Now for something completely lemur
John Cleese is off to the rainforest to find something furrier and more elusive than pythons.
Friday 21 August 1998
Oh no, I hear you groan, just what the world needs, another one of those TV marriages made in ratings heaven: celeb meets cute wildlife in exotic location, and everybody (especially the commissioning editor) lives happily ever after.
This one, it has to be said, is enlivened by Cleese's sense of the absurd. Having trawled the exhaustingly humid rainforest for 12 hours in a vain search for his beloved lemurs, he stops the cameraman: "Look, through the fork there. It's David Attenborough. Says he's got some great footage of black-and-white ruffed lemurs. Let's steal it."
In recent times, we have seen too little of this trademark Cleese humour, and people have speculated whether years of therapy have blunted his comic edge. His last film, Fierce Creatures, was certainly fiercely savaged. One critic railed that it was "as terrible as movies get." Another succinctly dubbed it "a stinker."
To his credit, Cleese seems sanguine at the memory of these critical daggers between his shoulder-blades. "There was a certain amount of negativity, but you always get that sort of reaction to someone who has had a big success. You don't take it personally, because you don't have to look too far to see that it happens all the time. I've learnt from watching soap operas that you can't have moments of stasis; you have to keep the plot moving. After a hit, it's more interesting if you fail - it's a better story.
"It's all manufactured, and the wonderful thing is, it doesn't matter very much. It would if my life revolved around work, but I see it as absolutely subsidiary. My aim in life is to get away with doing as little as I can. You think I'm joking, but the minute the winter sets in here, I'm going back to Santa Barbara to read 30 books in the sun. I've always thought that work was overrated in our culture. Most 18th-century gentlemen would have been appalled by the idea that the fulfilment of life is work. That's a totally modern notion. It's the same with people who think that money makes you happy - it's demonstrably untrue."
With his existing CV, the 58-year-old Cleese scarcely needs to work to seal his reputation. The man behind one of our best films (A Fish Called Wanda), best sketch shows (Monty Python's Flying Circus), and best sitcoms (Fawlty Towers) is assured of legendary status long before the obituarists set to work.
All the same, he claims to be incapable of sitting through the repeats of Fawlty Towers that are currently winning a whole new generation of fans on BBC1. "It can be a distressing experience. The last time I watched the Germans episode, I saw three bits of comic business so awful that I cringed - particularly that bit where the fire extinguisher goes off in my face. It was appallingly badly done."
But Cleese recognises that other people are delighted to watch the series time and time again. He ascribes this to the fact that it boasted "good character studies. Basil, for instance, is the archetypal lower-middle- class type. He doesn't know how to handle his emotions, which just makes him cross and depressed."
What baffles Cleese, however, is the fact that "people are so fond of Basil. They shouldn't be - he's horrible. It's like WC Fields. If someone makes you laugh, you forget that it would be appalling to sit next to them. Everybody likes to laugh. It's like someone giving you a nice plate of food - you can hardly hate them then."
According to Cleese, the other reason why Fawlty Towers has endured so long is that "the plots are quite complex. Even the best comedy now revolves around two people on a sofa and one in an armchair. In Fawlty Towers, the characters are always interacting. When one is trying to achieve something and the other is hindering and manipulating and telling lies, the sheer complexity of it is enjoyable."
And, boy, did he and his co-writer, his then wife Connie Booth, work on that complexity. "We spent an enormous amount of time writing the series. We took six weeks to write every episode. George Bernard Shaw said art is 99 per cent perspiration and 1 per cent inspiration. Now writers don't have that time; they've got to write the episode by Tuesday. The average sitcom script is 66 pages long; a Fawlty Towers script had 135 pages. Each episode contained 400 cuts, instead of the usual 200. We were cramming twice as much in, which meant we could pile on the absurdities. If you can hit audiences five or six times in a row, you get on a roll."
Not that everybody got it. There have been several none-too-successful American attempts to remake the sitcom. One US network executive admitted: "we had terrible problems with the show until we finally figured out what was wrong. We got rid of that guy Bay-zil." It is reported that one producer even suggested making a stage musical out of Fawlty Towers, an idea that makes "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers seem reasonable.
Finishing the series after just 12 episodes has guaranteed its immortality, but Cleese puts the decision down to a low boredom threshold rather than a stroke of genius. "Unless the bank manager is breathing down your neck, when you begin to lose interest you should move on. Things are often exciting at the start, but sustaining them is difficult." He has never felt tempted to make another sitcom. "That wouldn't be a very smart move. Everyone would say, `it's quite good, but not as good as Fawlty Towers'."
Those fears have not stopped him talking about a Monty Python reunion tour next year, though. "It's a thing for the fans," he explains. "Nobody's going to go who isn't a fan, and if they do, they're fools." The nightmarish vision of 10,000 Python-ophiles incanting the Parrot Sketch in unison heaves into the mind's eye. "If we do it next year, that would be the 30th anniversary of Python," he continues. "That would be a nice `closure', as the Americans say. We'd be telling the fans, `go on enjoying the tapes, but we're off'."
Just why is it that three decades after it first went out, Python continues to command this slavishly dedicated cult following? "It was just one of those things where a group of people got together and all hit a purple patch at the same time," Cleese reckons. "At that time television was very stuffy, and we were able to make fun of the conventions. You can't do it any more because they've all been destroyed. I used to say it was like opening a gate on to a field that no one has been into before; there were all those lovely flowers to pick."
Critics have talked of "a hectoring, intimidating tone" in some of his work, but in person Cleese is much more poodle than Rottweiler. All those decades on the couch have perhaps encouraged a Californian "hang ten" approach to life. "Making television now seems like being Steve Davis; you may have remarkable skills, but what is the point of demonstrating them if you don't need the money? If instead you sat in the garden sketching, you'd get more out of that. Any day when I feel I've learnt something new seems profitable. I'm very happy with my life - even though there are not enough lemurs in it."
Cleese expresses one other regret: that he was too busy to execute one of the world's most elaborate gags. "When Michael Palin was making Around the World In 80 Days, I had this plan to fly to Indonesia secretly and just walk past him. I would have done a double-take and he would have been astonished. Then I was going to say to him, `what are you doing here? I'm making a programme called
Around the World In 79 Days."
`Born to be Wild' is on BBC1 at 8pm on Sunday, 26 August
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