Python, and how to survive it

As the Monty Python team publish a definitive history, John Cleese tells John Walsh about his new life as a Californian rancher and part-time university lecturer
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The Independent Online

As Keith Richards once said of Mick Jagger - John Cleese is an interesting bunch of guys. To Sixties coming-of-agers such as myself, he was the stern-visaged but hilarious pack-leader of Monty Python's Flying Circus. To my children, he's Basil Fawlty, and no one else. To the new Encyclopaedia of British Film, he's "a polymath of British comedy in the last third of the 20th century". To an army of Python and Fawlty nostalgics, he's a puzzle - the funniest man they'd ever seen, sidetracked, after all the laughter died away, into lots of dull musings (and spin-off books) on psychology and family group dynamics. To American film audiences, he was the freakishly tall Brit lawyer who shagged Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda. To the natives of Montecito, a posh suburb of Santa Barbara, he's the oddball Englishman in California. And this morning, as I interrupt his breakfast at 8.45am, he is being The Doting Father.

I had asked him, is it true that you have a ranch, and are therefore, technically speaking, a rancher? The explanation took a while: how he and his third wife, Alyce, bought their Montecito beach hut in 1994, and five years later she came to him, "trying to look cute", and suggested they buy a ranch. "I thought, 'It's happened at last, time to make that phone call and have her taken away somewhere she'll be looked after' - but then I went to see it...

"It was owned by Diandra Douglas, Michael's ex-wife. News that Michael was expecting a baby by Catherine Zeta Jones might have driven her over the edge, because she suddenly dropped the price by about half... It's not enormous, just 15 acres, but it's still pretty big for someone who used to have a postage stamp for a back garden."

Yes, but why do you need a ranch? "Half of it is hillside, and half is where we keep the horses, because my daughter Camilla is seriously good at horse-riding." And then all the Doting Father stuff came out - Camilla this, Camilla that, grand-prix tournaments, shows in the Midwest, riding against professionals, amazingly high jumps, she's soooo brilliant, she's starting at UC Santa Barbara next week, studying anatomy, statistics and chemistry... "She's such an interesting girl," he concluded, with misty-eyed fondness.

Cleese the benign family man is a surprise, where one expected (because of his books on "surviving" families) a neurotic martinet. But you get the impression that he's thrilled to contemplate a life just getting under way, and compare it with his own. Because, at the age of 63, Cleese is in a curious position. His glory days as the doyen of Python zaniosity are not so much ancient history as the stuff of mythology. The TV shows and movies are enshrined on DVDs. Fawlty Towers seems to be repeated on a tape-loop on BBC2, Monty Python's Life of Brian topped the Empire magazine poll of Best Ever Comedies (it even beat Some Like It Hot), and all the career highlights were so long ago - leaving Mr Cleese with what Dylan Thomas's widow Caitlin called "a leftover life to kill".

"Someone asked me the other day, 'What do you do?'," said Cleese. "And I said, 'Mainly interviews about things that I did more than 25 years ago'..." He is, in fact, as busy as a bull at a china convention, as we shall see. But this week sees the launch of The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons, a 360-page oral history of the high watermark of British surrealism, told in the words of the participants. It ranges wide, through the back-history of Cleese, Palin, Idle, Chapman, Jones and Gilliam - sketching a tour d'horizon of the whole British comedy landscape since 1962 (taking in en route such landmarks as At Last the 1948 Show, I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and The Frost Report), and telling you everything you'll ever need to know about the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch and the Knights That Say "Ni!" sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But through Cleese's contributions, you can hear the plaintive tone of a man who has convinced himself that he's in the wrong job, the wrong game, the wrong trousers. Up to the age of 18, he was steered into scientific subjects, without having the least disposition to be a scientist. And: "I don't think I ever believed that my soul really was in showbusiness," he writes. As for being an actor - "When I wasn't acting, I never missed it. I was very happy being a writer.

"Of course, acting brings in 10 times the money that writing does. But apart from the early years, when I was figuring out how to make things work, and being interested in why you got the laugh tonight but not the previous night, you get to the point where you feel a bit like Steve Davis, where your technique's pretty good but you can't pretend that doing the same things for the umpteenth time is all that exciting."

