the world of comedy one of its most enduring pieces--the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch. It was also the recognised precursor to the series which remains, in spite of all his own retrospective criticism, Cleese's most significant contribution to television comedy, Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC).

Beginning in 1969, Monty Python's Flying Circus teamed Cleese and Chapman with three other university comedians, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, who wrote together and had also contributed to The Frost Report, and Eric Idle. The team was completed by American animator Terry Gilliam. Four series were made between 1969 and 1974, though Cleese did not appear in the fourth, contributing only as a writer. This was probably the main reason for the comparative failure of the final series, because Cleese was clearly the dominant figure in the Python team and appeared in the sketches which made the greatest impact, thus becoming the figure most associated with the series in the public mind.

Two sketches in particular stand out in this regard: the "Dead Parrot" sketch, in which Cleese returns a defective pet bird to the shop in which he bought it; and the "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch, in which Cleese used his angular figure to startling effect. He was to be constantly exasperated in future years by people asking him to "do the silly walk". In At Last the 1948 Show, Cleese's appearances with Marty Feldman have a particular resonance. In Monty Python's Flying Circus his work with Michael Palin was similarly memorable.

The overall impact and influence of Monty Python's Flying Circus is difficult to overestimate. The intricate flow of each show, the abandonment of the traditional "punch line" to a sketch, the knowing experimentation with the medium and the general air of silliness combined with obscure intellectualism set a standard which those comedians who followed found it hard to get away from. Producers like John Lloyd and writer/performers like Ben Elton acknowledge the enormous influence of Monty Python's Flying Circus on their own work. The word "pythonesque" entered the language, being used to describe any kind of bizarre juxtaposition.

Although there were no more series of Monty Python on television after 1974, largely because Cleese had had enough, the team continued to come together occasionally to make feature films, of which Monty Python's Life of Brian was the best and most controversial, given its religious theme. Cleese's discussion of the film with religious leaders on the chat show Friday Night...Saturday Morning in 1979 remains a television moment to cherish. The untimely death of Graham Chapman from cancer in 1989 put an end to the team for good.

By then, Cleese, having altered the world of sketch comedy for ever, had done the same for the sitcom. He was no stranger to sitcom, having written episodes of Doctor in Charge, together with Chapman. For Fawlty Towers he teamed up with his American wife Connie Booth to create a comedy of character and incident which is almost faultless in its construction. The "situation" is a small hotel in the genteel English resort of Torquay, run by Basil Fawlty (Cleese), his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), the maid Polly (Booth) and the incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Each episode is so packed with comic situations and complex plot developments, often bordering on farce, that it is no surprise that there were, in all, only twelve episodes ever made, in two series of six each from 1975 and 1979. Basil Fawlty is the ultimate Cleese creation--a manic, snobbish, repressed English stereotype with a talent for disaster, whether it be trying to dispose of the dead body of a guest or coping with a party of German visitors.

Cleese's television work after Fawlty Towers was sporadic and included the role of Petruchio in Jonathan Miller's production of The Taming of the Shrew for the BBC Television Shakespeare series and a guest appearance on U.S. sitcom Cheers, as well as the two funniest Party Political Broadcasts (for the Social Democratic Party) ever made. He concentrated more on esoteric projects such as the comic training films he made through his own company, Video Arts, and books on psychotherapy written in collaboration with Dr. Robyn Skinner. He also pursued his work in feature films, enjoying great success with A Fish Called Wanda, in which he returned to one of his favourite subjects--the differences between the English and American characters--already explored in one memorable episode of Fawlty Towers. The film also saw him play the role of a lawyer--the profession he had lampooned throughout his career and which he had originally studied to join.

