John Cleese talks Monty Python, Eddie Izzard and working at Colchester Mercury
John Cleese is a comedy god. A founder of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, creator of Basil Fawlty and an integral part of such groundbreaking comedy series as I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again and The Frost Report, you would expect him to be basking in the sun on some comedy equivalent of Mount Olympus consuming ambrosia off the belly of a woodland nymph.
Monty Python stars - Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Terry Gilliam. Picture: PA
You would not expect to encounter his highly distinctive, large frame in the cramped backstage corridors of a regional theatre on a damp January afternoon.
John Cleese is currently dropping into the Mercury Theatre in Colchester to oversee rehearsals of his latest play Bang, Bang, an adaptation of a Georges Feydeau French farce. Given that this is his latest excursion into writing, it’s not surprising what makes John Cleese laugh is that theatrical classic of people running around and falling over – but done with impeccable timing.
“Lots of things made me laugh in the beginning. I was always very fond of Spike Milligan and The Goons, I think that is the comedy that I love more than anything else, but when I started going to the theatre I discovered that the plays that made me laugh, I mean really laugh, were farces.
“The first one that made a huge impression on me was Georges Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear, which I saw at The National in 1966. Jacques Charon came over from Comédie-Française to direct it and starred Albert Finney and Geraldine McEwan.
John Cleese who is currently adapting a Georges Feydeau French farce at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
“This was the first time that I had seen farce done by superb actors and it made a huge impression on me. Farce gets a bad reputation because it is frequently not done by great actors. They mug at the audience and the timing’s off and therefore, people think it is crude and unfunny or is over-the-top. First-rate farce is brilliant and always has me laughing like a drain. If you think of Fawlty Towers, that is very much a farce.
“What I love about Feydeau is that his works are not only incredibly funny, they are also very cleverly plotted and you don’t often get to see really clever comedy these days. The best recent comedy I have seen was James Cordon in One Man Two Guvners, which was also at The National. Absolutely brilliant and hysterically funny. Again, it was all about great timing.”
John Cleese has spent his life creating comedy gold. Is he surprised by the longevity of Monty Python? Did he realise that he and the Python team were making something that would still be revered and quoted 50 years on.
“I am astonished. We never thought it would have the life that it has had. It was experimental, cutting edge comedy. At first we didn’t think it would get repeated. We did it, it was broadcast and we moved on. Then it developed a life of its own.”
John was the first Python to quit the team and strike out on his own, leaving the series after the third season but returning to write and perform in the well regarded run of feature films which included Monty Python and The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian.
So would he have predicted that they would have reunited for once last hurrah before they got together for their run of 10 sold out performances at the O2 arena during the summer of 2014? “I think we had thought that was it when Graham Chapman died. I don’t think any of us wanted to go on as Python without Graham.
“I see a lot of Palin but I don’t see much of the two Terry’s and Eric Idle was living in California. We did the O2 shows and it became clear that Terry Jones was having trouble remembering his lines and he went public recently about his dementia and if you add to that Michael doesn’t really want to do it any more and Terry Gilliam isn’t really a performer, then I think we have come to the end of the road.”
So what gives him the greatest satisfaction: writing or performing? John is quick to answer: “Oh, writing. Writing is much more rewarding in a creative sense unfortunately performing pays much better. You get ten times as much for performing as you do for writing, so when you have been hit with as many alimony suits as I have you tend to spend most of your life performing when you would prefer to be writing.”
So who has inspired him as a writer? “When I started out I was lucky because I was working at a time when there were plenty of excellent writers, people like Alan Bennett, Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, Peter Nichols. They were top class people and they inspired you to do your best work because you didn’t want to get left behind.
“At that time I was going to the theatre regularly and I was knocked backwards by the quality of the work that they were producing. For a long time theatre became my main love.
“Although I grew up loving movies, I became to adore theatre because in the theatre writers work doesn’t get monkeyed around with. In a film it’s not unusual to have five or six writers having an input at various stages.
“From a performing point of view I always had favourite performers. I loved Richard Briers, I thought he was brilliant, and I loved Leonard Rossiter, and when I was young I loved Alastair Sim, Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness because they could get so much comedy out of their characters.”
Unfortunately, today, John doesn’t see too much that makes him laugh. “I think the problem is not that there aren’t talented performers, because there are, but the main problem is that much of the writing isn’t good enough. I keep coming back to the writing – that’s what is important.
“Stand-up is good now and it’s changed beyond all recognition from the stand-up comedians that I knew who used to work the northern clubs. People say to me all the time that Monty Python inspired them but I have to say I see no evidence of it in their work. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but I see very few comedy programmes that resemble Python.
“I don’t see any Python-esque comedy on television at all. For me the performer that has taken on that surreal Monty Python view of the world is my favourite comedian Eddie Izzard.
“He creates these surreal worlds which he inhabits which is the closest thing to Python that I have seen.”
Today it’s writing plays like Bang, Bang that gives him the greatest satisfaction. Having crafted the script, he works closely with director and old friend Nicky Henson, who played the young undercover detective who nabs the con-man Lord Mulberry in Fawlty Towers, to bring farce with a light touch back to the stage.
“It’s great to do it outside London because you can concentrate on the work and get it right without people looking over your shoulder all the time and the facilities are terrific. You are made to feel welcome and because I am putting the money up we can get it right without lots of money men interfering and making stupid suggestions about casting.”
Bang, Bang, adapted by John Cleese, from an original play by Georges Feydeau, is running at the Colchester Mercury Theatre from February 24-March 11.
John Cleese and Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers