BOOK REVIEW / The flexible friendship of Mr Sugar and Dr Pill: 'Life and How to Survive It' - John Cleese and Robin Skynner: Methuen, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE spectacle of enlightenment isn't an edifying one. When their last book, Families and how to survive them, was adapted for radio, you tended to get the sort of exchange in which Robin Skynner would say, for example, 'Our own choice of partner is much influenced by our parents' relationship', and then John Cleese would suddenly go 'Aah]' - like a man whose back is finally being scratched in just the right place - 'Aaah] I seeee] So what you're saying, basically . . .' A simulated orgasm of discovery.

In Life and how to survive it, the therapist and his former patient return as before, with Cleese as Mr Sugar and Skynner as Dr Pill. It is not, as the title seems to suggest, a guide to increasing your chances of an after-life. What they're saying, basically, this time, is that the best thing is not to live in a fantasy world, but to be open to experience, in touch with your feelings, tolerant of others and above all flexible. The argument is spiced with such user- friendly technical terms as 'affiliative attitudes' (good) and 'mental maps' (needful but may become too rigid) and the elixir itself, 'mental health', the epitome of all the above virtues. 'Bloody obvious, really,' as Cleese once exclaims. Up to a point.

For it's not clear that these virtues are really being exhorted. 'Mental health' is not a prize open to all. It is distributed among us in fairly fixed bands, of which - if you'll forgive the introduction of more technical jargon - there are three: at the top end, the 'really healthy'; at the bottom, those with a 'low or very low level of mental health' (paranoids, psychotics); and between them an intermediate group, defined as 'mid-range'.

The overall picture alternates between a genial relativism and an almost feudal hierarchy - either way demoralising. It is allowed that one may upgrade one's level slightly. But things are sweetened a lot by the 'mid- range' category, a large and fuzzy group of somewhat selfish and rigid though not completely paranoid people, which covers almost all of us, including, apparently, the two authors; and by the suggestion that while the 'really healthy' are best, they're a bit odd too, which keeps the reader from despair.

But we are only beginning, for the Skynner life-plan applies not only to individuals, but also to families, businesses, nations, religious beliefs and political positions (the plant and animal kingdoms are not considered). All may be sorted out by mental health. So the most healthy religious attitude is an open, non-denominational spirituality, and the most healthy political party our flexible friends the Liberal Democrats. One unmentioned consequence is that, since the 'really healthy' constitute between only 5 and 20 per cent of the population, electoral breakthrough will almost certainly elude the Lib Dems forever.

Now clearly there are certain extremists who will think this picture of health a limited or disputable ideal, and it does become rather absurd when even Christ and the Buddha are claimed as supreme models of flexibility. The scheme itself appears to be just one more case of an inflexible 'mental map' (very 'mid-range'). But the whole trick of books like this is to offer not just a miscellany of good advice, but at least the appearance of a system into which all life fits, giving a suitable blend of challenging uplift and consoling certainty.

But then, what a strange example of 'life' we have before us in the relationship between Skynner and Cleese. For the curious feature of this double-act is that Cleese, though he gets to make the gags, is the straight-man and feed, while the imperturbably health-

minded Dr Skynner has all the pay- offs. Cleese does sometimes make a small joke at the doctor's expense ('Notorious quack') or about his own discipleship ('Sagacious One]'). But this is not a classic master-and-servant comedy, where the servant's part is to bring his air-headed master down to earth. When Cleese supplies plain man's down-to-earth examples, their function is always to bear Skynner alongin his drift; his objections amount to 'But hold on just a moment . . . you're amazingly right]'; his humour is nervous. This is another episode in a small tragedy.

For a comedian to turn therapist's stooge is a very direct form of apostasy. Comedy and therapy have many points in common, but the comics are wiser in their generation than the shrinks - and Cleese knew more about life and survival when he made Fawlty Towers than he does now. It is sad to find the transcendental figure of Basil Fawlty latterly recuperated by his creator into a mere textbook case of inflexibility, as it is to see the falling off in A Fish Called Wanda, with its moral of 'redemption through letting hair down'.

What delight, 25 years ago, Python would have found in these dialogues between 'expert' and 'layman'. But here is another strange case: someone who has been cured of comedy, now happy to resign his genius as a wit to become a fool for health.

(Photograph omitted)