David Lister: John Cleese's comic genius has gone the way of his marriages

The Week in Arts

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'Don't mention the war!" was probably the phrase most associated with John Cleese. Somehow that has turned into "Don't mention the wife!".

There's something that I find rather sad about John Cleese's alimony tour which began on Tuesday in Cambridge.

The 71-year-old one-time comic genius had an inordinate number of film clips and, according to most of the critics, wasn't terribly funny. The tour is, as it says on the can, designed to raise money to help to pay off the £12.3m divorce settlement that was awarded to his ex, the psychotherapist Alyce Faye Eichelberger, a woman Cleese now describes as a cross between Bluebeard and Heather Mills in a show he has dubbed "Feeding the Beast".

One film clip is of Ms Eichelberger at an ATM. Cleese comments: "She is helping herself to my money." Python and Fawlty had better lines.

Oh dear, this sounds like a comedian in a time warp. Cleese, once one of the most innovative entertainers in the world, has not realised that the world has moved on since the 1960s. We don't think of it any more as your money that she is taking from the ATM, John. When people are married it is their joint money. Even after they are divorced, what she is awarded is hers. He also divides the divorce settlement by the 16 years they were married to conclude that she has "earned" $3,500 a day from the marriage.

How could someone once so brilliantly funny not realise the gaucheness of those remarks? How could someone, who with Monty Python and Fawlty Towers created characters, situations and jokes that are immortal, be reduced to little more than a stilted, illustrated lecture tour of his greatest hits?

At one point he confesses to the audience that he "hasn't done anything of interest" since the film A Fish Called Wanda in 1988. In that case, this was the chance to do something of interest, to reinvent the stand-up comedy spot, just as he reinvented television comedy.

I wonder if Cleese has had a look recently at what his fellow ex-Pythons are up to. This very week Terry Gilliam was directing an opera for ENO; Terry Jones has just written a libretto for the Royal Opera; Michael Palin continues to be prolific in print and on television; Eric Idle has given a new twist to the Python story with the colourful and hugely funny stage show Spamalot. How odd that the funniest of all the Pythons seems to have become the least inventive, a touch too curmudgeonly, a tad too retro.

But perhaps it's the wrong marital partner doing the post-divorce tour. The show I would really like to see is a stand-up routine from Alyce Faye Eichelberger. What was it really like being married to John Cleese? Now there's an evening which wouldn't be short on laughs.

David Hare's inside track on Bin Laden

An awful lot of people have had things to say this week about Osama bin Laden this week, but the person who might have the most interesting point to reveal is the playwright Sir David Hare. In his 2004 play Stuff Happens, about the build-up to the Iraq war, it was stated that Bin Laden had actually been surrounded by British troops before 2004, but they had to withdraw as the Americans wanted to be the ones to take him.

Pure fiction, one would suppose – except that the play was not a work of fiction; it was based on meticulous research at very high levels by Sir David. So who gave him this information, and why have there been no denials from the military or from politicians about this scene? The arts have not really figured in all the column inches devoted to Bin Laden in the past few days. But one of the country's most important cultural figures could make a significant contribution by discussing one of his most significant scenes.

Don't change your voice, Cheryl, pet

Cheryl Cole is to be a judge on the American version of The X Factor, and not surprisingly there are mutterings that Americans will be confused by her Geordie accent and Geordyisms. Indeed, she is said to be visiting a voice coach, and has been warned not to use words like "babe" and "pet" as they have different meanings in America. I'd have thought a bigger problem might be that Americans won't have a clue who she is, as she has not had any career to speak of over there at all.

I think Cheryl should refuse all speech lessons and all attempts to stop her using her own vocabulary. If you're not going to be yourself, you will simply come across as characterless. The bigger point is that the American X Factor has chosen the wrong girl. For charm, looks, incisive comments and an ability to spot talent, the clear choice has to be Cheryl's fellow judge on the British show, the wonderful Dannii Minogue. And even those ultra-nervous souls, American TV producers might have coped with an Australian accent.





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