He always preferred, he says, working things out in a script, resolving problems of logic or structure. There's a very rational, scientific mind inside the great farceur's head. And he's recently put a lifetime's accumulated wisdom into practice, taking a university drama class as a stand-in teacher. "The Drama people at UC Santa Barbara said, somebody's going off to do a Shakespeare festival in Texas and he can't do his comedy class; would you like to take over? I thought it was an intriguing idea, so I went along. What they liked was that I started off talking about anxiety and how to manage it. I didn't realise that you can attend drama school every day for five years and no one will talk about it, yet it's the characteristic feature of the whole acting thing, having to go out in front of people and risk making a terrible fool of yourself."

Though each of the Pythons downloaded their life stories and testimonies of the Zany Years for the book, they haven't been together in a while. They keep in touch my e-mail rather than physical presence. "I had lunch with Michael [Palin] about three months ago. He's now in the Himalayas, doing his latest travel programme. Terry Gilliam I tried to have lunch with 12 weeks ago, but he was off to London that day.

"Jonesy [Terry Jones] is doing a series of programmes about medieval England, and I've chatted to him now and again. I haven't seen Eric [Idle] in a very long time. He's been writing songs for a musical of Holy Grail. We e-mail each other a lot.

"We don't often sit down in the same room together, but the last time we did, we laughed so much - we laugh more when we're together than with anybody else. It's so pleasing that that's still the case."

That left only Graham Chapman, who is sadly beyond the reach of e-mail, having died of cancer in 1989. His shadow hovers over the Babel of voices, not just because his own contributions are included seemingly from beyond the grave (courtesy of his writings and previous Python histories), but because he is the great Python casualty, an outsider in the group, whose contributions became more problematic as his drinking worsened and he struggled to confront his homosexuality. In the book, Cleese calls his former writing partner "emotionally disconnected", and recalls embarrassing three-hour silences that routinely fell between them. "I was genuinely fond of him, but the longer the relationship went on, there was a lot I just didn't know - say, twelve-thirteenths of the iceberg."

Inevitably, the book ends on an elegiac note when, during the making of The Meaning of Life, Cleese decided that he'd had enough. "We couldn't figure out what the film was about, what the core idea was... I just thought, 'I don't want to do this anymore'. I'd reached the point where I wanted to make my own mistakes, not other people's." By that stage, Fawlty Towers was being hailed as the greatest sitcom in the history of the world, and he didn't need the Pythons any longer. And with that, he took his leave of the British comic stage.

"I wanted to move on a bit. I was always watching to see if some competition was coming up, and it used to surprise me what little competition there was." Whom has he admired in English comic circles?

"Jennifer [Saunders] and Dawn [French] were terrific together - they were the only women who made me laugh as much as the best men did. And I thought Griff Rhys Jones tremendously funny - he was the only one, apart from Tommy Cooper, who could just stand there and make me laugh. I've seen Ricky Gervais in The Office, and that's very, very good. How clever to do it through a camera crew shooting a documentary, there's always that edge of detachment. It's very well done."

Cleese shyly admits that he will himself be back soon on comic TV, in an unlikely setting. "I'm going to do some Will & Grace, partly because I like the show so much - I watch it with my daughter, it's her favourite show - and partly because it's directed by Jimmy Burrows, the only TV director I've ever worked with whom I'd seriously call a genius."

Burrows directed the episode of Cheers in which Cleese guest-starred as a visiting shrink, being patronised by Frasier Crane. He's also been signed up by the Food Channel to make a film about wine, a long-held passion. So, what with the horses, the comedy masterclasses, the gay sitcom, and the oenological documentary, he's spending a pretty busy pre-retirement.

But c'mon, John, I said, when it comes down to it, you're the bloke from Weston-super-Mare, the City gent with the furled umbrella, the upper-class patrician in The Frost Report, the guy who asked Jamie Lee Curtis, "Have you any idea how ghastly it is to be British?". What's an Englishman like you doing in the heart of California?

"My stepson's in Ventura, 20 minutes away. My older daughter's in Santa Monica, married to Ed Solomon, who wrote Men in Black. Combine that with the weather, the fact the well-paid work is here, I'm outside the ambit of the UK press, and I'm not that well-known here - that's why I stay."

Of course you're known, I said. California is full of mad Python and Fawlty fans. "Put it this way," said Cleese. "In England, in terms of well-known-ness, I'm Newcastle United. Over here, I'm Bristol City..."

You can buy 'The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons' (Orion) for £24.99 (rrp £30), incl p&p UK (add £1.50 overseas) by calling 01903 828503 and quoting ref: JAIP