John Cleese is in his pyjamas. When he announces this from his hotel room 4,000 miles away, it’s difficult to escape the mental image of Basil Fawlty, in a striped-and-starched, classically English two-piece with buttons and a collar. However, asking him to describe the nightwear he is sporting is probably not the best way to start an interview, and besides, there are premium rate phone numbers for that. What you can’t get access to every day are the opinions of a bona fide British comic institution, so it seems apposite to put aside his sleeping attire for the moment. Though perhaps there’ll be a chance to bring it up later.
Cleese lives in California now, but still embraces his Britishness, professing an interest in Premiership football and cricket, and enjoying frequent visits. “I still come to Britain fairly regularly, though mainly it’s during the summer when the weather is safe. Once you get to 60, I’m afraid if you can avoid going through the British winter, you do.”
When we speak, though, he’s at Cornell University in Ithaca, upstate New York. He describes himself as a “phoney professor” there, and adores the intellectual stimulation his visits afford him. Last night, he gave a symposium about Monty Python’s Life of Brian to a select gathering of students and academics. If you can call 5,000 a select gathering. “Yes, it was a good turnout,” he says modestly.
Life of Brian is just one of more than 40 films in which he’s starred, though he’s quick to play down his movie career. “I’ve appeared in a lot of films, but I have never really been a proper film actor, because if you look at the films I’ve been in, I’ve usually only done two or three days on them.”
Of all of them, Life of Brian, which he also co-wrote with his fellow Pythons, remains the film of which he is most proud. “I do think it’s extraordinarily good, and I watch it now and again… I think it’s a terrific film. The first 45 minutes of The Holy Grail is very good, but I don’t think it’s so good after that. The Meaning of Life is very patchy, but it has got some wonderful things in it, like the fat man, and Eric’s song about the Cosmos, which I love. And I thought Clockwise was very good, but I thought we didn’t get the last five minutes right.”
As a viewer, his favourite films are Dr Strangelove, The Sting, Lawrence of Arabia and The Third Man, as well as an old British institution: “I adored the Ealing comedies, those wonderfully British comedies, which were very classy. We had a few geniuses around in those days, like Guinness and Sellers. And I used to love the American films – Hitchcock was English, but he was working in America. I used to love the latest Hitchcock, with either Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, and Grace Kelly. That was a golden age for me. And then, ever so slowly, I think somewhere in the 1980s, I just started going less and less.
“I loved going to the movies, from my teens to about my late 30s I went a lot. But as I’ve got older, there seem to be fewer and fewer movies around that are really of interest to someone of my age. On the whole I find, if I have the time off in the evening, there’s a bit of me that maybe feels guilty that there are so many important books that I haven’t read, and I tend to sit down and read.”
As for modern comedy, he says there are some great talents out there, but not enough focus. “Comedy is so dominated by the American teenage market now, which is neither an educated nor particularly discerning market. The classic comedies, like Some Like It Hot or The Front Page, just don’t seem to get made these days. That said, I see things now and again that have very funny stuff in them. Take There’s Something About Mary – it’s got some terrific stuff in it, and Ben Stiller is my favourite young actor, but the change of tone from scene to scene, it really ends up as a series of sketches, a bit of a patchwork. There’s no thought to consistency of tone.”
Cleese’s frustration with the film industry is one that is echoed by many established actors: the executives, the marketing and money men, have too much power, and spend too little time consulting the creative people who actually make the films. But unlike most, Cleese has taken an unusual course of action.
“I’m just about to start a website, borne largely out of the frustration I’ve had working with some of the studio executives – and not just in America. They seem to be so sure of what the public wants, and they don’t seem to be interested at all in the views of people who have been entertaining the public for 40 years.” The website is called thejohncleese.com (johncleese.com has already been adopted by a lookalike) and is an ambitious, possibly revolutionary venture. “I’m going to run it like a mini-TV station, so if I think of a funny sketch in the morning, I’ll write it out, my delightful assistant will point a camera at me, and at 3 o’clock it’ll be on the website. This way, I gain a little autonomy.”
Such a website will doubtless prove a holy grail (excuse the pun) for the legions of Python fans who still worship the ground Cleese and the others walk on. Does the legacy ever prove an irritant, with people endlessly approaching him and reciting the Dead Parrot sketch?
“They don’t really do that, in all honesty. The only thing they sometimes do is some of them have a compulsion to tell me what their favourite Monty Python sketch is, and that’s not particularly interesting, though genuinely pleasing. But if they have questions – why did we do that, or end it in this way – those are always interesting conversations, and I always enjoy them. But when they start listing their favourite sketches, after two or three I find myself nodding and thinking of cricket.”
And then, suddenly, the interview draws to a close – indeed, we’ve run considerably over time. “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve got to go. I’m meeting someone in twelve minutes, and I’m still in my pyjamas.”
Damn, I never did get round to asking about them.