John Cleese ready for EICC gig

John Cleese. Pic: Comp
John Cleese. Pic: Comp
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SO, anyway, John Cleese, he of funny walk fame, is on fine form, recalling his first trip to the Capital, back in 1962, a visit that introduced him to the arts and set him on the path to bringing us Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and a host of other ground-breaking programmes.

“Edinburgh was very important to me,” he explains. “I came from a completely non-creative family. They had no knowledge of the arts. Totally literate, but they wouldn’t have known who Picasso was and, probably, wouldn’t have heard of Tchaikovsky.

“So when I came to Edinburgh with the Cambridge Footlights Review, it was the first time I had ever been in the middle of an arts festival - I remember getting on a bus one day and going to see an exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I had never heard of him before but was fascinated to discover his kind of art, something I didn’t really know about.”

A few days after discovering the Swiss painter whose influences included expressionism, cubism, and surrealism, Cleese found himself at his first ever opera - Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

The 75-year-old, who appears at the EICC, on Saturday, to promote his new autobiography, So, Actually... continues, “It was extraordinary to suddenly be exposed to all these aspects of the arts in a way I had never been before.”

However, while Cleese was exploring the city’s galleries and theatres, his Fringe accommodation was far less glamorous.

With a great bellow of laughter, he recalls, “We stayed in a huge mansion that had just been given to the university and it was completely empty. The organisers bought us each an inflatable plastic Lilo, inflatable pillow and one sheet... and there were three bathrooms to accommodate about 70 people!

“The queues for the loos went around the block, but it was a wonderful experience that I remember with nothing but affection.”

The Footlights proved a great success for the Cambridge team, more so than they ever could have imagined. “We would pack the place out and I remember meeting Lawrence Durrell, an extremely famous novelist at the time, and the American writer Henry Miller, if you can believe that. They came to the show twice. So I had these great names and faces from the world of arts around me. That was very exciting.

“Of course, I never came back to the Fringe. I would have done, but the Footlights Review, to our astonishment, transferred into the West End, so we sent up a kind of reserve team the next year, which consisted of Eric Idle, Graeme Garden and one or two others who played the parts we were playing in the West End.”

The 6ft 5in tall star last appeared in the city when he brought his Alimony Tour to town three years ago. On Saturday, he promises a completely different show, and the opportunity to ask him anything.

“When the audiences are good, and they were particularly good in Edinburgh, it’s always a pleasure. I am more of a writer than an actor, so saying the same thing night after night doesn’t excite me that much, but when you have a good audience, that always lifts you.

“I always say, do ask me rude questions. It’s much more fun. I hate it when people get reverential and tell me how wonderful I am, which they sometimes do at great length. It’s much funnier when they get up and ask, ‘Why can’t you ever stay with the same woman?’ Or, ‘What have you got against Albanians?’ That kind of thing.”

One topic sure to draw questions is his classic sitcom, Fawlty Towers, although he confesses its ongoing popularity - the series has spawned numerous tribute shows - surprises him.

“I am aware that these things are going on, but they never asked permission. As it is always a very small scale thing, we don’t bother about it. But a strange thing happened this summer. An open-air theatre in Sweden put three Fawlty Towers episodes on stage.

“It was so successful, we are now going to try this in other places, which means we are going to start contacting people to say, ‘Look, I’m afraid we are going to be doing it ourselves, so we don’t particularly want unauthorised people in competition with us.”

The gangly funnyman is equally candid when asked about his famous ‘walk’.

“I never thought it was as funny as everyone else did and used to find doing it quite a physical effort, but then it always got a good reception, which meant I was making a contribution to the show,” he says, “But it was not a performance piece I particularly enjoyed in the way I like The Dead Parrot or The Argument sketch.”

With a chuckle, he adds, “But I don’t understand anything nowadays. I don’t understand why sensible Swedes would get into a car, drive to an open air theatre and pay money to watch a show they already have on a DVD, which they could watch in the comfort of their own home - yet it was hugely successful.

“I don’t understand that any more than I understand people memorising Python sketches. In the old days, I used to think pop singers were lucky because, if they wrote a good song, people could hear it again and again, whereas if I wrote a joke, that was it. Now I discover that people listen to the same jokes over and over. That makes no sense to me.”

Cleese found himself reliving some of those old ‘jokes’ recently when the surviving Pythons reunited for a series of farewell gigs at The 02, in London.

“It was a thoroughly satisfactory experience and, at the end of it, we all thought, ‘That’s a very nice way of saying goodbye’,” he muses.

And so, the man still best known as Basil Fawlty is back doing what he likes best, writing.

“I haven’t enjoyed anything so much for a long time,” he admits. “People are always surprised when I say I am primarily a writer, because when they see me I am performing. They don’t see me sitting at my desk writing, but I have always thought of myself as a writer/performer.”

Having such a varied and successful career, you can’t help wondering what challenges, if any, remain for Cleese.

Turning serious for a moment, he reflects, “I was very sad when Mike Nichols died. I was in awe of him. Mike Nichols, for me, was one of the greats. He could turn his hand to anything. He could direct Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but he could also do wonderful sketch comedy. He could direct anything on stage and was a very good actor too.

“He was about the classiest guy I knew alive after Peter Cook died. My great regret was that I never worked with him. He asked me a couple of times - he asked me to be in Birdcage, and also to play the Butler in Remains Of The Day. For various reasons I didn’t. I very much regret that now.”

So what would he like to do? “There’s a lot of bull****in England just now that I would like to make fun of...” he says, “but I’m not quite sure where the best medium is to do that.

“I’m not impressed by the current generation of TV executives, by and large. They don’t see me as the kind of person who wants to make the programmes I want to make. So I feel safest at the moment with the stage.

“For hundreds of years people have just got up in front of other people and frightened them, shared emotions with them or made them laugh. I feel I know about that, so for the foreseeable future, that’s where my energies will go - I’m working on a translation of a French farce that I think is very funny.

“We will certainly put it on in Edinburgh - it is one of my Top 5 favourite cities in the world.”

And as our time comes to an end, he laughs, as he reminds me: “Tell people to come along on Saturday and be rude. It’ll be more fun.”

John Cleese: So, Actually...., EICC, Morrison Street, Saturday, 7.30pm, £21.45-£32.45 (includes copy of book), 0131-300 3000

So, Actually... by John Cleese is published in hardback by Random House, £20