New Theatre, Oxford
Saturday 18th June 2011
What is it with me and free tickets at the moment? First Lee Scratch Perry, now another personal hero! Mister John Cleese, the genius behind some of the greatest British comic sketches and moments of all time! The Dead Parrot, Ministry Of Silly Walks, The Germans, Gourmet Night, Albatross, The Black Knight, Mister Creosote….
These are just a few of the sketches he has been involved in over the years; quite an impressive C.V., yes? The question is, of course, will his manic, highly strung comic persona translate well to the stage? Will it even be apparent? Is this going to be a stand up show, a greatest hits set, or something completely different (spot the pun)? It’s the second date of a three night stint in the fair old city of Oxenford; and I, for one, am mightily excited. Don’t mention the war….
The title pretty much says it all. Cleese’s former wife has managed to claim the princely sum of 20 million dollars from him in a divorce settlement, leaving him with an estimated 5.4 million in the bank. The audience laugh when he tells them he is doing this tour because he is “skint, and needs the money.” Still not quite my idea of being broke, John, but then I’ve never had 20 million in the bank, so I’m unaware of what it feels like to lose that amount of lolly. The first half hour of the show is mainly comprised of swipes at his ex. You’d assume, then, that there would be a fairly black cloud hanging over the production.
Thankfully, Cleese’s warm and engaging stage persona prevents this material from delving into misanthrophy and bitterness; his gently world weary, dulcet tones ensure that the sell-out crowd are laughing like drains at what could, in lesser hands, come across as unpleasant, vindictive material. Once he has let off steam, he begins talking about his life, beginning with his childhood in the Somerset coastal resort of Weston Super Mare. He describes his parents as being “poor and honest, the worst possible combination”, and remembers Weston as being an insufferably boring place, where no one went out or even had sex!
When he turned eighteen, of course, he enrolled at Cambridge University, where he joined the University’s famous Footlights comedy group. Other members of the group included Bill Oddie and the future Monty Python members. A screen at the back of the stage projects some amazing black and white photos from this period as Cleese reminisces. In the mid sixties, he was given a residency on the topical comedy show The Frost Report, which at the time attracted viewing figures of up to 14 million on a weekly basis. Throughout the show, there are moments when he leaves the stage briefly to allow the audience to watch some choice comic clips of him in action; during this segment, we are treated to three brilliant sketches from this programme, two featuring the late, great bug eyed comedian Marty Feldman, a close friend and hilarious comic ally of Cleese’s. In 1968, he joined forces with some of his old mates from Cambridge, and helped devise the psychedelic sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, still possibly the most far out, surreal thing to ever grace terrestrial television.
Spike Milligan may have created the blueprint for alternative humour, but the Pythons took things one step further with the help of American animator Terry Gilliam, whose stunning animated sequences still beggar belief today! As well as being innovative, it was also extremely funny. Out of the Flying Circus sketches, Cleese opts to show the “Fish Slap Dance”, which he describes as the “silliest sketch Python ever did”, and the hilarious “Black Knight” sequence from “Monty Python And The Holy Grail”. As well as this, Cleese also relays a highly amusing anecdote about how he and the rest of the Pythons once got into a blazing row over whether a sketch they were working on which never got shown should feature a sheep or a goat as its animal of choice, a situation he describes as “ridiculous.” Events like this helped him reach the decision to leave Python in 1974, returning only for the feature films they made later on. The first half of the show ends, there is an interval next.
I’m sat approximately four rows away from the front. Up close, Cleese looks considerably shorter than he does on the telly. Certainly shorter than on Fawlty Towers, the show he made after leaving Python. Arguably the best British sitcom of the seventies, Fawlty Towers was an at times unbearably painful, blackly comic study of male anxiety and sexual frustration cleverly masquerading as a family comedy. John reveals how the show’s anti-hero, Basil Fawlty, was inspired by a real life hotel proprietor; a man by the name of “Mister Sinclair” whom John, the Python gang and his former wife, Connie Booth, met at a hotel in John’s hometown of Weston Super Mare. There are some hilarious stories of how his rude, irritable behaviour caused the rest of the pythons to leave the residence after just one night! Cleese and Booth, however, saw comedy gold beneath the egregious exterior, and Fawlty Towers was born. As well as Towers, Cleese also discusses the death of his Python colleague Graham Chapman, describing him as a “friend, rather than an intimate”, and showing some brilliant footage taken at his funeral; where, upon being asked to say a few words, John took it upon himself to refer to Chapman as a “bastard”, claiming it’s what he would have wanted, and also how Chapman requested that his service should be the first one where the speakers uttered the word “fuck”, to the amusement of the mourners present.
After the clip has been shown, Cleese reveals that there were about eleven more speakers at the service, all of whom included said word in their speeches! Rock ‘N’ Roll! After this we are treated to a few clips from A Fish Called Wanda, Cleese’s massively successful 1989 romantic comedy thriller, before he leaves the stage after approximately two hours, describing Oxford as “the nicest audience I’ve had yet, much nicer than Cambridge the other night.” There is a brief encore, in which Cleese performs a short “Ministry Of Silly Walks” routine to the Flying Circus theme tune, and then it’ over.
I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this show! As a Cleese fan, I was pleased to hear many stories and anecdotes I had not been subjected to before, including the story of the inspiration behind Basil Fawlty. Although most of the clips were well presented and relevant to the flow of the production, I found the clips from Holy Grail, Fawlty Towers and Wanda a little unnecessary; I mean, come on, surely there’s no one in here tonight who hasn’t seen the Black Knight scene or the fire drill from The Germans at least once? I was also slightly puzzled as to why there were no mentions of Life Of Brian, The Meaning Of Life or Clockwise, as I personally consider all three of these films to be vastly superior to A Fish Called Wanda. Why no mention of the shit storm Life Of Brian created amongst Christian fundamentalists?
Minor quibbles aside, this was a highly enlightening, accessible and witty show which should be seen by any true fan of Cleese’s work. It showcases a more human, personable side to the great man, one which has been somewhat lost in recent years thanks to his languishing in the dark realms of the Hollywood lifestyle. In a perverse way, this divorce could be one of the best things that has ever happened to him; it seems to have re-ignited the creative spark which many of us had feared lost in a maze of television commercials and cameo roles in blockbusters, and it’s great to see him back on home turf after years of hiding away in LA. One of the funniest men this, or any other country in the world, has ever produced, John Cleese is a true icon of British Comedy. If you get the chance, I would strongly advise you to see this show, as there is no telling when he will return to this corner of the world. Court case permitting…..