And Now For Something Completely Different…
The latest in our series of biographies of great British comedic talents tells the story of how John Cleese developed from trainee lawyer to international comedy superstar via Cambridge University, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Named Wanda. In the following extract author Robert Gore-Langton describes Cleese’s student days and first steps into becoming a professional comedian. It begins at Cambridge in the early 1960s:
At Cambridge a young David Frost was well on his way to becoming God. He would soon be employing ex-Cambridge writers in pioneering material on the new commercial station, ITV, where he made his name fronting That Was The Week That Was. When Cleese went up, Peter Cook was the big comedy cheese in Cambridge. Miles funnier than anyone else then on the comedy scene, he was already being imitated by younger undergraduates. If you wanted to be funny at Cambridge, the competition was serious. You turned up in your cavalry twills, tweed jacket and woolly tie at the Societies Fair and there was young Frostie, in charge of the Footlights stall. Not yet with clipboard in hand, but looking pretty much like the benign, hood-eyed reptile he now resembles. A fresh-faced Graham Chapman — then a medical student — duly rolled up. It turned out that you couldn’t just join The Footlights, you had to be invited. ‘So what’s the point of the stall?’ asked Chapman. ‘Er, there isn’t one,’ replied Frost. You had to be invited to join, and to be invited you had to audition. John had the same problem as Graham. Asked what he could do, John hazarded a guess: ‘I suppose I try to make people laugh.’ In time, the two got together in a coffee house and wrote sketches for various ‘Smokers’ (heats for the big annual revue). It was all very complicated and rule-bound.
Cleese and Chapman unwittingly formed a writing partnership that was to last for years. Chapman, the pipe-smoking son of a Leicestershire policeman, was in training for serious alcoholism. He was also homosexual, though that was only just beginning to dawn on him. John was working hard, playing cricket and football for his college, and hanging around with Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Chris Stuart-Clarke. Cleese and Graham promptly got down to the difficult business of sketch-writing. A revue show — Double Take (1962) — to which John contributed several items, and in which he also performed alongside Chapman, would prove a winner. John’s slightly embarrassing blurb in the programme read: ‘Bluff, slate-faced, 22-year-old Registrar, he reads Law and plays soccer for Downing. He grew his beard to avoid being mistaken for Pete Murray: an enthusiast for verbal humour, he is nevertheless prepared to stoop to slapstick, where he rates the custard pie above the banana skin. He has a laugh which is coarse and ingenious to boot: he says he cannot sing and keeps a locked piano in his room to prove it.’
In the event Double Take became, after a spot of recasting (Chapman left to become a doctor in London), A Clump Of Plinths — a lovely title which was decided upon after the original You Can’t Call A Show ‘Cornflakes’ was rejected. Tim Brooke-Taylor and Cleese remained in the cast, joined by Bill Oddie and Humphrey Barclay. The show’s title was then changed to Cambridge Circus, which must have left bewildered punters wondering where the animals were. It was a hit, full of nonsense as usual, and John’s antics were developing nicely. He was on his way…
The Footlights was basically a dry run for a showbiz career. Eric Idle wasn’t far off the mark when he said, ‘Certainly, in your last year you were nobody if you didn’t have at least three agents coming to look at you in a Smoker.’ John had his doubts about giving up Law, but he pressed on with performing. By the time he finished and opted for a career in comedy, the three years of training at the taxpayers’ expense had ultimately produced one ten-minute courtroom sketch. However, the pay-off for persisting with comedy was immediate. The BBC were looking for new talent. In The Life of Python by George Perry, John remembers an early visit from their scouts: ‘There were these two guys in grey suits. I suddenly realised that they were offering me a job at the BBC. I was supposed to be joining a firm of solicitors in the City called Freshfields at £12 a week and here they were offering £30. So I went with them.’ Cambridge Circus, meanwhile, had been signed for a West End transfer: ‘Suddenly we were young people who were successful and were having newspaper articles written about us,’ John observed. Reg and Muriel’s worries about his future career as a solicitor were thus allayed — the BBC money was good and, joy of joys, the job came with a pension plan.
Radio and TV were no more liberated than the army, but they were less hassle. Anyway, the comedy boom was well and truly on and John was now on the road to showbiz success. He was still very public school — cliquey and aloof — but his deadpan, barrister-like style already had a cult following in varsity circles. However, the comedy that he was writing was almost totally derivative: ‘My early humour I just pinched from everyone else,’ he admits. Chief mentor was Peter Cook, who had created his E. L. Wisty character while still at school. ‘Cook’s influence was so thick you could cut it with a knife… he can make a perfectly blunt and banal statement sound so funny, just by the choice of words,’ John told Melvyn Bragg. ‘When I started to write for BBC Radio I did a series of conversations at a bus stop for Derek Guyler and Dick Emery. They were all based on Peter Cook’s “interesting facts” sketches — “Did you know the whale is an insect that feeds on bananas?”, that sort of thing.’
In Cambridge Circus, John didn’t go down that well with the critics; they preferred Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor. But he did get a mention for his gimlet eyes and his sketch-writing ability. ‘Judge Not’ — a skit about a midget in a witness box (that lawyer thing again) — was regarded as an instant classic, and the 1965 album of the show is now a collector’s item …
Cambridge Circus ended up in New York. The show ran smoothly and when it closed there was no reason to rush back home. Besides, while he was out there John found himself being asked to audition for a part in the Broadway production of Half A Sixpence. The show was based on H G Wells’ novel Mr Kipps and Tommy Steele (who had liked Cleese in Cambridge Circus) was to play Arthur Kipps. After a disastrous audition in which he couldn’t sing a note but was very funny, John secured the part of the English cad, Young Walsingham, who steals all Arthur’s money. It all went swimmingly until it went wrong, as musicals have a habit of doing. The director was fired and his replacement was Gene Saks, a kick-ass Broadway hardnut. Broadway directors all have terrible trouble in understanding the British sense of humour. The American public never let that worry them: vast numbers of Americans would come to enjoy Monty Python while completely missing a great deal of its peculiarly English humour. Anyway, Half A Sixpence opened in 1965 in Toronto and ended up being a hit on Broadway.
It was the old story: sweetness and light on stage, World War III backstage. John seemed to have enjoyed the whole experience, though. The idea of Tommy Steele and John performing in a musical is in itself rather glorious. Surely musical theatre and the lanky comic could never mix? The humorous song had been a fall-back in Footlights revues since time immemorial; John, however, went out of his way to stop people singing in sketches. Besides, in musicals you need to be able to smile a lot, and John was always incapable of looking convincing when happy.
Tommy Steele, on the other hand, can do nothing but look happy, his mouth permanently set in a grin of joy. He remembers John well: ‘He didn’t have a great part, though he seemed to enjoy the show. He was brilliant in it.’ It would come as no surprise to old St Peter’s pupils that backstage John was still up to his old crossword tricks. Tommy remains unaware of Cleese’s literary duplicity to this day, judging from the following: ‘He was a lovely fella. He used to come into rehearsals in the morning, make himself a cup of coffee and sit there doing The Times crossword. He must have got the paper from London, a week late maybe. Anyway he just sat there doing the clues. John to me was a complete mystery.’ Why? ‘I couldn’t understand how he was so quick with those crosswords.’