-Steve Bryant


John Cleese
Photo courtesy of John Cleese

JOHN (MARWOOD) CLEESE. Born in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, 27 October 1939. Attended Clifton Sports Academy; Downing College, Cambridge. Married 1) Connie Booth in 1968 (divorced 1978), child: Cynthia; 2) Barbara Trentham in 1981 (divorced 1990), child: Camilla; 3) Alyce Faye Eichelberger in 1992. Appeared in London's West End, and later on Broadway, as member of the Cambridge Footlights company, 1963; first appeared on television in The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show, 1966; leading comedy star in Monty Python television series and films, from 1969, and subsequently as television's Basil Fawlty, Fawlty Towers; founder and director, Video Arts Ltd, company making industrial training films, 1972-89. LLD, University of St. Andrews. Recipient: TV Times Award for Funniest Man on TV, 1978-79; Emmy Award, 1987; British Academy of Film and Television Arts for Best Actor, 1988. Address: David Wilkinson Associates, 115 Hazlebury Road, London SW6 2LX, U.K.

TELEVISION SERIES

1966-67 The Frost Report
1966-67 At Last the 1948 Show
1969-74 Monty Python's Flying Circus
1975-79 Fawlty Towers

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1977 The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It
1980 The Taming of the Shrew

FILMS

Interlude, 1968; The Bliss of Mrs Blossom, 1968; The Best House in London, 1968; The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (also co-writer), 1970; The Magic Christian, 1970; The Statue, 1970; The Bonar Law Story, 1971; And Now For Something Completely Different (also co-writer), 1971; It's A 2' 6" Above the Ground World (The Love Ban), 1972; Abbott and Costello Meet Sir Michael Swann, 1972; The Young Anthony Barber, 1973; Confessions of a Programme Planner, 1974; Romance With a Double Bass, 1974; Monty Python and the Holy Grail (also co-writer), 1975; Pleasure at Her Majesty's, 1976; Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe, 1978; Monty Python's Life of Brian (also co-writer), 1979; Away From It All (voice only), 1979; The Secret Policeman's Ball, 1979; Time Bandits, 1981; The Great Muppet Caper, 1981; The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, 1982; Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, 1982; Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, 1983; Yellowbeard, 1983; Privates on Parade, 1984; The Secret Policeman's Private Parts, 1984; Club Paradise, 1985; Gonzo Presents Muppet Weird Stuff, 1985; Silverado, 1985; Clockwise, 1986; S. D. Pete, 1986; The Secret Policeman's Third Ball, 1987; A Fish Called Wanda (also executive producer and writer), 1988; The Big Picture, 1988; Erik the Viking, 1989; Bullseye!, 1990; An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (voice only), 1991; Splitting Heirs, 1992; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1994; Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, 1995.

STAGE

Cambridge Footlights Revue, 1963; Half a Sixpence, 1965.

PUBLICATIONS

The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It. With Jack Hobbs and Joe McGrath. London: Methuen, 1970.

Fawlty Towers. With Connie Booth. London:Methuen, 1979.

Families and How to Survive Them. With Robin Skynner. London: Methuen, 1983.

The Golden Skits of Wing Commander Muriel Volestrangler FRHS and Bar. London: Methuen, 1984.

The Complete Fawlty Towers, with Connie Booth. London: Methuen, 1988; New York: Pantheon, 1989.

Life and How to Survive It. With Robin Skynner. New York: Norton, 1993.

FURTHER READING

"And Now for Something Completely Different...." The Economist (London), 20 October 1990.

Bryson, Bill. "Cleese Up Close." The New York Times Magazine, 25 December 1988.

"Cleese on Creativity." Advertising Age (New York), 4 December 1989.

Gilliat, Penelope. "Height's Delight." The New Yorker, 2 May 1988.

Johnson, Kim. Life (Before and) After Monty Python: The Solo Flights of the Flying Circus. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.

_______________. The Fist 20 Years of Monty Python. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

McCall, Douglas L. Monty Python: A Chronological Listing of the Troupe's Creative Output, and Articles and Reviews About Them. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1991.

Margolis, Jonathan. Cleese Encounters. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.

Sanoff, Alvin P. "And Now for Something Completely Different." U.S. News & World Report (Washington, D.C.), 16 October 1989.

 

See also Fawlty Towers; Monty Python's Flying Circus