JOHN Cleese knows exactly why one of his greatest comedic legacies, Fawlty Towers, was such a roaring success.
“Well, it was simple human behaviour, you see,” the iconic writer and actor explains with that rich, inimitable diction which has endeared him to millions.
“It was something everyone could relate to – even children got it. [Basil] being ordered around by his wife and he in turn passing all that on to Manuel,” he explains, referring to how the brow-beaten and neurotic hotel owner he played was constantly nagged by wife Sybil and so Basil would then take it out on their hapless Spanish waiter.
At 72, Cleese shows no sign of slowing down as he prepares to return to South Africa with his unique John Cleese Live show after the sold out success of his 2011 tour and he will be recalling his remarkable career at Port Elizabeth’s Feather Market Centre on June 15 and 16.
Cleese’s other main claim to fame – at least for South Africans – is Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which he says came about with him, Graham Chapman and the rest of the crew not at all sure what they were really on about at first. They had material “but we never really had a proper clear concept of how it would turn out”. But next thing they were asked to produce 13 programmes “and we discovered it all as we went along”.
Those sketches may have often looked as though they were sometimes improvised and made up on the spot, but Cleese says in fact that was not the case.
“The improvisation would happen in rehearsal. We had loads of new material and it’s not easy to pull it off in just one week, so that’s where it was all ironed out before we got to the studio.”
Cleese said there were “heated arguments” over the actual sketch content, but otherwise the creative process flowed extremely smoothly. “There was never any argument over which roles we should play because as writers it was quite clear to us who should play what.”
The most controversial of the full-length Monty Python films was Life of Brian in 1979 – the story of Brian Cohen, a Jewish man who is born on the same day next door to Jesus Christ and is mistaken for the Messiah. Given its vintage and sensitive religious subject matter it sparked protest and accusations of blasphemy.
Asked about all the fuss it caused, Cleese is succinct: “It was banned in places, but look at it now. Nobody even cares. Nobody even raises an eyebrow.
“It’s important to understand that it wasn’t about a specific religion – it was about the way people follow religion.”
Cleese described working on the James Bond movies as Q in The World is not Enough and later Die Another Day as terrific. “You knew exactly what to do and it was a really happy place to be. Pierce Brosnan was such an impressive person to work with and it was all so calm and low-key.”
He said one of his latest roles as teacher The Guv in the Spud movies – shot in South Africa – had also been made all that much easier to identify with because he had spent time teaching in front of prep school pupils himself.
No doubt, much to the delight of fans, Cleese also revealed that he was writing his autobiography. “I’m waiting for it to emerge. I’m not as used to the printed page as you chaps are,” he quipped.
Cleese’s Port Elizabeth shows will be split into two halves.
The first will be a conversation session hosted by radio presenter John Maytham, who will be chatting to the actor in detail about life up to and including his Monty Python career.
And the second half will be Cleese talking about Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda and other highlights.
Tickets are on sale at Computicket and are priced between R395 and R510.